And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” (Matthew 15: 23b-27)
I think about this unnamed woman often; about her courage and her humility, about how she encountered power and did not simply back down, about how she challenged privilege and forever changed Jesus’ ministry. And I think about how the whole interaction began by noting that she was a squeaky wheel–bothersome to Jesus and his male disciples, bothersome to those with the power to dismiss her.
The first time I filed the report detailing what I’d experienced and what I had documented that others had experienced, I handed it in. “Do you think he just has a hard time knowing how to interact, and maybe he’s just trying to connect?” I pondered the question. “Maybe,” I responded, “but his position means that’s not an excuse.”
Weeks passed and nothing happened. I was processing with someone I considered to be a mentor in my ordination process. “You’ve done all you can do. And you don’t want to make too much noise. Just get yourself ordained. Squeaky wheels sometimes get attention they don’t want.”
“’Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us,’ the disciples urged.”
The truth is, I was already afraid. Because the ordination process unfolded in such a way that it already felt like at any moment, there were those who had the power to end it. I remembered the advice I’d received at the very outset, “You needn’t be totally honest–keep some things to yourself and then, when you’re ordained, you can push against the system. But follow the rules. Never forget to follow the rules.” In the moment, I didn’t know what rules those were, but I heard those ominous words echoing through my head and my heart in the weeks following my reporting. “Follow the rules,” I thought.
And so I tried. I tried to pretend that I wasn’t devastated by what felt like a lack of concern, heart-broken by what felt like a failure to see me, angered by what felt like a betrayal of the unspoken promise that things would be different here–in the church. I tried to pretend and I continued through the ordination process. One year later, and three weeks after my ordination to the priesthood, I woke up and decided that I was finished pretending. “I followed the rules,” I thought. And so I set up an appointment with the bishop.
As I sat in her office, I realized how thinly veiled my pretending had become, how the truth had been sitting just below the surface, waiting to break through. I cried. I lamented. And I filed again.
“Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
I think of that Canaanite or Syrophoenician woman often. My heart breaks with her and with the many iterations of her that still beg for crumbs from the master’s table today.
I became a Safeguarding trainer this past fall, in order to facilitate conversations that remind people of all genders that we all deserve more than crumbs–that a feast beyond all measure or price has been given to us at God’s table and that we must always take note of those not receiving the fullness of that bounty, that we must protect those most vulnerable by realizing how power works within any system, power including our own; power including my own.
Power always matters–and the location of that power in a church defined by a system of hierarchy always matters. In our conversations about sexual harassment and abuse, in our conversations lamenting the painful reality of too many #metoo stories, we cannot ignore the places where our very structure creates deep power differentials that work against honesty and transparency.
I was afraid to make too much noise. Even in my awareness of the places where I did have power and privilege in the system, I was still afraid. And yet, I know that’s not all there is. I am a twenty-nine year old, white, cisgender female. In the midst of my own feelings of powerlessness, I am still called to recognize the role I play in the very system I seek to transform. And transform it must. And I am called to repent when my power turns away or silences any of God’s people. So this Lent, I lament the pain of my own experiences and I repent of my own complicity. Some rules aren’t meant to be followed.
“Then Jesus answered her, ‘Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’” (Matthew 15:28a)
The Rev. Spencer Hatcher serves as priest-in-charge of Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick and as director of summer camp programs at the Claggett Center in the Diocese of Maryland.