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A Brief History of RCWMS

by Jeanette Stokes

When I graduated from seminary in 1977, there were few resources for women entering professional ministry, so that summer I organized the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South (RCWMS). The idea was to provide support and programs for women in a variety of lay and ordained ministries. RCWMS was incorporated as a nonprofit, tax-exempt organization. The original trustees were Helen Crotwell, a Duke University chaplain; Sue Parkerson, a Divinity school classmate and minister in Florida; and myself. When I moved to Greensboro, North Carolina, in the fall, RCWMS took up residence in a spare room of my apartment and consisted of a cardboard box and some three-by-five cards with the names of women interested in feminism, religion, ministry, and social justice.

In 1978, RCWMS received a grant of fifteen hundred dollars from the Emergency and Experimental Funds of the Council on Women and the Church, United Presbyterian Church, USA, and five hundred dollars from the Orange Presbytery Committee on Women's Concerns, Presbyterian Church, US.

The first issue of South of the Garden was published a year later, in October 1978. The newsletter's name is a play on the title of a feminist song by Dorie Elzey, "Out of the Garden." In the banner at the top of the first page of the newsletter, the "S" and the "h" in "South" are lighter in color and fade away. "South" becomes "out." My favorite line from the song is, "I'm in the water but the bathtub is gone," which is just how it felt to create new ways of being, thinking, and speaking about God.

In February of 1979, RCWMS moved into its first real office, which we shared with graphic designer Matilda Kirby-Smith. Matilda had already created the design for South of the Garden, a design we still use. Carol White Odell, a Cape Cod artist, designed the tree that serves as our logo. I was an apprentice in Carol's silkscreen studio in the summer of 1972 and love her trees.

The newsletter was distributed free of charge for the first year. In October, 1979, South of the Garden became a subscription publication with a fee of four dollars per year.

We have continued to publish the newsletter three to six times a year since 1978. The issues have contained information on a variety of topics, events, and friends. There have been stories on the death penalty, abortion, Nicaragua, farmworkers, Lebanon, and boycotts (J. P. Stevens, Nestle's, grapes, and lettuce). Articles focused on clergywomen, language about God, creativity, spirituality, and gardens.

The January, 1979 South of the Garden (Vol. 1, No. 3) carried an annotated bibliography of books about women, religion, and the South. Bibliographies appeared again in 1981 and 1983. In 1984 we added an order form, and the book catalog was born. In 1987 we issued a catalog in a tabloid format and continued in this format annually through 1994.

One of our first projects grew out of my attending the United Church of Christ National Women's Meeting where Barbara Zikmund presented a slide history of women in the United Church of Christ. I designed a similar presentation for women in the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ.

Our first retreat, "Women and Ministry in the Rural South," was held in October 1979 at Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, North Carolina. Sarah Workman was the facilitator.

In April 1980, we sponsored "Women, Faith, & Public Policy" at the Friends Meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina. We talked about the Equal Rights Amendment and international human rights, and we all washed our own dishes. The conference was funded in part by a grant from the Office for Church and Society and the Advisory Commission on Women of the United Church of Christ. The cost to participants was fifteen dollars. You can read more about that gathering in the article "Women, Faith, & Public Policy," in 25 Years in the Garden.

We held our first Women in Ministry in North Carolina conference in May of 1982. That summer the ERA was defeated. In the fall I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister. There ended the first five years.

We sponsored scores of conferences and workshops over the years. We held fourteen Women in Ministry in North Carolina conferences at retreat centers in Asheboro, Yadkindville, Browns Summit, and Salter Path, North Carolina. Leaders included: Diane Tennis, Peggy Ann Way, Anne Wilson Schaef, Phyllis Trible, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Carter Heyward, Katie Cannon, Mary E. Hunt, Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, and others.

Catherine Snyder, a Presbyterian minister and RCWMS Board member, attended one of the Women in Ministry in North Carolina conferences and said, "Let's do this in Virginia." We held six fall Women in Ministry in Virginia conferences at Camp Bethel near Roanoke, Virginia, beginning in 1986. The leaders were Mary E. Hunt, Mary Pellauer, Diane Tennis, Heather Murray Elkins, Phyllis Trible, and Christine Smith.

The Resource Center joined the North Carolina Council of Churches Committee for Equal Rights in sponsoring eleven conferences on women, faith, and social justice issues. Themes centered around economic justice and violence against women and children.

By the mid-1980s Protestant denominations were providing more programs and resources on women and ministry. Catholic women had created their own. Though we continued to offer some programs for women in ministry, we developed a new mission statement for RCWMS in 1989, "Weaving feminism and spirituality into a vision of justice for the world."

We sponsored workshops and retreats on preaching, feminist theology, dance, music, creativity and spirituality, on keeping yourself together while changing the world, and many more. We also sponsored interfaith community celebrations.

In 1993 RCWMS launched a program on women and violence, Response: A Religious Response to Violence Against Women and Children. Amelia Stinson-Wesley coordinated the program for two years. I left RCWMS in 1995. Susan Rogers and then Terri Allred served as Executive Director during the next two years.

In September 1997, I returned to RCWMS as the Executive Director.

I made a 40' x 40' portable canvas labyrinth in the summer of 1997 with the help of a number of friends. It made its debut in September at a weekend retreat held at Duke Divinity School. Since then over 5,000 people have walked our labyrinth at a wide variety of events.

Since 1997, we have sponsored an increasing number of programs on creativity and spirituality. These include workshops and retreats on writing, art, and meditation. We have offered programs for women in the second half of life, on menopause, and also on being over sixty.

It has been a remarkable journey. I have never been able to see more than six to twelve months into the future. We've rarely had much money in the bank and often had almost none. Year after year I've said if there are no more people and no support we'll stop. Each year there have been more people who want to weave together a feminist perspective and a spiritual practice and work for a more just world, and there has been more support. There is no way to understand it except to say that the One Who Gives Us Life and Breath has held us greatly in her hands and has carried us this far.

Each day is a gift. We never know what tomorrow will bring. The days add up to months, the months to years, the plants in the garden grow larger and multiply. I am so grateful to have been a part of cultivating the Resource Center for Women and Ministry in the South. We are not alone. God is with us.

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