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Author: Merianna Harrelson

I am the Pastor of Garden of Grace United Church of Christ in Columbia, SC and the Director of Consulting at Harrelson.Co. I am always looking for a good cup of coffee and a great book.

A Women’s Place in SC

This week 100 years ago, women earned the right to vote in the United States, but not every state was in favor of giving women this right. Matthew Isbell points out that there were noticeable patterns across the country. As I looked at the stark, glaring red of South Carolina, I wondered how much had changed over the past 100 years. Women have been elected to serve on the state and national level, but is there an undercurrent, a subtext that pervades our state and our culture here in South Carolina that continues to try to limit a women’s influence?

As a female clergy in the Bible Belt of South Carolina, there have been more times than not that I have been asked again what I do after I answer I am a pastor. This hasn’t changed in the five years since I have been pastoring in South Carolina. The number of women whose stories I read and hear who have been taught that their role is to raise children and to be a homemaker hasn’t decreased over the past five years and has actually increased.

Although South Carolina is no longer the deadliest state for women to live in due to domestic violence, we are still ranked number six in the nation and just this week faced the horrible realization that domestic violence doesn’t just impact women, but children too. There are still many, many women who live in fear of their lives and their children’s lives in our state but don’t have the financial means to create a life independent of an abusive partner, especially a life in which they can also support their children.

Living in the capital city of the first state to secede from the Union before the Civil War reminds us that history matters and that the voices that wanted to secede a protect slavery still exist in the descendants and power and money that came on the backs of other people. Living in the capital city where many people come to receive medical services from the Veteran’s hospital is a daily reminder that there is not enough affordable housing for people living on fixed incomes and that there are not lasting protections for those who fought to protect our country.  Even though South Carolina made a name for itself because of its ability to grow so many different cash crops, we are living in the reality of food deserts where there aren’t fresh fruits and produce available for miles and miles.

Our history matters and the voices that spoke out to support slavery and racism and to limit voices of women, African Americans and anyone considered other still impact the way our city and our state operate. We cannot move forward until we take a long look at our history as a state. We’ve already seen multiple presidential candidates visit South Carolina because we are a powerful player on the national political stage. I just hope we can move towards a future where we make a name for ourselves for something besides oppressing, silencing and enslaving other people.

Pastor Mom

Our church photographer captured this photo after service and I can’t imagine a better picture of what it looks like to be a Pastor Mom. I have so much help in an amazing partner and an amazing community who are so generous. With their help, I feel like I can truly step into both of these roles: inviting God’s people to dream and grow and inviting this little one who joined us four months ago to dream and grow.

At times, I catch my breath because as a young girl I never saw a woman pastor. I never saw a woman preach. I never dreamed that this picture could be possible.  At those moments, I am caught up in the holy mystery that calls to our deepest selves. The holy mystery that whispers possibilities of wholeness and newness in ways we never imagined. That holy mystery beckons to each of us inviting us to see parts of ourselves long hidden or oft silenced. That holy mystery comes powerfully into our lives, transforming and changing us into new creations.

No matter where we are on this journey, the holy mystery offers us communion with something so much greater than ourselves and I believe that the holy mystery cradles us and offers us milk, safety, and rest for the journey we are on.

Perhaps the holy mystery is whispering during this Eastertide season to lay back and drink deeply resting in the truth that death has been overcome and transformation and resurrection are all around us.

Postpartum Profit: A review of maternity and postpartum retail

The postpartum period is one that is grossly neglected in American healthcare. Once a woman is released by her doctor at or around the six week period, her postpartum care is nil. At six weeks, the postpartum period is completed. You can resume your normal activities, except you are completely different and so is your body.

There have been some movements, especially body positivity movements that have tried to counter the oppression and depiction of maternity leave as a vacation in America, but way too often those body positivity movements are met with trolls encouraging the women brave enough to depict their real postpartum bodies to get tummy tucks or to never post again.

In the midst of all of this, there is a very practical issue that your clothes don’t fit. The maternity clothes you have make you look a little too pregnant, your pre-baby clothes don’t fit at all or are snug in completely new places. And so the postpartum retail space has opened up including tops that make it easy for nursing moms to nurse, supposedly.

Thanks to a generous and understanding partner I have had three experiences with postpartum/maternity companies and they were all completely different:

Teat and Cossett: For Christmas, my partner gifted me with two nursing tops in preparation for our new little one. One was a sweatshirt that could be worn around the house and another a nice gray dress I could wear to work as I tried to balance nursing and working. Just this week, five months after he purchased the item and three months after we had our daughter, I inquired about returning the items because they finally fit, but they were the wrong season now that Spring has come to South Carolina. Here’s what I received in response to my inquiry:

Hi there:

I am very sorry, but you have certainly passed our return and exchange window.  Your items were purchased five months ago.  Please let me know if there is anything else I can assist you with.

Best,

Zara

Something about the “certainly” flushed me with shame that I didn’t fit in the size I thought I would fit in after having our second daughter. On doing a bit of investigating, I found that there return policy to contact them and then 10 days to get the item back to them. 15 days. I am not sure what the expectation is here, but I know I certainly was not able to keep up with what day it was and certainly would not have remembered that there were postpartum clothes I needed to return if they didn’t fit, especially since my body was changing every single day.

Milk Nursingwear: I really have an amazing partner who not only tells me I’m beautiful but also encourages me to buy clothes that fit and that are comfortable and allow me to nurse and pump. I ordered a nursing tank and a dress from Milk and was very impressed with the fact that they sent a return label with the order. I tried them on and was immediately disappointed as they accentuated unflattering portions of my postpartum body as well as clinging to my incision scar. As I went back to look at the Instagram posts I had seen, I slowly realized that the models they were using were probably not, in fact, postpartum moms as the clothes fit the models perfectly. Even though I was disappointed, the return was so easy and I had a full 60 days to make a decision on whether I liked the clothes.

Kindred Bravely: This is where I purchased my favorite nursing bra. The fabric is so soft and it also doesn’t show stains or leak through to clothes. I am not sure how they do it, but it really is amazing. Not to mention, they are currently running a special where you buy a pair of pajamas and they donate one to a mom with a baby in the NICU.

The maternity and postpartum retail industry is a $2 billion domestic industry serving 6 million new moms, but ultimately it is still an industry, an attempt to profit off of women and families in the joy and uncertainty of bringing new life into the world. I have heard and read so many posts of moms who are struggling not only with the way their bodies have changed but also with how their lives have changed.

I still consider myself to be postpartum and our baby was born in January. I considered myself to be postpartum for the whole first year after our son was born and I considered myself postpartum after our miscarriage. I too fall prey the societal pressure to “look like I did pre-baby” and to “bounce back to work,” but slowly and intentionally I am saying no. No to things that sap my energy so much I can’t care for our new little one and the rest of our family. No to companies who have return policies of only 15 days and no to companies who design to a certain type of postpartum body.

Clinging to Safety

As our baby turned three months, she has developed a habit while nursing of clinging to something, anything that she could hold onto: the collar of a shirt, the string of a hoodie, a lock of hair, an available finger. Her grip is strong and fierce as she holds on. Our three-year-old in preparing to go to bed tucks his stuffed dog under his arm clinging tightly to the safety of his lovey as he drifts off to sleep.

As adults, the way we cling to safety is a bit less visible. Instead of clinging to an object, we cling to patterns and routines, even furniture set up. I have found this especially true in places of worship. To be certain, coming into a community of faith is asking and inviting the Divine to reveal our most vulnerable places and our deepest wounds, so it follows that in those revelations, so too would our instinct to cling to something safe and comfortable arise.

Business meetings that discuss carpet color or paint color are much like our three month old’s grip tight and fierce not because we truly want to keep the carpet from 50 years ago the same or that we can’t see the paint that’s chipping and needs to be replaced, but rather because we need to be assured that we are safe. We need to be assured that even if the paint and carpet of the church changes, this will still be a place of sanctuary for us.

As we hear about places of worship being invaded with death and violence, this is of the utmost importance. Although we may concentrate on the physical safety of the building and those who have gathered, may we not forget the spiritual and emotional need for reassurance that rest in our hearts and souls as we hear the news. May we offer something deep, hope-filled, and so authentic that those searching may cling to. When we offer this soul-filling type of worship and teaching, we can be sure that those gathered won’t need to cling to paint or carpet colors.

Perhaps the hardest words that Jesus speaks to his disciples in the gospel of John are:

Do not cling to me because I have yet to ascend to the Father.

As much as we want to cling to the safety of what we already know and how things have always been, we have to let go of the Risen Christ so that the Spirit of God can come in all its Mystery. In order to allow the Spirit of God to work, we have to let go of the very things we hold so tightly. We have to let the Spirit of God move and change and transform. Only then we will truly see the kingdom of God here on earth.

Surprise Springs Up

This year in the midst of our irises springing up out of the ground, we had quite a surprise. I am not much of a gardener, so the fact that these irises that I transplanted four years ago bloom every year is still astounding to me. To have another bloom was remarkable. At first, I wondered if maybe I had forgotten this burst of red in the midst of the flowy purple and white from previous years, but then I was sure this was the first time I had seen this flower bloom.

That means that mixed into the iris bulbs, there was this surprise waiting all these years.

It makes me thinks of the many,  many conversations I have with people who are doing right and good work to try to offer hope and healing in the midst of the dissidence and discontent that surrounds us. There questions and laments of “Why can’t I see anything change?” remind me that the work that we see is often only after years of planting, rooting, and weeding out.

In fact, we may never see the bright, red blooms of the work that we have toiled and sweated over. We might never smell the surprise fragrant of new life, but someone will. Someone will see that surprise spring up and know that someone else has worked diligently and faithfully to produce something beautiful.

Thanks be to God that we cannot see the whole story.

Pastor’s Kids


I never thought about being a pastor and a parent as I was growing up because the concept of being a pastor was not something that women did and I certainly never saw a woman with young kids who was a pastor. When I saw these images, it made me stop in my tracks because here my kids sit next to me, supporting and affirming me by being a part of our new congregation, Garden of Grace UCC. Here they sit, as the service is beginning talking to me, asking me questions, wanting to participate and drinking milk from sippy cups.

This an absolute miracle.

When I answered a call to pastor and to pursue seminary nine years ago, I never imagined these pictures would be a reality. I never imagined meeting a partner that would go with me on this journey and affirm and support me as a pastor and as a parent.

As we sit here in these images in the shadow of the cross, I can’t help but remember that these pictures wouldn’t have been a reality without a lot of dying to self and dying to the things I thought I knew about who was called and who wasn’t called.

This is resurrection and evidence of the Risen Christ. Alleluia!

 

Sitting in the Darkness

We’ve walked in darkness for the last 40 day.

We’ve longed and hoped for light.

 

But here we sit –

in the darkness,

in the hopelessness,

in the disappointment.

 

I didn’t understand this part for so long.

Perhaps I don’t even really understand it now.

I was taught Good Friday was good because it was about me.

my sins being forgiven.

my eternal life.

This is NOT about me or my salvation.

 

This is the kingdom of God here on earth.

A kingdom where all have food.

A kingdom where all are welcomed in.

A kingdom where all have shelter and sanctuary.

 

A kingdom so radically different

than the one here on earth

that the one

who was preaching and sharing the good news

would be put to death

in hopes that this idea wouldn’t spread

In hopes that power would remain in the hands of the powerful.

In hopes that systems would not change.

 

This is good news –

there is so much more.

Even in our dustiness,

we can be a part of something so much bigger.

Thanks be to God.

“Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice”

In the girls’ bathhouse at my grandparents’ pool, there was a sign that hung on the wall:

Sugar n’ Spice

and everything nice

That’s what little girls

are made of.

I remember thinking that was a cute saying, especially because it rhymed and painted a picture of a smiling, bow-wearing little girl. Actually, that may have been the image that was painted at the bottom of the sign. Although the saying brings back fond memories, it’s not one that is hanging in our house with three girls.

I don’t want my girls to see that hanging on the wall and think they have to be nice or sweet. This Tuesday one of the most important organizations in the Columbia area, Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, received threats to the staff and organization because of the work they are doing to combat, educate, and provide healing for sexual assault, rape, and sexual abuse.  Three out of four victims know their abuser before the abuse occurs, so when we teach our girls to be nice and sweet to people they know and fear strangers, we are not recognizing the percentage of sexual abuse, rape, and sexual abuse that is committed by family members, family friends, and other close acquaintances. When we teach our girls to be nice and sweet, are we inevitably telling them that they can’t talk to us about things that aren’t sweet and nice if they happen to them?

The threats to an organization that does such important work prove that there are people who want girls and indeed adults to be sweet and nice rather than fight for safety for our children and against injustices in our society. We live in a world where sexual abuse, rape, and sexual violence occurs every 92 seconds. And I’m going to keep talking about the things that are not nice and sweet until we know that our world is a better place for our children.

Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands had to cancel one of their major fundraisers because of these threats. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could show our support financially?

On Serving Side by Side

Last week, I had the privielge of serving in worship and on a panel discussion with a group of ecunemnical clergy in celebration of Reconciling in Christ designation that Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary received two years ago. I have participated in similar conversations throughout my six years of ministry, but this is the first time I was representing a denomination who as a whole was welcoming and affirming.

The United Church of Christ ordained its first woman over 150 years ago and its first openly gay clergy in 1972 over thirty years ago. Again and again the United Church of Christ has been the first denomination to express extravagant welcome to all people. As I was sitting on the panel, I felt no angst in representing that I believe in wholly and completely affirming members of the LGTBQIA+ community. I felt the burden of my colleagues for whom this is a touchy issue and a difficult subject.

I also felt freedom because in my short tenure in the UCC, I can honestly say this isn’t an issue. It is who we are and because we aren’t spending our time and energy debating and discussing and defending, we can be about the work of offering hope and healing to all people.

I’m incredibly greatful for those who have gone before me who have established a foundation of extravagant welcome and a church of extravangant welcome who called me as their pastor.

From Behind the Table

From behind the table, I see hands being washed.

From behind the table, I see the veil lifted –

the body and the blood revealed.

 

From behind the table, I see the bread broken –

crumbs falling down.

From behind the table, I see the cup lifted –

the smell of fruit wafting in the air.

 

From behind the table, I see

the mystery,

the wonder,

of sacrifice

all over

again.