Now…The Political is Personal

Written by Rev. Elizabeth Griswold

Fifty years after Marjory Martin boarded the bus to Washington, fueled by her faith, UCC women today "march on Washington"—literally and figuratively—to advocate for public policy on a range of issues from racial justice to economic justice to reproductive justice as an expression of their religious conviction. Common Lot contributor Elizabeth Griswold profiles one of those women.

With an educational background in History, Religious Studies, and Women's Studies as an undergraduate, and Master's degrees in Public Policy as well as Religion and Theology, Kiely Todd Roska spends a lot of time pondering reproductive justice. She has worked in youth ministry at her local UCC congregation, trained and consulted others in comprehensive sex education for her UCC church and conference, and worked as the Executive Director of Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.

"You know the feminist saying, 'The personal is political'?" Roska asked recently. "Well, I've always thought the reverse is also true: 'The political is personal.'" Explaining her approach to educational, pastoral, and advocacy work for reproductive justice from a faith-based perspective, Roska says she finds great meaning and value in the need to tend to the person behind the political slogan.

As she explains it, her passion comes from seeing such considerable need for dealing with these issues head-on. "The healthy conversations that need to happen with young people are just not happening," Roska says. "There is a whole lot of silence, shame, and awkwardness. And this is combined with so much sexual imagery and content in music, media, etc. So a troubling dichotomy is created without the frank conversations that prepare people for actual decisions in their lives."

"My mom talked to me at a young age—about safe touch, safe body space, and safe people. And this was not a one-time conversation. I was prepared regarding how my own actions and decisions affect me and others. And I know that many other parents either couldn't have that conversation or need support to do it."

So while serving as Youth Minister at Cherokee Park United Church, Roska became deeply involved teaching the UCC's Our Whole Lives (OWL) faith-based comprehensive sex education curriculum and training others to teach it. Her church supported the work and expanded the program to many age levels. Eventually, after word spread that she was the go-to person for OWL, Minnesota Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) asked her to also work with them to expand their sex education work to reach many more progressive congregations.

"Sometimes values-based conversations in churches are still the sticking point of public policy conversations," Roska says. But personally, Roska's faith has actually had the opposite effect and has inspired her to do this work. "For me, the human body and our sexuality are a sacred thing and a gift. But they are not always treated that way," she explains. "We need to celebrate it and also be careful about it. We ought to tread lightly, using both humor and reverence. This is something beautiful and good that we were created with, and faith communities can be places of strength and affirmation, not exclusion and shame. We should be able to bring our whole selves and be able to talk about every aspect of our lives, including our sexuality."

So while she advocates talking about sexuality issues in religious settings, Roska also believes that spiritual language can broaden and deepen the conversation about sexuality in more "secular" settings. Decisions about sexuality and parenting bring up all sorts of religious and spiritual questions. "Who we are intimate with and decisions about when, how, or if to become parents are some of the most intimate and important decisions we make as human beings," she says. "For me, sexuality and reproduction always bring together both the physical and spiritual."

"Sexuality and reproductive health are complicated, and people have a variety of feelings about their experiences. Miscarriage, infertility, abortion, choosing to give birth in a particular way, a change in gender identity, choosing to love a partner that our family does not approve of...there is so much judgment, silence, and shame around our bodily experiences," Roska says. "I hope that our religious communities can begin to more effectively honor the complicated stories and experiences of people's lives. I think ritual is an important element of that honoring. It is not a conflict of my pro-choice values to take part in a funeral experience or other ritual for a pregnancy loss (miscarriage, stillbirth, or abortion), if a woman so desires." Roska continues, "Others find it hard to accept that women have nuanced feelings about their experiences, and fear it may be a slippery slope to the notion that abortion is always bad. But for me, as a pastoral person, I have to honor all of those feelings."

"There can be great difficulty and pain. Angry yelling regarding laws being passed, or harsh rhetoric taking a stand may be necessary for political action, but it doesn't offer honor and respect to the deeply personal aspect of supporting women. For instance, rape is one of the most painful experiences a woman can go through. And women's experiences are not put at the center of that public conversation. The question is not asked, 'What does she need from society, from the justice system, etc. in order to heal?' Real women's experiences should be at the center! I say women because women are raped much more often, but actually it's a human problem."

She is happy to see that the conversation about sexual and reproductive justice is currently expanding and changing its language as well as building broad coalitions with various organizations and especially with people of color. "I think it is important to lift up voices of women of color, especially as the language of the movement moves more toward reproductive justice rather than reproductive rights. It is mostly women of color and low-income women who have challenged European American women and wealthier women to broaden and deepen their understanding of what reproductive rights and justice mean. The work of organizations like Sister Song and programs like 'Keeping it Real' are really important," says Roska. Sister Song describes itself as a Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, and "Keeping it Real" is a faith-based sexuality education dialogue model of RCRC developed for African American teens by the National Black Church Initiative.

"The center of one part of the movement was to legalize abortion, and it's still an important part of the work. But the movement for sexual and reproductive justice is a broad-based movement. It includes ensuring that transgender people have full access to health care services, ensuring that young people have access to holistic and comprehensive sexuality education, ensuring that people are not bullied or discriminated against for their gender identity or sexual orientation, and ensuring that pregnant women have access to the prenatal, birthing, and postpartum care they need. So a woman has the right to terminate a pregnancy, and she also has the right to bring forth a healthy child, if she so chooses."

"It's much more broad than just abortion. I hope to continue to see the work growing as part of a really expansive sexual and reproductive health movement." And to that end, may we say, "March on!"

For Reflection

1. What does the saying, "The personal is political" mean to you?
2. What is one thing you care so much about because of your faith that you would personally speak to a legislator about it (or already have)?

Rev. Elizabeth Griswold serves as the pastor of Parkside Community Church, UCC, in Sacramento, CA and she proudly displays on her car the RCRC bumper sticker: "Pro-Faith, Pro-Family, Pro-Choice"!

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