I admit it. I didn't mind reading Mary Haglund's comment that accompanies the picture (above) she posted on Facebook: "Yes, the bravest man on the planet!!! Our first 'guy', the indomitable Bruce Cole attended the Maven's meeting today. We ❤ Bruce!! Thank you for being a shining star!!" Who in their right mind wouldn't love that kind of affirmation?
"Mary's Mavens" is a group of about 400 women in Winston-Salem, North Carolina who describe their mutual mission this way: "Winston-Salem women supporting, empowering & educating each other." Any and all women who currently run or own a business, as well as women who wish to be Entrepreneurs are invited to join this group." That's "entrepreneur" with a capital "E", in case you didn't notice. There's nothing "lower case" about the power, vision, and character of this group of women. Their leader - Mary Haglund - is my friend and also one of my mentors. I've watched her preside over a magical place of community and culinary delight called Mary's Gourmet Diner. Through her vocation as a restaurateur, she provides spiritual and mentoring leadership to many in Winston-Salem's Arts District and over the last year she's extended that same kind of leadership to a larger group of women in her dynamic Southern city. Mary's accomplishing precisely what I have always hoped to accomplish as a pastor: catalyzing authentic, caring community in which mutual mentoring and love bubbles to the surface and adds to the thriving and flourishing of the whole community.
One day I started joking that I wanted to be one of Mary's Mavens. I was joking, but I was also fishing. Not only did I have a lot to learn, and not only did I believe I could learn it from Mary and the rest of the "Mavens", I have a story of my own that has shaped me to believe that Mary's Mavens is precisely where I belonged. That story traces back to graduate school days in Hyde Park in Chicago. My seminary – the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago – was (and is) a thoroughgoing urban seminary that emphasizes "unity in diversity". The point of "unity in diversity" is that we learn to talk, to listen, and in the process work together to undermine the evils of racism and sexism that still very much plague our society.
As a middle-class, previously suburban, white guy, I had a lot to discover and learn. The seminary would "plunge" us into intense experiences of other cultures. I would spend Saturdays at Rainbow/Push Coalition headquarters on Chicago's south side. We'd go on "crack marches" on the west side (if you're wondering what a "crack march" is, you go with a group of people to where dealers are selling crack to kids on street corners, form a circle, join hands, and sing hymns until the police come). Whenever I had no Sunday morning commitments of my own, I'd worship at Trinity United Church of Christ at 95th and Halsted, where the very wonderful (and later unfairly maligned) Dr. Jeremiah Wright preached. I sang in the seminary gospel choir. I felt like I was "getting" it.
It all came tumbling in one night at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap, a favorite watering hole just half a block from the school. Some classmates and I were drinking Leinenkugel (the old, original Leinie Red, not the fancy new stuff) and arguing theology, as we often did. Angie (an African-American classmate) and Lydia (a Latina classmate) were at the table. I loved them and was sometimes (often?) intimidated by them. Powerful women. Somehow in the flow of Leinie Red that night, they let me know quite clearly that I was a racist. I protested and the argument got heated. I recounted all the "things" I was doing to work for racial justice. The debate stayed heated and continued on and off over weeks. They hung with me, and finally, the scales fell from my eyes and I got it. It wasn't a passive, "I just want to make peace and seem like I get it" kind of getting it. I really got it. What they were teaching me is that whenever I participated in unjust and oppressive social and economic systems, whenever I made a habitual choice to purchase or affiliate without reflection, however unwittingly, I was very often propping up the structures of racism and sexism even if my heart was in a different place. I needed to learn that lesson. I needed to learn that my personal behavior and choices in a thousand little things meant I either was or wasn't part of systemic structures of injustice. Grateful that I did. That lesson guides me to this day, twenty-some years later.
What does that story have to do with Mary's Mavens? I also discovered back then that great learning and wonderful, shaping, spirited intersections happen when we encounter the other, especially the completely other. Winston-Salem is an old Southern city, even as it is progressive when compared to many other cities that emerged in the antebellum chapter of our country. I heard some of Mary's Mavens describe Winston-Salem as a "good ol' boy city", meaning that the structures of sexism and male chauvinism still conspire to place glass ceilings over the heads of women entrepreneurs. Most of the men I know personally would react as I did at Jimmy's Woodlawn Tap twenty years ago. We'd protest. "I'm not sexist! I'm not a male chauvinist!" I can just feel the frustration that would erupt for many of my male friends in the face of such an accusation. And that is why I wanted to become one of Mary's Mavens. I remember that frustration and I remember the eye-opening and soul deep experience of learning that I had much to learn. I remember the humbling and wondrous discovery that my journey toward being a constructive worker for racial and gender justice would be life long. My choice to ask in to Mary's Mavens was, first and foremost, a personal exercise in continuing that journey; and secondly a choice to show some of my male friends a possible entrance ramp to that journey for themselves. So, on a Wednesday morning in March, much to both my surprise and delight, I became an honorary member of Mary's Mavens.
I learned a lot more that morning as a full-blooded member of Mary's Mavens. A wise and powerful woman named Vivian Joiner taught me something that changed the course of my life in an instant (that's material for another post). And I determined that morning, too, that I would cherish my "honorary" Maven status, but that I would not return to their monthly Wednesday meanings. Instead, I would suggest and hope for occasional "open" events where men could attend, but I would also recognize that this remarkable group of women needed, deserved, and required sacred space that is entirely their own – sacred space not intruded upon by even well-intended men like me – where they could be together, just themselves, pursuing their sacred paths as the powerful women that all of us need them to be for the thriving and flourishing of our world.