Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Madam President, Mama President

I stood.

So did several thousand others. The crowd was rather awkward - what do you do when a president is about to be introduced? There were nervous giggles when it was the Bishop from Liberia who approached the podium, and not the president herself. Herself.

The thick accent of the Bishop running through the list of the President's accomplishments left me antsy, as we all waited through the "opening band" for the "main act." And then she came.

I stood. Everybody applauded. Several female African delegates did celebratory trills and whoops which made the President smile. Her gold head scarf and dress shone under the lights, and a patterned black wrap draped over one shoulder. Several times it slid, and she smoothly continued her speech and attempted to adjust it. A couple of times a female aide came up quietly behind her to secure it. It's never easy being a head of state. Especially when your accessories act up.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, has the posture of Maya Angelou - straight, confident - the comfortable familiarity of Ronald Reagan - want a cookie? - and the tenacity of Winston Churchill. She's also a grandma.

Her speech was well-crafted, statements both reporting on her country and challenging listeners for the present and the future. I don't remember all of it, just a few chance phrases here and there. I do know she beat Charles Taylor, ushering out the tumultous days of uprising and rebellion. I know that children used to run in fear from her motorcade - a habit from former days - and now they clamor and approach when it comes, yelling for her to descend and greet them. I know that she fled for refuge to the U.S. when the political scene got bad some years back. She has a Harvard education, a light accent tinged with British tones, and a great deal of self-respect individually and nationally. And that is what she is helping to bestow on her country: self-respect. They're addressing an unemployment rate that was estimated at around 85%, after conducting the first census in over twenty years. They're building schools and training teachers (many of whom had only high school level education themselves). They're building self-respect, as individuals, and as a nation.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the first female leader of an African nation (well, unless you go back to the times of Cleopatra). This mention got rousing applause, the crowd stood. I stood. This woman had begun life in Liberia as a student of a United Methodist school. Bishop Innis, who introduced her, emphasized this fact: Methodist missionaries were in Liberia before it was even established as such. And Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, he said, is a daughter of Methodism.

Women, men - support your missionaries.

After her formal speech ended, she quipped, "and now I will go down into the crowd, like a good politician." She did, and there was singing, and after she climbed the steps back to the platform, the bishops began to line up. It took at least another ten minutes for all of them to file past, greeting her, one eliciting laugher after he stood back and took a photo of her with his cellphone.

White men were lined up to meet a black woman.

Men were lined up to show respect to a woman.

Elderly white men who looked a lot like the men who tried to crowd out my minister mom from pastoral service stood in line to meet a woman. They waited in line to pay respects.

And afterwards, when I saw a friend outside the convention center standing in the sun, we chatted briefly about the address. "You have to understand," my eyes pushing back tears, "how personal this was for me." The truth was, I still had pink bunny kleenex wadded in my hand from the hour before, when I was trying desperately to keep tears in my eyes and not ruining my mascara. I kept sniffing. And the cold I was developing was not the cause.

I had WITNESSED A WOMAN PRESIDENT. It reminded me of the time when I was little and I was taken to see Margaret Thatcher. I didn't get, at the time, just who she was or why it was important.

I got it this time.

I had WITNESSED A WOMAN RECEIVING HONOR, from some powerful men.

And it's very plain that SHE DESERVED IT.

I hadn't realized how it still hurt, the memories of struggles Mom had had just to be considered an equal. I knew I was defensive for her, on her behalf. I always knew she was a good, competent pastor. I knew that some would never see past her chromosomes. And an ache grew, deep inside.
Yesterday, a bit of that ache healed. It began to heal a moment or two after I stood - for a woman who had entered the room.

At that moment, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was sharing honor with all women who have been mistreated, maligned, ignored, disrespected, and dishonored.

Honor is healing. Honor your mothers, sisters, daughters. Honor the President of Liberia. Be honored. Be healed.


Bob said...

I have little or no respect for the hierarchy of the Wesleyan church for that reason. The lack of respect for women in general trickles down to those who have no reason to feel superior to women, not that those in the hierarchy have reason to, but those who have/had less experience/education still feel/felt they deserve respect than your mom got. I don't plan on attending a Wesleyan church for that very reason. I realize this comment may be a bit more than you bargained for on your blog, and you may wish to delete it from public view and that's okay Sissy, I just want you to know I totally agree with you.--daddy

Anonymous said...

I very much appreciate this entry. I love you very much....Mom

Anonymous said...

Very Good article, Elizabeth. I believe that anyone who disrepects Black, or White, Male or Female, Rich or Poor, will someday have to answer to God for their behavior. What they do or how they act, should have no bearing on how I hang onto my faith in the LORD. I started going to a Wesleyan Church when I was 12 yrs old, got married there, had my kids Dedicated there, was baptized there, and been a member there for many years, but now am going to a real nice Baptist Church, that preaches being Saved, Baptized , Sanctification. So far he has never said anything about "once saved always saved", He is a young Minister, but really good, preaches the Word as it is written, so we are not letting the things that go on in another church rob us of our Love for the Lord and our Desire to serve Him. The way things are going on in the world today, makes one believe it won't be very long till Jesus returns and I want to be ready, I have NO desire to go to Hell for anyone or anything, Just not worth it. If this is too long for your blog, I will understand, just felt like giving my look on things,,..Love you and keep up the good work,,Stay close to the LORD,,GranmaG.