One reason I asked so many hard questions in Dr. Webb’s class--and this is something I look for in my own classes I teach now--is the fact that I knew deep down I was ready to. I might have worded some of these questions as criticisms, but there were, in many ways, invitations: Please give me an alternative way to see this. I want to think about this differently, but I don’t know how. The walls were cracking. Apart from why this was the case was because of what was happening at home.
You see, when I was in elementary school, my parents got a divorce. I did not really understand what all that meant at the time, but when my mother got remarried, for a young nerdy kid who read the Bible fervently, the question of the nature of divorce and remarriage was always in the foreground. What are the conditions for a biblical divorce, if there are any (there is some variance about this in the New Testament)? More importantly, with enough faith, could my parents get back together? Then, my mother got remarried (and so did my father).
I remember the first time meeting my then-to-be stepfather. My mother sang his praises, overselling the whole thing. My distinct impression was that he looked old, old enough to be my grandfather (apparently, that did not matter to my mother). One thing that brought them together was their mutual dream of going into business. Using his knowledge of mechanical engineering and her administrative skills, they started a business in alternative medical technologies (more on that another time). My mother loved this business venture.
Let me tell you a bit about my mother. I think my mother was someone who spent a good deal of her life being underestimated and underestimating herself as well. Yet, the recalcitrant fact is that she was very smart, determined, driven, charismatic, and kind. She married young and did not go to university, although she later confessed that she wanted to be a doctor. I believe she could have been. My father liked the idea of him working and her staying at home, so she did with us three kids until eventually becoming a secretary for a medical practice for many years. It was here that she acquired skills in dealing with administration and the medical system, but most importantly, with people.
So, the thought of this business venture was very appealing. They rented a building that my grandfather owned. Things went well at first, but that did not last. Well, as newly wed bliss faded between my mother and her new husband, so also did the dream of getting well off from their business. As finances started getting thin, it became increasingly apparent just what kind of person my stepfather was. Allow me to put it gently: He was not a nice guy. I was the first to notice that he did not seem to really have much of a conscience. He was the kind of person that could justify doing anything he wanted to do. I am not a psychologist, but there are technical words to describe that. Worse still, he had learned how to couch these justifications with Bible passages.
When times were particularly tense, he would threaten her and intimidate her. He would inform my mother that she should not question him, quoting his preferred Bible verses, notifying my mother that she was just a “stupid woman.” He believed that 1 Tim. 2 really did teach that women were more easily deceived, a notion he got from his father, who has even more of a bigot than he was. I remember his threatening voice booming from the ceiling of my basement bedroom when they argued at night.
Then my mom got cancer. She got breast cancer, and she had to have operations done to fight it. It initially went well. However, care and medicine were expensive. As my mother discovered, her husband had started hoarding money out of the family accounts for himself. When my mother found out and inquired, he explained that he needed to make sure he “was taken care of after she’s gone.” The guy was, essentially, banking on her dying. Well, you can imagine that, along with many other things, is what some might call “a deal-breaker.”
At some point after this, my mother had the divorce talk with him. I remember that talk well as I eavesdropped from the next room. She was frank with telling him they needed to separate. My mother began the talk with a kind of consolatory “it’s the best for both of us” kind of tone, but it quickly devolved. I came into the room worried when I thought it might escalate. My stepfather could not see anything wrong with what he had done and kept insisting that it was actually my mother who was in the wrong. “You’re breaking my heart, Susan,” he said. “You have no right to divorce me and call yourself a Christian. The only reason people can get a divorce in the Bible is if someone cheats, and I did not cheat. You’re the one that just needs more faith.” He always had a way of seeing how someone else was the real person in the wrong.
I know there was a part of me that felt conflicted: “Why can’t they work it out with enough faith?” And yet, another part of me just simply said, “No, this needs to end” (here would be a great little side excursus into reading divorce and remarriage passages through redemptive movement, but I haven’t the time). The conversation resolved with my mother leaving the room. I somehow managed to convince my stepfather that separation really was for the best. He moved out.
Separation is never simple, especially when you own a business together. My mother was getting weaker from cancer taking its toll on her, but she still had to work and work with her estranged husband. He capitalized on her weakened condition to undermine her and intimidate her as much as possible. When he started funnelling assets to another business, it was obvious something needed to be done. I remember the look on her face when she announced to my sister and me, “I have a plan.” It was the look of a woman who was done being underestimated. It was the look of a person who was summoning strength she did not know she had in order to make sure she and her kids would be self-sufficient. In a word, she looked brave.
The plan was simple. Since my grandfather owned the premises that the business was on, and the business owned money in rent, he, by law, could evict anyone from the premise that he felt was compromising the generation of rent. The only catch was my grandfather was not well. He had had a fall that left him bedridden. So, he asked me to be his representative and evict my stepfather. The problem was it needed to be done so that he won’t immediately try to take as much from the office as possible or for there to be a scene.
So, while he and my mother went to her lawyers (which was a fair drive away in the next town), I went to the office with my sister and posted the eviction notices and changed the locks. Then I got the call: “He has realized what had happened, and he left in a hurry to come back to the office and take as much as he can.” My sister and I locked the doors and just sat inside, waiting to see what would happen.
We heard a car screech into the parking lot. He got out and ran up to the door. I heard his key start going in and then jam since it was no longer the right fit. The door boomed as he pounded on it angrily. Then I heard him get in his car and leave in a hurry. My sister and I both signed in relief.
A few minutes later, we heard him back with someone else. “What could he be up to?” my sister remarked, and then we heard a drill on the door. “He is trying to drill through the security door. Call the police!” I phoned it in. The drilling intensified. My sister and I just looked at each other. He did not know we were inside. What would he do if he got the door open before the police got there?
The drilling continued. We just sat there staring. Should we hide inside and hope he does not see us? Should we move some of the more valuable objects somewhere else to he can’t find them? Is there enough time? We were frozen in panic.
The door burst open. He stood there confused. He had a locksmith that he had persuaded to come and drill the lock under the pretense that it was an emergency. His look turned angry. I remember seeing him clench his fist.
And just as he was about to say something, the police pulled up. He turned, saw the police, and instinctively bolted to his car to try to leave (not good optics, if you ask me). My mother arrived, and we both showed the police the paperwork. All was in order. My stepfather was furious. He ranted and shouted as police told him to leave the premises. He got in his car and sped off. My mother waved and smiled.
The police left, and we walked into the business and closed the door. My mother turned to me: “Not bad for a stupid woman.” I don’t think there was ever a moment in my life where I was prouder of my mom. The business was eventually liquidated, but not after my mother was able to run it productively for several more years.
This was one moment that left the distinct impression on me that I could not afford in good conscience to sit on the fence about how I felt about women’s equality, women in ministry, but more than that, the liberation of women from oppressive structures like patriarchy and bigotry. Talk of all this can sound rather abstract. You can be quick to regard this topic as something that concerns only women, "not my battle." I have learned you can only do that because no one you know is effected (or you choose not to see them). You can only stay aloof until someone you care about--like your own mother--needs help. I had gotten my hands dirty that day. I look back at the day, often wondering what could have been done differently. Was there a more peaceable path in dealing with a less than peaceable individual? However, I have also learned that life rarely presents you with clean and clear options. Many saw what we did as underhanded, but at the end of the day, this is just one instance of what many marginalized people face in the day-to-day negotiations of trying to survive while subjected to abuse and belittlement.
I also knew in that moment that a day was coming where my convictions about women in ministry and my career in a conservative Baptist denomination would collide. It did not take long…
Spencer Boersma is the Assistant Professor of Theology at Acadia Divinity College. He lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife and five boys, and he serves on the board of ASBE.