On a November evening in Maine, MTS candidate Sara Otero was awoken from her afternoon nap by the sound of women singing.
She made her way down the stairs of Snowbird Lodge in darkness to find the living room awash in warm candlelight. A fire was crackling in the corner, and women were scattered around different parts of the room. Some were sitting on the sofa, others were reading on the floor. One woman played her banjo, another her guitar. They were singing Christian hymns, and then transitioned into nigunim, the wordless Jewish practice of group singing.
Otero, along with fellow HDS students Sasha Weisse and Cara Curtis, heads up the HDS group WomenCircle, which plans a fall retreat every year. There are no required activities on the retreat, and attendees are encouraged to spend their time however they like, be it studying, cooking, walking, or indulging in the lodge's spa facilities.
This blissful lack of structure provides a break from the busy fall semester, but it also leaves room for spontaneity. The singing that woke Otero happened almost by accident. Weisse said that, as the sun began to set, "everyone in the living room just started singing organically." One person started playing her banjo and another strummed her guitar, then the rest joined in. They followed their music session with a home-cooked meal and a long dance-off.
These unplanned—and undeniably fun—activities occur in WomenCircle because its members experience an uninhibitedness that is only possible in safe spaces.
"We all need a level of flexibility and openness in order for the meetings to even happen," Otero said.
Sara Sentilles, MDiv '01, founded WomenCircle almost 15 years ago. Then known as WomenChurch, Sentilles said she established the group because she needed it.
"I needed a space where language was being used that I could hear myself in—a feminist, queer, anti-racist, politically engaged space. As a feminist in graduate school preparing to be a priest, I struggled in classrooms and in churches. It felt like I was being asked to leave parts of myself (body, politics, sexuality) at the door."
Ten years later, this need for a supportive community of women continues to be felt.
"Even though it is casually mentioned in class, we don't always acknowledge how patriarchy has been harmful or how we can begin to repair that damage," Otero explained. "One of the most common comments I hear during WomenCircle is that our members don't feel like they have a female space—a women-affirming space—anywhere else."
The spirituality of WomenCircle is definitively feminist, but otherwise open to interpretation. Members come from a variety of backgrounds—Jewish, agnostic, Muslim, atheist, Christian, and pagan, to name but a few.
Sentilles hails from a Christian upbringing, but wanted to use WomenCircle "as a place to experiment with ritual and language and community," and "to see what else might be possible."
WomenCircle meetings are open-ended and always changing. Without fail, each meeting allows a member to introduce a ritual of her own choosing. At my first meeting, we read misogynistic theological texts aloud and denounced them in unison. On another occasion, we learned an Argentinian dance routine. Co-leader Sasha Weisse described how WomenCircle rituals encourage creativity and call for relevance.
"The rituals keep us from relying totally on our more static traditions. We can organize a seasonal blessing, or a politically relevant ritual response to a current event, or even just a de-stress ritual."
There are a few permanent fixtures at meetings. Parts of a WomenCircle liturgy are recited, an altar is assembled with miscellaneous sacred objects, and food is provided for members to snack on throughout.
Food is also sometimes incorporated into a ritual, as it was when congregants pledged their sisterhood to one another with honey and pomegranate seeds.
Women can often be found long after a meeting's end, sprawled out on the floor of Divinity Hall Chapel, chatting over the leftover cheese, wine, and fruit.
What might be mistaken for inconsequential chitchat, however, is the reason why WomenCircle is so important to its members.
"It's a space that really feels sacred," Weisse explained. "Generally, in groups or classes, I feel this pressure to perform or present myself in certain ways, but in WomenCircle, it's truly 'come as you are.' "
This spring, WomenCircle is engaged in a fundraising campaign to help sustain the group for future generations of HDS women. For more information, please contact Cara Curtis at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—by Eloise Blondiau