Deanna Brown Focuses First NOAC Keynote on Women’s Stories

Photo by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford
Deanna Brown focuses on women’s stories in her keynote address to NOAC 2015.

Why would the Celtic Christian church choose the image of a wild goose for the Holy Spirit instead of a dove?

Deanna Brown began her keynote address at NOAC by telling the story of a peaceful setting. During the wee hours of May 24, 2014, she sat wrapped in silence and in a shawl by the shores of Lake Junaluska, eyes to the sky as she waited for the best view of a new meteor shower.

Then the peace was shattered “by the old piercing clamor of wild geese.” For long, long minutes their honking shattered the “sweet wonder” Deanna was waiting for. Memories of that moment have led her to ask why some have chosen the wild, honking, disruptive goose as a symbol for the Holy Spirit.

The stories of Jesus, she said, demonstrate the disruptive action of God’s Spirit, an overturning of the status quo which may be necessary for transformation. “The reign of Jesus is not just a continuation of the status quo,” she said. “Jesus used these stories to subvert conventional wisdom…a shattering of habitual thinking.”

Stories are powerful, she reminded the NOAC audience. “Centuries later we remember those [Jesus’] stories, not just theological propositions.” She challenged her listeners to “listen to the wild, honking spirit that is calling across the waters.”

Moving on to tell contemporary stories from her work to connect American women with women in India and Turkey, she told about harrowing journeys by bus and train in India. In one bus, so full of people it would first lean right, then left, she had thankfully found an empty seat when an Indian woman plopped her baby in Deanna’s lap. It was symbolic of that culture’s “we are all in this together” attitude. In the train in India, she said, you can’t tell where one family begins and ends in part because the people all share their food together.

These real life experiences help American women both connect with Indian women, and also critique their own society here in the United States. Brown’s organization Cultural Connections, opens eyes and hearts across the cultural divides and leads to greater advocacy on the issues of importance to women including domestic violence, sexual trafficking, the education of girls, and more.

Similarly, two stories told by Brethren leaders who traveled to a devastated and starving Europe on the heels of World War II helped transform the church in the years that followed. One experience was told by a Brethren relief worker who was riding in a jeep with American soldiers, and they passed by the body of a dead child on the side of the road and the mother bewailing her infant, and the soldiers took no notice. In the other story, a German woman in Berlin told a Brethren visitor that she was going to have to choose which of her four children were most likely to survive the winter, in order to give that child the little food she could scrounge, leaving the other children to die. These two stories led to an outpouring of giving from the Church of the Brethren at that time, which Brown asserted mere facts and statistics could not inspire.

Her presentation concluded with two short films from the Girl Rising project, about the lives of girls in Ethiopia and Afghanistan, the horrors they endure, and their will to prevail. The stories of these girls, along with information about how the education of girls and women may be the most effective way the world can work at ending poverty and hunger, left many in tears in the congregation.

She told one final, personal story, about her mother’s several failed pregnancies and the congregation in Iowa that nurtured her parents through those grievous experiences, and whose outpouring of caring eventually led to her own successful birth. This family story, which she heard repeated over and over again, is now ingrained in her life, she said. It is what keeps her connected to the Church of the Brethren despite frequent frustrations about structural obstacles in the church. “I owe my life to a little Church of the Brethren congregation that worked together to birth new life.”

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