4 cups of flour, 1 teaspoon of salt, 2 sticks of butter. Combine these 3 ingredients with your hands. Add some sugar, 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in milk, 2 eggs, and vanilla. Mix well, roll out, and cut into shapes, then bake at 350 degrees for 8-10 minutes.
This is the simple sugar cookie recipe that has been passed on from my great-grandmother, Ferne, to her daughter, who shared it with her daughter, who passed it on to my sister and me. A few days ago I tried this recipe for the first time, and as I felt the ingredients squeeze and mix through my fingers, I couldn’t help but think of the many other female hands that lovingly prepared these same elements over many generations. These hands belonged to many mothers, sisters, daughters, and aunts who endured hardship and pain, yet their strength, courage, and faithfulness has been passed down in my family, much like a recipe. These women have shaped me into the faith leader that I am today, in more ways than one.
On my mother’s side, my great-grandmother Ferne (the one with the cookie recipe), living atop a hill in rural western Pennsylvania, was a caretaker and foundation for her family, especially after 1971 when her husband fell from the branches of a large tree in their front yard and became paralyzed. While he would never climb those branches or walk again, Ferne grew deep roots to care for him the rest of their days, raise their three daughters, take on multiple jobs, and remain a strong Christian woman trusting in God’s care and love. Her oldest daughter, Jeannie, who would become my grandmother, also raised three daughters. Jeannie developed breast cancer in the late 1980s, but I am proud to say that today she is a healthy and lively survivor, who has much to teach me about faith, loyalty, and perseverance. Jeannie’s two sisters are also examples of faithfulness and leadership: one sister worked harder than I can imagine to become a tenured professor and accomplished author; and another devotedly cares for a husband with a physical injury that has had many repercussions over the years, while she continues to cultivate a God-given gift of music.
Ruth, my father’s mother, lost her husband, a veteran of World War II, to a battle with cancer just weeks after my parents were married in 1983. In the 30 years since, she has remained a fierce and commanding matriarch of a large family, and despite a taking fall in 2007 that left her unable to live independently, she is still unwavering in her Catholicism and witty in her comebacks. My childhood is full of memories of family reunions on my father’s side, watching as Ruth and her three aging sisters stood shoulder to shoulder at the start of meals, crossing themselves and leading the family in reciting the Our Father.
As I reflect on these two strands of my family, more and more strong women of faith rise from the pages of history: an aunt who gave birth to her first child at the age of 16 and today is a dedicated mother and passionate elementary school teacher; another who remained faithful and emerged resilient after navigating the murky waters of an ex-husband struggling with alcohol abuse. There are women who have battled cancer and other chronic illnesses at young ages, who sang lead vocals in a traveling musical group, who have devoted their lives to their families, or to education and literacy, or to creating beauty and justice in the world. Women who are commanding and whose laughs fill entire rooms, and women who quietly and lovingly display what it means to be faithful and compassionate, day after day. Looking back, I am in awe and admiration.
A few days ago, I was in a group where each person was asked to share a small part about their heritage: family, ethnic, religious…whatever heritage was especially meaningful for them. As I mulled over this question in the days that followed, I came to recognize the reality of a very important part of my heritage: strong, faithful women. As a seminarian preparing for a life and vocation as a female minister, this is a part of my heritage where I can find deep roots and a solid foundation for answering my call to ministry. When I study the Hebrew Bible and read Isaiah 43, I remember how this passage was particularly meaningful for Ferne as she cared for her husband in a wheelchair. As I sing in my home congregation and in our campus community choir, I echo the voices of my aunts and great-aunts who glorified God through their gifts of music both in the church and beyond. When I advocate for just and peaceful solutions to national and international conflicts, I follow in the footsteps of my grandmother, Jeannie, who protested the Vietnam War on the steps of the county courthouse, grounded in her faith as a pacifist. As I pray each day about where my seminary education will lead me and ask God for trust and hope, I am comforted by my steadfast mother who similarly prays for these things, for herself and her daughters.
And as I intentionally reach out to make connections with my neighbors of different faiths and worldviews, I continue the legacy of Ferne who, in addition to baking those sweet sugar cookies, spoke Pennsylvania Dutch and was a dear friend to many of the Amish and Old Order Mennonite families in the Big Valley region of Pennsylvania; she was known for intentionally reaching out to make connections and form community with the most unlikely of people. My call to ministry and interfaith bridge-building is strengthened by this beautiful heritage of strong, faithful women, who I carry in my heart each day, and whose resilient hands reach across generations to hold mine as I seek to answer God’s call in my life.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.