Dear Westminster Family of Faith,
I just finished a great book: Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez (2019).
A friend recommended it right after its release, but I’ve only just gotten to it—a delay I now regret. Criado Perez offers example after example of gender bias “baked into our systems” simply because the data driving our decisions doesn’t account enough for gender. In other words: When we don’t gather data from women—or identify which data has come from women—we don’t design things truly inclusive of them. Not surprisingly, Criado Perez backs this up with… well… data. Everything from car safety equipment and standards to tax credits to heart attack symptoms understands women as “atypical.”
I share all of this because it’s an eye-opening book; I’d commend it to female and male readers alike. But I also share this because I think it illustrates an even broader point, one that more directly intersects with our call as Christians: We ought to ask before we do. We must understand what the problem is—from the people who are experiencing it—before we can help solve it effectively. If we aren’t asking the right people the right questions, we probably aren’t helping.
Westminster Presbyterian is a “Matthew 25” congregation—meaning we have pledged to participate in the concrete, justice-related endeavors Jesus himself names in Matthew 25:31-46. We have pledged to help interrupt poverty cycles, dismantle racist social structures, and build congregational vitality—all to embody God’s love in tangible, generative ways in our community. This recent commitment formalized a long history of such efforts here at WPC, from the Olympia Free Medical Clinic to S.T.A.R. Childcare Center to Hope Village to One Parish One Prisoner. I can’t speak to the history of each individual effort, but I suspect many of them began with earnest questions asked of those most affected by the harm we sought to address. This may sometimes have looked like surveys and statistics, but it might also have looked like deep listening in a relationship.
This same idea extends to our lives beyond the church. We are unlikely to help someone if we don’t fully understand the problem from their perspective. I think of this often as a parent; if my kids aren’t my first consult and co-collaborators, I rarely come up with lasting solutions for their challenges. This feels especially dramatic with my two-year-old, Callie, whose urge to self-differentiate runs so deep that she once spent a whole car ride shouting “no” at our GPS. Sometimes, she is most distraught not because of what is happening, but because of her amount of agency in it; if I think it’s just about getting her shoe on, for example, I’m probably going to make things worse.
I don’t mean to suggest the people we seek to help in this world are like children, but rather that we all are human. We want to participate in our own healing. We want our needs to be reflected in the communities we co-create. I think God wants this, too. Invisible Women drives home this timeless and universal idea. May we be asked “What do you need?” by those seeking to help us. And, before we jump in, may we ask others the same.
Grace and peace,
Pastor Therin Fenner