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Healers and Restorers

by Gwen Sayler

As a young parish pastor in early 1980s, I served in a community where resources for victims of sexual and domestic abuse were few and far between. This breach in the fabric of our common social life prompted an ecumenical group of young women to envision a local women’s center where struggling women and teens could receive the support they needed. My congregation agreed to make its facilities available for the center’s activities. All we needed was money to fund our proposed programs. Trusting that the money would come from somewhere, we planned an all-day workshop as our kick-off event.

One of my tasks was to seek a $25 donation from the Ladies Aid as their contribution to the event. Composed primarily of elderly women, the Aid took seriously its responsibilities as custodian of the kitchen and traditional order. Theologically conservative and highly suspicious of what they regarded as my radical views, these women held strict opinions regarding what should and should not be talked about in church. Reflecting attitudes common to their generation, they were adamant that anything connected to sexual or domestic abuse was at the top of the “do not speak” list.

Naively assuming that the group would be resistant to the proposed women’s center, I approached my task with very low expectations. Feeling a bit like I was “taking one for the team,” I delivered my spiel and asked for the $25 donation. Raising her hand, the group’s treasurer gruffly asked, “How much do you need?” “$25 would be nice,” I replied. “No,” she responded emphatically, “that wasn’t the question. How much do you need to fund the workshop?” Totally bewildered, I meekly replied, “about $450.” “Come back in an hour,” she said, “we’ll have the check ready.”

Thanks to the funding provided by the Ladies Aid, we were able to hold our workshop. The momentum it generated made it possible to open the Watertown Women’s Center, a resource that served the community for years. I always will be grateful to the Ladies’ Aid for the important lesson they taught me that afternoon so many years ago.

In my youthful naivety and arrogance, I had assumed that older people knew nothing, that only the younger generation was really aware of what needed to be done and how to do it. Obviously, I was ever so wrong. Those elderly women possessed a deep wisdom honed by years of lived experience. Though their generation could not talk publicly about things like sexual and domestic abuse, they knew and understood—and they acted to make possible the vision of us younger women.

 In so doing, they became the founding mothers of the Watertown Women’s Center, mothers who made it possible for their daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters to access services that had been denied to women of their generation. We who served and were served by the center were, in a way, their daughters. Working together, several generations of women heard and responded to the call to be healers of one particular breach in our community. (back to top)

Our heritage

By now, the women I knew in that Ladies’ Aid have joined their Lord in glory. The story of their years of deep wisdom honed through life experiences meshing with the vision and energy of a younger generation is not unique. It is simply one chapter in the ongoing story of generations working together in service as “healers of breaches, restorers of streets” (Isaiah 58:12). Times change. Needs and issues change. The intergenerational work of God’s people on behalf of justice and healing for all people remains until our Lord returns.

Each of us brings to this common work our passions that have been shaped and nurtured by life experiences and the influence of significant elders. Pondering your heritage, can you envision those women whose wisdom has guided and inspired you in your particular service as a repairer of the breach?

When I think about this question, my thoughts turn to my great aunt Lil, a woman I knew only through stories my mother told me and brief encounters on family vacations. Aunt Lil was a character. Never-married, hard of hearing, she was a devout Swedish Lutheran teetotaler in a family of non-devout pro-drinking Episcopalians. She was usually on the fringes at family gatherings. Yet she was very much the glue that held the family together through the many breaches that threatened to scatter it.

From my mother, I learned that as a young woman, Aunt Lil had been a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). My imagination went wild as I pictured a fanatical young Lil attacking beer barrels with an axe, a sight I found quite humorous. What I did not know then was that the WCTU was a response of women of Lil’s generation to sexual and domestic abuse perpetuated by drunken husbands beating their wives and children. It was the well-intended effort of that generation to heal a breach.

My mother, like the women of the Ladies Aid, was of a generation that did not talk openly about things like sexual and domestic abuse. Nonetheless, having internalized her aunt’s passion for healing breaches, she quietly did what she could within the confines of her time and place. Befriending victims, caring for their children, she did her part as a “restorer of streets.”

That passion, in turn, was passed on to me. My generation has witnessed the founding of shelters for victims of abuse, funding for rape crisis and domestic violence centers, and a huge increase in public knowledge and support. Now we know that sexual and domestic abuse is rooted in the need of some to have power and control over others, rather than in a misuse of alcohol or in misplaced love. Now we know that it is okay—and in fact necessary—to speak about that which used to be unspeakable in church. Moreover, now our church leaders are learning how to identify signs of abuse and to respond appropriately. In fact, the seminary where I teach offers a full course on responding to sexual and domestic violence, a course I am preparing to teach to both women and men as I write this article. (back to top)

Many generations

From axe-wielding women battering beer barrels to quiet underground advocacy to public awareness and the equipping of future church leaders to see and to respond—much has changed over the generations as women and now women and men together have struggled to heal the particular breach of sexual and domestic abuse. And no one generation has done it alone. To paraphrase the truism “it takes a village to raise a child,” it also takes “generations building on the foundation of what has gone before and working together to heal a breach, restore a street.”

Sexual and domestic abuse, of course, is but one of many ongoing issues confronting us as we seek to live faithfully to our calling as God’s breach-healing servants. Global and local hunger, homelessness, sexual trafficking, mental illness reform, violence on the streets, prison reform—the list of pressing issues crying out for our attention goes on and on. The magnitude and complexity of these and other issues can overwhelm us to the numbing point where we feel that nothing we can do can possibly make a difference. When this happens, it is helpful to remind ourselves that we are not the Savior. Jesus is.

None of us can address all the complex issues confronting us. But each of us can choose an issue and, partnering with others who share that passion, take one small step forward toward healing one particular breach.

To be effective, this partnering needs to be intergenerational. When a younger generation underestimates the wisdom of its elders—as I did as a young pastor—the work to which we are called together is impeded. Likewise, when an older generation dismisses the wisdom of younger adults by assuming they’re too young to really know what they’re doing, the work to which we are called together suffers. Our common calling as healers of the breach is too important to give into ageism in whatever its form. The work is God’s work, not ours, and we are called and empowered to do it together. (back to top)

Moving to the future

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges for the generation accustomed to leading is learning when to let go and hand over the reins of leadership to the younger generation. I confess that I still feel and think of myself as a young adult full of zest for life and with years ahead to do all sorts of exciting, important things for the sake of the gospel. Then I look in the mirror or hear my knees creak and reality intrudes. The time is coming sooner than I may like for me to let go, to learn to follow the next generation’s leaders rather than to lead them. I would imagine that the same is true for some of you, whether as leaders of projects or church councils or women’s groups or in whatever form your leadership has taken.

For the past 23 years I have been blessed to serve as a teacher of seminary students. Repeatedly, I have been privileged to witness the wisdom honed through life experiences of second career students meshing with the energy, enthusiasm, and passion of young first career students. I see this take place in creative and powerful ways. Melding their efforts together to address the needs of our rapidly changing world, these students are living examples of the “foundations of many generations… called the repairer of the breach, restorer of streets” of whom Isaiah speaks (Isaiah 58:12).

And, as we all are too well aware, things are changing rapidly. The world of younger adults with all its technological marvels and social media communication systems is vastly different from that of many of us in my generation.

Yet, the young adults I encounter are willing to share how their knowledge in these areas can be a resource for the gospel’s proclamation. They are also eager to learn from those whose life experiences have given them the wisdom that comes only through aging. God is raising up an exciting new generation of leaders. As they build on the foundation of previous generations’ work, the church is in good hands indeed.

We are called to serve as repairers of breaches, restorers of streets. God has honored and blessed us richly. Together, the generations are invited to respond “Thanks be to God!”

Gwen Sayler teaches at Wartburg Theological Seminary and is a proud member of the Valpo Deaconess Class of ‘71.

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