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<i>White Fire</i> Explores Women Spiritual Leaders in America - 2003-04-20

This is one of the holiest weeks of the year in the United States, with Passover and Easter services taking place across the country. An unprecedented number of those services are being led by women, who've assumed prominent roles in a range of faith groups in recent years. Rabbi Malka Drucker explores the trend in a new book called "White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America."

Television viewers know Della Reese as the star of a popular series called Touched by An Angel. Each week, she and her fellow angels visit people in need of spiritual aid.

Della Reese is not only an actress and singer, but an ordained Christian minister. She preaches to a 375 member congregation in Los Angeles, California. Her story is included in White Fire, together with the stories of 30 other spiritual leadersministers, rabbis, scholars, teachers and activists. Author Malka Drucker says Della Reese entered the ministry after a health crisis made her turn to another minister for support. "Then she started inviting people into her living room to pass on the teaching she had gotten. Then pretty soon Reverend Della was taking banquet rooms to accommodate her congregation. And she feels very much that her life now is of a complete piece. Her television show, her pulpit, it's all the same."

Like Della Reese, Malka Drucker found her religious calling later in life. She began her rabbinical studies at the age of 50, and now works as a rabbi and writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She wrote White Fire to find out what she shared in common with other women spiritual leadersa group whose ranks are rapidly expanding. "There's been steady growth over the past 25 years. But in the last 5 years you'll see a jump. For example, the Unitarians now, 65 percent of their ordainees were women in the last graduating class. This is to my mind the first time that women have actually been greater in number than men," she says.

Helen and Rebecca Cohen are both Unitarian Universalist ministers, and the only mother-daughter pair in the book. Helen Cohen gave up her college teaching career to enter the ministry in the late 1970s. "I'd say in some ways women were drawn to that as one of the first professional places that began to open up for women," she says. "It was harder at first to break into being doctors, lawyers and heads of business. I think women are drawn to the sense of community that exists in churches and temples, so that ministry feels (like) a natural place to go."

Helen Cohen is now retired from her Lexington, Massachusetts church, while her daughter Rebecca began her career just a few years ago at a church in Burke, Virginia. Rebecca Cohen believes she faces fewer obstacles than her mother. "Mom was really in the first big wave of women in pulpits," she says. "So there were many more people who'd never seen a woman minister. And I think it took a long time for her to feel comfortable in an authority position, Whereas I grew up seeing her, and seeing other women in authority positions, and so I think it's much easier for me to claim my authority."

Malka Drucker says there's still what she calls "a stained glass ceiling" for women, making it less likely they'll lead large congregations in major churches or synagogues. An exception is Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel in Los Angeles. Malka Drucker describes her as the first female senior rabbi in a congregation of more than a thousand members. "She came to that synagogue never having served a congregation, but having worked as a social activist," she says. "This was a synagogue that was in real trouble financially, and they were close to division. And she, little by little, face by facethere were some who objected to having a woman, but now, after 5 or 6 years, the congregation has grown by another third, and she has been innovative as well."

Those innovations include having more members of the congregation lead services, teach Scripture, and mentor young people. Other women in the book have established creative new fellowships on a smaller scale. Catherine Campbell serves as an Episcopal priest at a housing project in northern California, where she ministers mainly to needy Hispanic children. "I was born and raised in Mexico and so when I was called to the ministry I also felt called to work with Hispanics here in the United States," she says. "There continues to be a tremendous need in the United States for Spanish speaking clergy, as the Spanish speaking population continues to rise."

Joan Halifax Roshi also combines activism with spirituality. She's an American Buddhist who founded the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She not only welcomes Buddhists from around the world to the center, but teaches meditation to non-Buddhists, including the dying, their caregivers, and prison inmates. She gives several reasons why women like herself are helping transform Buddhism in the United States. "One has to do with the great emphasis on community and community development, on children, on families. Another is the deep commitment to care giving," she says. "And also the feeling realm. I think women have opened up psychology almost more than anything, in terms of being sensitive to an individual's background and history and needs. It gives Buddhism and its practice a whole other dimension."

Malka Drucker took the title for her book from a quote in the Torahthat the sacred Scripture was written in black fire on white fire. She sees white fire as what's been invisible in many faiths until recently, the dimension added by women spiritual leaders. In writing about those women, she learned lessons that surprised her. "Really maybe what this is all about was women being socialized in a certain way. It works in business as well as it works in the church," she says. "It's not so much we need more women in the ministries, it's that we need more of that compassionate, nurturing image in all clergy."

Malka Drucker is author of White Fire: A Portrait of Women Spiritual Leaders in America.

White Fire was published by SkyLight Paths Publishing, Sunset Farm Offices, Route 4, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, Vermont 05091.