Feisty Women Forging Lifetime Connections by Marna McKenzie

Feisty Women Forging Lifetime Connections                  by Marna McKenzie


The UC Berkeley Campus was in turmoil in 1969. Outside the window the CA National Guard troops were at the ready with hand grenades, helmets, boots. Across the street students were milling about, talking in small groups, waving banners. Just before noon an older man from the nearby conservative Presbyterian Church had been photographing the “filth” posted on the bulletin board outside my office. Earlier in the morning I had discovered a very young girl curled in a fetal position on the bathroom floor – a miscarriage. An ordinary/extraordinary day in campus ministry at UNITAS, the ecumenical campus ministry on the corner of Bancroft and College, Berkeley, CA.

I was the interim campus minister of this venerable ecumenical ministry, not because of competence but to hold together a program going through the throes of leadership change,

attacks by conservatives, board power struggles, and the shifting of the universe of the university (and world) – the Free Speech Movement. Details of these days is recorded elsewhere, but my

situation was unique.

I am not an ordained clergyperson. I had started seminary a few years before but with a newly visible feminism found the instruction and atmosphere to be toxic. Nevertheless, I was on the

ministry staff as administrator, a Lay Professional in the Presbyterian Church (with no benefits).  John Hadsell has written a comprehensive history of the ministry personnel changes and

challenges. Three events during this time are mine to tell.

Story Number One. Joann Nash Eakin was one of the ministers when I joined the UCB team.  Feminism ferment was bubbling on the campus. She and I became connected with a group of “radical” women attending the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of seminaries north side of the campus. We began meeting together, doing “consciousness raising” about our situations as women, still hanging at the edge of leadership and influence in theological education and the life of the churches.

Our discontent moved quickly to rage and, as confidence built, we formed the Office of Women’s Affairs (loving the double entendre of our name!). We organized to press our case in three directions– the seminary presidents and boards, theology, and the local churches. We met often to hold together our strategies and our courage. Joann and I (and others) took on the local churches, demanding to have voice at such gatherings as the Presbyterian Asilomar Gathering, the UCC Annual Conference, the United Methodist offices in San Francisco. We pressed to be heard.

A few men came forward to publically support us; many rose to rave about “The Bible” and “history “ and our “destroying the church.” Women came forward to tell their stories, some shyly, some bold and angry. Anne McGrew Bennett offered powerful leadership and kept us focused on the international implications and our connection with the peace movement.  The OWA base expanded to include Catholic sisters (who were way ahead of Protestant women), Unitarians, Jewish sisters, Baptists, Disciples of Christ. Networks were formed across the country linking seminarians and women theologians and scholars who were bursting with radical insights and notions and forcing the religious world to pay attention to the powerful force of women who were demanding to be heard. We scraped together money for conferences in Berkeley, Chicago, and LA. The organized religious hierarchies began to pay attention.

Over the years the OWA became the Center for Women and Religion and continues its presence and influence. Its history is well documented and its stories recorded in the archives of the Graduate Theological Union. I am considered one of the “Founding Mothers” of the OWA. It gave me a community of women to bring me to voice and action with life-changing influences.

Story Number Two. One day in the early 70’s, Jan Greisinger appeared at my office door. At that time my professional world was circumscribed by the UC Berkeley campus ministry and beyond that Cooperative Ministries in Higher Education, the Northern California ecumenical organization linking campuses from Santa Cruz to Davis and Reno. Campus ministries were struggling with financial survival as denominational money was vanishing and the student population changing– in fact the whole scene was changing! But that is another story.

Jan (an ordained UCC campus minister from Ohio) was moving about the country visiting campuses where there was purported to be women on staff. She was one of a very few women in campus ministry leadership and had gotten a grant from the National Campus Ministry Association to identify women in campus ministry– $5000 if I remember correctly.  How about identifying and organizing the women? She offered to pay for transportation for a gathering, and Campus Ministry Women quickly evolved. CMW was a small group of women, each with incredible stories of struggle as women in ministry–and life. We met in homes all over the country — slept on the floor and cots, fixed our own meals, wept and laughed and plotted.

We invited campus ministry women to prepare proposals for women-related projects on their campuses. Each gathering we reviewed the proposals and after deep deliberation gave modest $$ and encouragement and support all over the country. Oh, the amazing women who gathered and who were empowered by this slight and feisty organization. Life-time connections between us were forged, and for many of us we first experienced “sisterhood.” I hope the details are sacred in the archives.

Story number 3. This story is a hodge-podge. I write this out of moments of reflections over the years now passed. My world now focuses around the arts and family and friends.  When I was 38 years old, my children were fleeing the nest, and my husband was entwined in his work. John Hadsell asked me to work with him in UC Berkeley campus ministry and thus began my real adult journey as a woman. The two stories above are cherished and formative memories of events, but what was really changing was me.

My world moved from the Berkeley campus to organizing new ministries in Northern California to working with UMHE and national responsibilities to international connections. Each environment challenged, demanded, and drew from me new aspects of myself. Most significantly I came to know what working with a team requires, how linked my life is with faith journeys, what intimate friendships can transcend time and space–Betsy and Mark and Charles and Clyde and Barry and Lizann and Joann and John……. and on and on. The dates are irrelevant right now. The heart memories are forever.


Marna J McKenzie

Sebastopol, CA


Written 9/23/2014



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