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October 7, 2016

Digging Deeper: The Culture of Touch in the Church

By Ellen Huffman

The Church today exists in a world where women’s bodies are largely treated as commodities, as not our own - belonging to whoever is looking. Women’s personal space and women’s bodies are too often viewed as something for others. Here for others to touch, invade, exploit and speak for.

It is time for the Church to acknowledge the sexist culture we live in. It is time for the Church to take more steps toward equality and toward creating safe spaces for all people. It is time for Disciples to stop thinking that the fact that we ordain women is enough, or that it means there aren’t churches who won’t hire a female pastor. It is time.

As a woman, I have experienced the feeling that my body is not really my own, that how I look and dress should fit a certain standard and that my voice does not matter as much as a man’s. Congregations can and should address this incredibly common experience, and a great way to start is the culture of touch in the church.

The Passing of the Peace, the receiving line with the pastor after worship, countless social occasions and greeting visitors...the church is chock full of times where we greet one another and meet new people. It is also chock full of hugs and touches, many not asked for or wanted.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been hugged when I did not want to be. Especially by older, male colleagues. It’s the world we live in, right? Surely I want a hug because I’m younger than you and shorter than you and/or a female. Surely it’s nothing to get upset about because your hug is well intentioned. Surely I was just being formal with you when I extended my palm for a handshake and you’re letting me know we’re more friendly than that by hugging me. Right?

Wrong.

Yes, I am a young, short female pastor with a friendly smile and a warm personality. That does not necessarily mean I want a hug. There are no qualities about any person that mean their voice and body matter less than someone else’s. This isn’t just a “woman’s issue”.

You are not automatically public property to be freely touched just because you’re

a woman

an entry level employee

a person of color

a child

someone who is short

or

someone who looks younger than their peers

We live in a culture where it is socially acceptable to touch members of those groups without their permission. And I’ve seen and experienced church folks doing this all the time. I myself have even been guilty of it. But the reality is not everyone likes to be touched - especially by people they don’t know well - and everyone has a right to bodily autonomy and space.

Let’s start asking people before we hug them. Let’s bring back high fives and warm smiles. Let’s stop assuming that just because a touch is well intentioned, it’s okay.

Sometimes the church reflects the society in which it operates and sometimes it challenges the systems of oppression. The culture of touch in the church is the perfect place to challenge the idea that folks in any of those groups above should have their voices and desires matter less.

I know it isn’t the typical way of doing things and I know it can be awkward. But if faith communities start having this conversation and start encouraging:

asking before touching

and

honoring the answer,

those communities would be taking another step toward welcoming and respecting all people.

About the Author: Rev. Ellen Huffman is a student, teacher and human rights activist with a passion for equality and environmentalism. Ellen spends her free time reading, laughing, making her own toothpaste, and co-curating the (em)power couple blog (which you can find at empowercouple.wordpress.com). And yes, that mug says "Votes for Women."

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