Warm welcome

Women gather, learn and belong at spirituality circles

Fire ritual of writing down things to let go of in our lives or lift up to the universe and God. Photo by Robyn Provis.

Fire ritual of writing down things to let go of in our lives or lift up to the universe and God. Photo by Robyn Provis.

As the cold wind blew around the building, women entered the not-yet-warm basement of All God’s Children-Metropolitan Community Church (AGC-MCC) in Minneapolis for a Friday evening Women’s Spirituality Circle. As the large basement space worked to warm itself, the women’s presence warmed the space as well. Minnesota Women’s Press was invited to join the circle to learn more about this spiritual gathering.

The stage is set
On the floor in the center of the circle sat a silver tray, a large unpolished rose quartz crystal (the symbol of love) and a lit candle. The women found their chairs and added more to widen the circle. On that evening the group gathered was over 20 in number and ranged in age from their late teens to women in their 60s. It was a time for sacred interaction. The group of women gathered to learn from each other about faith, spirituality, support and openness.

Circle time began with a welcome and an invitation to verbally participate or stay silent. A round of introductions put the newcomers at ease. The time was informal and flowing. Humor and laughter set the stage for mutual respect. It was clear that the participants were honored for where they were in their own spiritual process. As latecomers arrived, the circle opened to make room.

Sharon Wilson, leader of that evening’s circle, shared that she was “walking the Path of Sufism,” from the Islamic tradition. She led the group through a “remembrance” practice-a lesson about “coming back” to their bodies. “The Practice of Remembrance is about filling your own being,” Wilson said. “You are shifting the energy in your life … holding that space for divine life.”

She began with a prayer and followed with an explanation of the chant. She taught the group to chant the word of God, in whatever form resonated with each individual. Traditionally the chant uses Allah, but she encouraged the women to be open to what words worked for them. “It is not the word,” Wilson said, “but the opening of your heart center that brings the divine light within.” Wilson explained that chanting gives great awareness not only of body and breath and connection, but also of the places inside that are not full, the places where more love and acceptance might be welcomed.

Spiritual expansion
Although this circle was focused on Sufism, the topics and the leadership change from week to week. With each gathering, different avenues are opened for exploration and inspiration. The women find ways to embrace what personally works for them to broaden their view of spirituality.

“What breaks my heart is when people give up on their Christian faith believing somehow that everyone’s faith but theirs is static,” said Robyn Provis, co-pastor of AGC-MCC. “The truth is that faith is never static. Faith grows, evolves and takes new forms as we each lean into the mystery that is God.”

The women who come to this group have a variety of experiences and beliefs. Some have traditional Christian beliefs; some explore yoga, crystals and meditation, or integrate other philosophies into their beliefs.

As a lesbian in search of spiritual belonging, circle participant Kaye Fredensborg didn’t find that sense of belonging in the Catholic church of her upbringing. “I am learning new little niches, finding the little pieces that work and put them in the places that feel right. That’s what we do,” Fredensborg said, “because Christianity doesn’t always work for women.”

Circle participant Jan Brunner was raised in her father’s Native American religion, that of the Ojibway people. Asked by the Women’s Circle to lead a prayer from her traditional upbringing, at short notice, she was terrified. “I was sweating bullets,” she said. Brunner had come to Christianity, and All God’s Children Church, through a health issue and through her father’s death. She was craving something else in her life. She felt welcomed and encouraged to explore her own spiritual journey while embracing her traditional upbringing.

A place to grow
The AGC-MCC denomination began over 40 years ago as an outreach to the gay community. “We believe the point of being blessed is so we can bless other people,” Provis said.

The women’s spirituality circles began in fall 2008 at a time when Provis was working toward her doctoral degree. The focus of her study was diversity. “Not only cultural and religious, but our diversity of thought,” she said. She wanted to create a diverse group that invited women to deepen their faith … and deepen friendships.

As a pastor, Provis was meeting women who were trying to sort through their own experience of faith. “If you get 10 women in the same room, we are all walking our journey much differently,” she explained. She calls herself “Pan Spiritual.” “I believe in one omnipresent God, known by many names, met and experienced equally through multiple religious and spiritual traditions.”

The circles were designed to “give the women of the church a place to come and grow spiritually,” Provis said. “I wanted to provide time and space to give women a chance to be free to let their faith grow into lots of different things, just like I was allowing myself the same.”

The first meeting of the circle encouraged women to bring a sacred object, with no definitions attached. It could be anything. “People brought peace pipes, photographs of their mother, all sorts of things and they placed them on a circular altar.” The women were invited to tell why they came and to tell the story of their sacred object.

The circle meets weekly and over time has had many different topics-from ethical wills to Tomboy Tools. The leadership is shared-each circle has a different woman leader.

In this group, there is no authority. Although she is the pastor on Sundays at All God’s Children, Provis said, “I am not the voice [in the circle] like I am on Sundays.” The group is a diverse one. Women from all walks of life, backgrounds and sexual identities attend.

“There are innumerable ways to encounter the mystery that is God,” said Provis. “Our experience of God is going to be as diverse as our [own] experience.” “You’ve gotta have a great big box of crayons to color in my world,” Provis said of her own spiritual path. “We are all God’s great big crayon box. Throughout history the purpose of religion has been interpreted to keep us out of hell. Today, because we live in such a multicultural, multifaith world, the whole purpose has been cracked open. Our reason to gather is to learn and share with other people on a path to becoming; we find belonging.

“Women are very unique. We are a gender that becomes pregnant, creates, gives birth to things. Women have been subjecated, made secondary,” Provis said. “Our job is to gather and see the sacred in everyday life experience.”

Circle Structure
Robyn Provis, co-pastor and the founder of the women’s circles at All God’s Children-Metropolitan Community Church, shared the “covenant” that gives the group structure:
Members of the circles are to:
• take responsibility for individual spiritual development
• respect the spiritual journeys of others in the group
• listen deeply
• grant everyone equal speaking time
• keep “insider” conversation to a minimum
• keep what is shared in group confident
• hold a safe space for emotions, passions and discomfort
• remember that the circle can be therapeutic, but it is not therapy
• address conflict in respectful ways
• deal with one another in love, appreciation and trust