The matriarchs of our faith were neither docile nor invisible

Written by Andrea Nwabuike

There are two impenetrable pillars in most Nigerian homes: faith and education. Whether in the homeland or as a member of the diaspora, these pillars are the rod and staff by which Nigerian parents raise their children. There was no tolerance for spiritual apathy or academic negligence in my home.

Just as Christmas and Easter were pinnacles of sacred observance in my family’s spiritual life, report card day and parent-teacher interviews carried significant weight in our academic calendar. 

There is one report card day I often think about. As I nervously opened the dusty brown school envelope, I was greeted by an unexpectedly disappointing set of grades.

But I was unfazed. I knew these grades were not the grades I had earned because my mom had categorized all of the term’s tests, projects, and homework assignments in a giant blue binder. She knew exactly what grades I should have brought home and anything less would result in a stern conversation between herself and my teacher.

Armed with our binder and her signature no-nonsense demeanor, my mom showed up to parent-teacher interviews expecting answers. My teacher stumbled over her words as she tried to explain new guidelines advising teachers to refrain from giving high grades, a supposed attempt to prevent students from becoming lazy or entitled.

My mom wasn’t having it. She informed my teacher that these guidelines were offensive and contradictory to her responsibility to inspire and guide her students. With passion and resolve pouring from her voice, my mom demanded that my teacher assign the grades that I had earned. End of discussion.

It was slightly embarrassing seeing my mom reprimand my teacher. But the discomfort of the moment did not overshadow the important lesson she was teaching me. In the face of injustice, my mom would not remain silent.

Now, I was keenly aware that a bad mark on an elementary school report card would not derail my future. The grades ultimately did not matter but the message behind the grades, namely the devaluing of my efforts and the downgrading of my potential, was significant.

Had my mom remained silent, simply accepting what had been given to me, that example would have created a pattern of silence and acquiescence that would reverberate throughout my life. I thank God that my mom was unwilling to set such a precedent.

The report card incident is only one example in a long list of moments where my mom has boldly used her voice to speak the truth and address injustice. Her outspoken nature is guided by compassion and a love for truth.

She is one of the heroes working at the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, serving vulnerable populations in a long-term care facility with kindness and patience. When her coworkers are concerned about matters of inequality or managerial mistreatment, my mom attentively listens to their concerns. She has on more than one occasion marched down to her union office to ensure that unfair treatment is addressed.

As a pastor’s wife, my mom openly shares her thoughts and opinions with my dad, encouraging him in his vision for the church but offering caution and constructive criticism when needed.

The simple but powerful motto of my mom’s life is, “You have a mouth, so use it.”

A Black woman who is confident and uncompromising in the expression of her convictions is not viewed favourably by society at large. The opinions of Black women are far too often discounted. Our emotions have historically been contorted into signs of aggression and instability.

In her 2018 research “Deconstructing Negative Stereotypes, Myths And Microaggressions About Black Women,” Patricia Luckoo argues negative stereotypes of Black women have “rendered many Black women invisible—and which some researchers conceives makes them less likely to be heard when they speak and are even less likely to be remembered—particularly in predominantly white groups.”

Unfortunately, these stereotypes have seeped into, and sometimes been birthed by, Christian culture. As I stepped into leadership roles in campus ministry during my undergraduate studies, I could sense that my outspoken nature was viewed as dangerous. There were moments of judgment and disapproval when I or the women I served with were vocal in our opinions or when were so bold as to assert ourselves in the leadership capacities we held.

We were viewed as the antithesis to the Proverbs 31 woman. The only way to shake off this reputation was to silence ourselves. To become passive and agreeable to a fault. But I would not be my mother’s daughter if I chose such a path.

My mom set the example that my voice and personality do not impede to my obedience to God, but are tools to be wielded under His authority. As Jackie Hill Perry writes in her book Gay Girl, Good God, “to have a quiet and gentle spirit—a call given to women—would not mean I had to abandon all that I am, limp along in life, silence my personality in the name of obedience, but instead it meant that I could authentically be the woman God made me as, while anchored in the truth and controlled by the Spirit.”

Many matriarchs of our faith were neither docile nor invisible. Their gentle spirits were girded by a ferocious faith, leading them to speak boldly and act decisively. Esther courageously interceded for her people before King Xerxes as the threat of genocide loomed over Israel. Deborah led Israel faithfully as a judge and prophetess, charging Barak to trust in God’s promises to deliver Israel’s oppressors into their hands. It was women who were the first witnesses to the empty grave. Their voices were the first to testify of Christ’s victory over sin and death.

My mom is in good company, adding her voice to the mighty chorus of faithful women who have fought for justice and pursued mercy. Mama mi, thank you for teaching me the value of my voice and giving me the courage to use it.