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Calvin College’s January Series always showcases top-notch speakers. This year I enjoyed listening to Calvin’s so-called Beatles—intellectual rock stars George Marsden, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Mouw—speak on “The Renaissance of Christian Thought.”

The jokes were funny—host Mary Hulst wondering which of the Fab Four is Ringo; Marsden on why he’s pretty sure he’s “George”; Plantinga humorously ditching the assigned topic to expound on “Why can’t there be a thing called Christian philosophy?”; and Mouw revealing for the first time that he defected to Fuller because Calvin President Diekema refused to appoint him head basketball coach.

What grabbed me even more than the speeches, though, was Hulst’s introduction. I’ve read appreciatively a number of her articles, including “The Art of Following.” But that doesn’t really account for the immediate bond I felt with this woman whom I’ve never met. In fact, unexpectedly, I was blinking away tears halfway through her remarks. It wasn’t just what she said; it was how she said it. And who she is.

That’s first and most telling. Who she is. A female chaplain, standing as an equal among men who are the academic giants of my CRC universe. Maybe you’re dismissing this observation as so “last century.” We’ve moved past those gender divides, haven’t we?

But for me, a 60-year-old woman who grew up in a strongly patriarchal CRC culture and who has struggled mightily with the legacy of self-doubt such an upbringing entails, it was deeply affirming to listen to Hulst. I attend a church that has not yet opened church offices to women. Seeing Hulst wear leadership comfortably as a minister of the living Word was profound.  

Second, it was how she spoke, exactly as I long for any preacher to speak: with faith and compassion and hope. She radiated a winsome acceptance of herself and her community. There was something both motherly and authoritative in her tone, a madre, finally, to set beside the padres of my life.

Third, it was what she said. She acknowledged the contributions of these four scholars who taught us “how to be competent academics and devoted Christians.” That’s when the surprise tears welled up. I think I know why. I didn’t become a committed Christian until after I’d finished my secular university education, until after I’d made life choices that irrevocably changed the direction of my days. I’m wholly content, don’t get me wrong. My missteps have been led by God into grace-full new paths of discipleship. But somewhere in my heart there still lingers the whisper of a dream that wasn’t encouraged, a yearning for theology that was shut down before I even knew its name.

I hope this doesn’t come across as self-pitying. If anything, the recognition that my life was spiritually curbed by growing up a girl in a church that privileged boys is a gift, a sensitivity that now enables me to better empathize with others who have also experienced marginalization of one kind or another. It’s also given me a measure of humility about biblical interpretation. The church has erred in the past; perhaps there are ways we are still erring today.

Catching a glimpse of Mary Hulst flourishing in her role as chaplain of Calvin College and speaking words of blessing over a diverse audience, was a moment of mingled regret and joy. But the joy was far greater, echoing Joel and Peter and God himself: “Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.” I can imagine the sacrifices it took for Hulst to become a pastor. For me it qualifies as a “wonder in the heavens” and a “sign of the earth” (Acts 2). I’m as proud of her as I am of Calvin’s Beatles.

About the Author

Cathy Smith is a retired school teacher from Wyoming, Ont., and is a contributing editor at Christian Courier. 

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"for me....a woman who grew up in a strongly patriarchal CRC culture and who has struggled mightily with the legacy of self-doubt such an upbringing entails, it was deeply affirming to listen to Hulst. I attend a church that has not yet opened church offices to women. Seeing Hulst wear leadership comfortably as a minister of the living Word was profound." And later.."..a yearning for theology that was shut down even before I knew its name." THANK YOU CATHY for putting words to my own experience....even a few years younger than you growing up in the RCA. I am finally a senior MDiv student at 49 yrs old. And, yes, Mary Hulst is a giant amoung us and an inspiration of what female leadership can look like! Blessings to you and many thanks for speaking your truth here, undoubtedly shared by more women than myself!

Thanks so much for this affirming response, Sharon. I pray you experience joy and fulfillment in serving the church. :-)