Celebrate: Menopause

That’s right, MENOPAUSE! And, as the caption says, I mean for us to celebrate! I am 55 years old, and menopause has hit me like a wrecking ball. In desperation, I even bought a guidebook to menopause to get a bearing on what is happening to me!

If you haven’t dealt with these mind-boggling (literally) changes to your reproductive organs, you may not be aware of the implications of menopause. We do not talk enough about it. That needs to change; I’m convinced we should openly share about menopause and its stages. We should celebrate a new chapter in our lives and help each other during the physical adjustments. I am going to have a party.

When I first realized I was going through menopause, I was confused. I felt like an internal monster was toying with me. Out of nowhere, no matter the temperature, I would feel the heat rise in my chest, neck, and forehead. Sometimes I felt like I would faint, and all I wanted was a cool breeze. I didn’t care if it was from a fan, the outdoors, or even the refrigerator!

This strange shift in my body brought its own emotions: embarrassment for unexplainable heat, anger because my husband could not understand my plight, and enlightenment of yet another way women are unique.

Most of us whom God has created capable of bearing new life have accepted menstruation. Many of us have endured the discomforts of pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding, accepting their roles in motherhood. Whether we produce children or not, God has shaped our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual beings to produce and sustain others’ lives.

To create these beautiful capacities, God gives us bodies that produce estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and oxytocin hormones. At some point, our hormones shift dramatically to catapult us into a new phase: what I call the wisdom phase.

My body has been changing since my late forties, but I didn’t fully comprehend what was going on for a long time. Only in the last six months or so have I fully embraced this transition. I am understanding that my body isn’t turning on me but rather reminding me to celebrate a life full of love. This process of transformation we call menopause can remind us of our unique, God-endowed blessings and burdens.

Coming to an appreciative mindset hasn’t been easy. I remember reading in my guidebook on menopause, “As the ovaries [run out] of eggs, so the levels of the hormones normally produced by the ovaries reduces, and this causes symptoms of menopause.” [I]  These words deeply saddened me. My body is no longer producing eggs, I thought. I am no longer able to produce life. I had no desire to have another child, but I felt tender as my body told me I could no longer do so. I saw in a new way all my sisters who, for various reasons, could not bear children. I feel more keenly the pain of so many women left in longing. Now, I better understand their pain, and I am sorry for not fully empathizing with them earlier.

My body is going through menopause, and all is well. I am concluding a vital stage in the life cycle that should not embarrass or anger me; it should be an occasion to celebrate. SHE is telling me, well done, my good and faithful servant.

  [i] The Smart Woman’s Guide to Menopause, Topix Media, 2022.

Affirm The Angry Black Woman

There is never a shortage of topics for me to write about each month—there are far too many. I have started any number of posts, but my thoughts scatter, uncooperative.

One issue became crystal clear to me today: the continued struggle of Black women in America. Talking with young adults last night, I heard once again how the next generation of Black women continue to fight for the same rights we fought for. These courageous young ladies have more social power and capital than most Black women my age, but the battle to be seen and afforded equality and agency rages on.

This morning, a story broke about a young Black woman, Alicia Franklin, who was raped a year ago. She followed all the protocols: After the crime, she immediately went to the hospital and underwent a rape examination. She took officers to where she was raped and gave them details about the assailant. Yet little was done on the part of law enforcement. A year later, a young white female, Eliza Fletcher, was kidnapped and killed. Investigators quickly tracked down the suspect, a man with a history of assaulting women. Turns out he was the same assailant who raped the young Black woman a year prior. Had law enforcement taken Alicia Franklin’s case seriously, the young white female may have been spared.

We Black women in America assume an offensive stance, elevate our voices, and aggressively speak the truth because we’ve been overlooked and unappreciated. We’re tired of being on guard against predators. We’re exhausted from caring for ourselves, our families, and our communities. Alicia Franklin’s story broke my heart yet again.

When will we be treated equitably? How much more pain must we endure?

Jesus’ anger caused him to turn over the tables and scatter the people from the temple steps (Mark 11:15–18). He was fed up with how the system disrespected God. I want to turn tables and scatter people, too. I am tired of suppressing my emotions, knowing others may discount my argument by labeling me an “angry Black woman.”

The truth is blatant yet ignored. Our systems are broken, but we continue to work within them. Our church concedes to injustice, yet we wonder why the next generation turns their back on religion.

The chief priests and teachers wanted to kill Jesus because he brought light to their evil ways. Today, many in power want to make Black women disappear because our light illuminates their wickedness. “Angry Black women” are dangerous; we expose the truth.

So, let’s ask others to stop using the term “angry Black woman.” But when it is used, let’s claim it, acknowledging that Black women have had it with disrespect and oppression. Let’s say, Yes, I am angry! I am fed up! I matter!

Celebrate: Caregivers

As I picked out yet another pair of sandals (we can talk another time about shopping!), I overheard a woman speaking harshly to a man I assumed was her father. Probably in his 80s, the older gentleman was confused by what they were doing in the shoe store. While the woman was there to exchange a pair of shoes she’d purchased for him, he seemed to think he was picking out new ones. I listened as the daughter fussed that he wanted to shop instead of trying on sizes of the shoes they needed to exchange. The father seemed confused and kept saying he needed a new pair of shoes. My heart broke for both of them.

The scene reminded me of caring for my mother after her stroke several years ago. She was unable to walk and needed a lot of assistance, and I was often frustrated and short with her. I would speak harshly to her or walk away from her to yell at the top of my lungs. My reactions always left me feeling terrible and wondering if I was a bad person. I knew my mother was not trying to frustrate me; she was just scared and confused by her environment.

Watching the daughter’s misery in the shoe store, I felt the weight of my own experience as a caregiver well up in my body. I am sure, like me, the woman loves her father and wants to ensure he is well cared for. But her job as a caregiver was probably exhausting her mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Far too often, we overlook caregivers in our lives and the constant challenges of their role. Caregivers need others to care for them and their mental health. When we learn about elder abuse, child abuse, and other forms of domestic violence, we need to consider how caregiver burnout may have contributed to the tragedy. There can be a domino effect of pain when a person faces the daunting demands of caregiving without adequate support.

Consider the story of Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Tending to Jesus’s physical needs instead of sitting at his feet like her sister Mary, she was fulfilling her role as caretaker. The household had likely become her responsibility, and she was weary and frustrated doing it alone.

Most caregivers feel this way even when they have volunteered to care for a loved one. When the pressure mounts, anger and resentment can well up against the people they care for, and the extended family they think are not helping enough. Most of all, they get mad at themselves because they are not handling the situation better.

Let us honor the caregivers in our lives today. Tell them you appreciate their sacrifice. Offer to take on the caregiving responsibilities for a few hours or a few days. Small breaks can make a world of difference.

As Mary took a few minutes to sit at the feet of Jesus, her other chores faded to the background, and she was filled with the peace of Christ. Jesus said she had chosen correctly. Let’s help provide space for the Marthas in our lives to sit and be filled by Jesus, too.

Question: Juvenile Criminal Justice

Our local community center, of which I am chair of the board, is in the middle of construction. We want our new building to be a haven of positive and safe community engagement. But last week, a group of young boys (average age of 12) threw rocks through the windows of our old building.

When law enforcement asked our executive director if she wanted to press charges, she called me. Neither of us wanted to press charges on young boys who likely knew the building was being demolished and were just having fun exercising their throwing arm. We agreed that, while it wasn’t a big deal in the scheme of things, vandalism is a big deal.

There are so many ways I could tell this story. Most troublesome to me is that the police officers told our executive director she had to decide right then whether or not she was going to press charges against these young boys. She asked if she could first talk with the boys. They said no. She asked if they could tell her anything about the boys. Again, they said no. She had to decide if the situation warranted punitive action without additional information.

After deciding against pressing charges, the executive director and I discussed how we might positively intervene in the boys’ lives. If we could have talked with the boys and their parents, we could have spoken about the dangers of what they were doing and the potential long-term consequences. We could have invited them to engage the community center in positive ways and hopefully established a good relationship with them and their families.

This situation showed me yet again how law enforcement is designed for punishment instead of positive change. The boys’ youthful action could have begun their slide into a system hard to escape once you enter it—no matter if you do so for a minor criminal infraction. Black youth account for 15% of the nation’s juvenile population but are the subject of 35% of juvenile arrests (see Puzzanchea, Sladky and Kang, “Easy Access to Juvenile Populations: 1990-2016”). At stake in the situation was far more than property; the futures of the youth involved—individuals already likely to fall into the criminal justice system due to their gender, race, and zip code—were in the balance.

One of my mentors serves on a juvenile justice council that hears the cases of young people being charged with criminal activity. She told me she remains on the council at 80 years old because she is the only council member of color, and black and brown children are reported and charged far more than other children. She remains there to continue insisting on a more equitable and understandable system.

We need more people like my mentor to protect our children, especially those of color, from a criminal justice system designed to punish instead of guide and correct. I encourage you to find out about the work of your local justice system and get involved. We need to insist that restoration and not punishment be the goal of criminal justice, especially when it comes to our youth.

Question: The Slap Felt Around the World

I needed a bit to sit with my thoughts. I was horrified Sunday night during the Oscars, watching actor Will Smith slap actor and comedian Chris Rock on national (international) television. The incident was disturbing to my spirit. It made me feel sick inside. I was even more disturbed, after the break, when I saw that Will Smith was allowed to remain in his seat and keep participating in the show. What? At the very least, he should have been removed from the premises.

Violent communication is a big problem in our society. I am fully aware that the work of comedians involves pushing things to their limits—but humor doesn’t give them, or anyone, the right to resort to violence.

I was wondering what’s involved in producing humor and who decides the line to approach but not cross. That equilibrium is more important than ever these days because our sensibilities are fragile. I hope social scientists, psychologists, and human behaviorists are working overtime to explain what our world is going through now. They need to speak up as they discover the patterns and roots of our current problems, and everyone else needs to listen.

Many of us feel like we are facing one traumatic event after another. As we digest what happened at the Oscars, yet another incident of violence, we struggle with the news of a senseless war in Ukraine, and ongoing tragedies continue to assault our senses. A record number of people (nearly 100 million) have left their homes fearing for their lives, bullying and suicide rates have reached all-time highs, huge populations in Africa face starvation, and our climate is crashing before our very eyes. It’s exhausting!

A friend told me her church decided to do a month of no talking in worship. They are sitting together in silence and leaving in peace. I wonder if that is what we all need. Everyone should be quiet.

What would the world sound like if humans shut up, if only for a little while? Could we hear the voice of the Lord? Would we better understand what is happening to our very existence? What would it feel like if we cut off all electronic communication? If only we were brave enough to do something to silence our pandemonium.

What about the church? Can we consider silence? My cousin, a minister in Chicago, was pondering the 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testaments. I said I suspect we are in another one of those times when God is silent and leaving us to our own devices to see where we turn. If I am right, how will God find us? How will God find you? Can we listen to the sounds of the world around us? Can we begin to hear God anew?

Celebrate: white history?

This past week, Mennonite Women USA sent out its bi-monthly newsletter, The Grapevine. In it, we invited everyone to celebrate Black women writers as a part of Black History Month. It was a small section of the newsletter with the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Dr. Maya Angelou.

I was surprised—and, if I am honest, angry—when I received an email from one of our constituents stating, “I celebrate White History.” I wrestled with my emotions about receiving what I considered an egregious response to our invitation to participate in a national observance established more than 50 years ago. Black History Month started as Negro History Week, and in 1976 was expanded to a month-long celebration of Black contributions to our national story.

Battling my impulse to give a flippant and dismissive response to the email, I waited to talk with the Mennonite Women USA leadership circle. I wanted to know how they felt and what they thought would be the best response. When we met, I was relieved to discover that our diverse group of women felt as outraged by the email as I felt. I was thankful that my sisters would navigate the messy situation by my side.

Our leadership circle came up with various ideas on how to respond to the email. Some wanted to call out the author’s ignorant racism quickly and directly; others thought the comment should be ignored. That is the power of sisterhood. We meet each other in a shared space, where we listen to each other’s thoughts, ideas, joys, and pains. We honor the differences that emerge, then find a way to walk together. A couple of my sisters even offered to respond so I would not have to. They were not only willing to stand with me but also stand for me. That’s sisterhood.

Now, let’s get back to the need expressed in the email: to celebrate “white history.” I have thought a lot about the statement, and my anger has moved to pity. The writer of the email must not be blessed as I am to have a diverse group of friends. Or as blessed as I am to know that Black and White history are all wrapped up together. The history of this nation is one of diverse peoples, both indigenous and from around the globe.

Our country has worked to create various days and months to celebrate and learn about our nation’s diverse ethnic groups. I, for one, enjoy celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with our Irish siblings. One year, one of my Mexican American sisters taught me that Cinco de Mayo was a small, regional holiday in Mexico; Mexico’s national Independence Day is September 16. That surprise prompted me to learn more about Mexico’s history and its decade-long struggle for independence from Spain. This is why we highlight each other’s history: to educate ourselves and grow in unity and understanding.

This nation has celebrated the stories and accomplishments of white Americans since they arrived on American soil. Many versions of history have twisted facts to make white Americans appear superior to the other ethnic groups. By celebrating Black History Month and other special days and months highlighting the contributions of marginalized groups, we all become stronger and wiser. We chip away at our common ignorance and discover new possibilities for us as one people and nation. We Christians learn how to unite as the people of God more faithfully.

For good or evil, there is great power in the stories we call history. This month, we celebrate Black history and its powerful testimonies to resilience, intelligence, and love. Black history is all of our history.

Celebrate and Question: Spanning the Generations

A few Sundays ago, I had the pleasure of sitting in church with a 93-year-old Mennonite sister: a white former schoolteacher and the first woman to preach in her local congregation. Like so many other women, she had been leading from the shadows for decades when, in the late ’60s or early ’70s, her pastor asked her to speak on the role of women in the church. By this time, the feminist movement was well on its way.

After preaching in her own church, other churches asked her to come and share her message. She became a type of itinerant preacher despite never finishing seminary. She’d taken most of the classes she needed to graduate—not for a job but to feed her curiosity about the word of God and its good news for women. She’d felt there was little point in graduating since no one would hire a woman in ministry at the time.

Later that same Sunday, a grandfather from the local community stopped by my home with his 12-year-old granddaughter. He was deeply concerned about her and sought support and counsel from my husband and me. He couldn’t understand why his granddaughter had become angry, aggressive, and manipulative—sneaking out of the house late at night, not turning in her homework, and disrespecting her teachers. Nothing the family was doing in response seemed to improve her behavior.

I observed this young African American girl by his side. Looking scared and bewildered, she sat quietly and answered our questions with one- or two-word answers typical of a 12-year-old. I couldn’t reconcile what he said about her with the sweet, soft-spoken girl before me. We made a plan for her to visit with me; my husband would check in on her at school; and we’d both regularly update the grandfather. We tried to assure her she was not alone; she had allies if she chose to use us.

Since those Sunday encounters, I can’t get these two very different women—my elderly white sister and young black sister—out of my mind. Their lives are day and night, and the chances that the young black girl will live into her 90s are slim to none if something doesn’t change soon. And, if she manages to live anywhere close to that long, what stories will she tell about her life? She and her siblings are being raised by a single mother in an affordable housing complex where many share her difficult circumstances. She has never known healthy outlets, like church or youth programs. She has no idea what futures are possible for her.

Where has the women’s movement taken us? Throughout the decades, brave women such as my 93-year-old sister have courageously broken glass ceilings, opening the way for others to rise to places of empowerment. At the same time, scores of women—such as my young black sister—haven’t even glimpsed the sky. In one day, I can both celebrate and be heartbroken. Why have the gains of the women’s movement not been felt by more women? Far too many spend their precious lives in survival mode, picking their way through shards of shattered glass.

by Cyneatha Millsaps

Ponder – Why am I scared?

The image of the snakes illustrates my thoughts. The picture shows a snake I encountered on a hiking path at Camp Friedenswald this summer. The first image is the actual photo. The second photo illustrates what my mind saw (a big, more threatening snake). I think it is only fair to tell you, the snake did not bother me at all. It held its ground. I, on the other hand, got a running start and leaped over the snake. Silly, I know, but I fear snakes.

As I was preparing for a speaking engagement at a local Mennonite Church, I was confronted with some of those deep-seated fears and anxieties we often don’t realize we have until we are faced with them. I was to speak at the church’s family camp outing at a local State Park. The park is only 25 miles from my home, but I had never been there. I had heard of it, but never had reasons to visit. So, I thought it would be good for me to visit the State Park and sit in that space for a while to allow the Spirit to show me what direction I should go for the gathering. This is a typical way I prepare for sermons, so I thought nothing of it.

I toured the park, asked the staff questions, and admired its splendor. It is a beautiful park. I thought about maybe having my family gather there for our family reunion next summer. A very positive and uplifting experience. As I began to leave the park, I noticed some changes in my thoughts and awareness.

As I was pulling out of the park, several trucks with large campers attached were pulling in. My first thought, I wonder how long they are planning to stay? Then I pull off into the street heading back to the highway and noticed 4 or 5 pick-up trucks one right after the other. Maybe only one had a flag on it, but I noticed my anxieties rising about where I was. I quickly began to think whether my family knew where I was. I began wondering about who uses the park and how would they feel about me being there.

Camping, hiking, etc. are not typical activities for African Americans, especially here in the Midwest. I remember when Oprah tried to encourage African Americans to visit the national parks. She sparked our curiosity, but I don’t think attendance amongst my community rose much. I believe it has much to do with our anxieties about safety, welcome, and not knowing much about nature and the animals who call it home.

I know my fear and anxiety are irrational, but they have deep roots. My fears about being harmed in rural areas of our country come from a history of lynching and torture of black bodies who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. African Americans have learned over the centuries that we are not welcomed in many spaces. That our very presence in some areas invite a hatred that is deeply embedded in racism. Our community has internalized those traumas associated with that history and we find it hard to shake. This is what led to my experience of fear even when there was no immediate threat.

I relaxed when I was back in a more populated area. But the emotional experiences are still there, leaving me to ponder, why am I scared?

Ponder: Lamenting “Guilty”

I can’t celebrate. I can’t find peace in Derek Chauvin’s guilty verdict because I am never happy to see anyone go to prison. Prison is a horrible place. Yes, Chauvin must pay for his horrific crime, but his conviction only reminds me of the men and women—especially those I know—tortured in our prison system.

Derek Chauvin is about to face great hardship. Prisons in the United States are not designed to rehabilitate but to punish, and they offer only a handful of outcomes. It might well be that, for his own safety, Derek will need to remain in coffin-like isolation for years. Or guards will turn their backs as other inmates inhumanely punish him. Or a hate group will suck him in, never allowing him to deal with the pain he caused. Or Derek will commit suicide. How is this something to celebrate?

These grim consequences of imprisonment have been Black people’s reality for centuries, yet most of us refuse to see our nation’s prison system for the dangerous and evil establishment that it is. There is no justice in America’s prisons—only punishment, revenge, and death.

The system that funneled George Floyd into a life of poverty and drug use is the same one that shaped Derek Chauvin into an authority abusing his power—killing another human being—while fellow officers stood by. Why do we evade responsibility for this calamity? It is our system too.

Punishing Derek Chauvin is not the only answer to the loss of George Floyd’s life. While it’s easy for us to point the finger at him and cathartic to watch his conviction, we can never forget that there are thousands of Derek’s patrolling our streets every day. There are myriad George Floyds about to suffer and die by their hands. Until we address the issues that collided on May 23, 2020, we will never truly achieve a more just justice system.

George Floyd’s death opened our eyes to the racial injustices in our country; our penal system’s violence and inhumanity should do the same. Many of the recent cases in the limelight have involved Black and Latino men logically fleeing and resisting arrest. They know that law enforcement could destroy their lives in an instant, without a fair trial. George Floyd and Daunte Wright were rightly afraid.

I wish I did not care what happens to Derek Chauvin in prison, but I do. I wish I could say he deserves what’s coming to him, but I can’t. Derek and his family will never know what George Floyd experienced before and during his arrest, but they are about to get an up-close and personal look at why people of color fear imprisonment. We who uphold the penal system must not close our eyes. We have a moral obligation to consider Derek and his family and the pain they endure.

I’ve experienced trauma with the penal system that makes me lament anyone being sent to prison. Whenever I learn of a crime, my heart and mind shift to the perpetrator because I know that our punitive response will harm or even destroy that person. We are no better than the criminal when we feed our need to punish. Why don’t we focus on enabling Derek to recognize that he made a big mistake, confess, and demonstrate that he is truly sorry? Our system doesn’t allow for this. Instead, accused individuals must minimize what they have done to protect themselves from laws, policies, and practices focused on harmful retribution. 

We must transform our way of dealing with crime to shift our focus from retribution to redemptive and restorative justice. I pray for the day when I’ll be able to celebrate a guilty verdict because of good reason to believe it will lead to shalom.

Celebrate: Women

It’s women’s history month, and the Discovery Channel is featuring a series called Genius Aretha, about the phenomenal Aretha Franklin. The story shows not only her genius but the extraordinary hurdles she overcame and the family that helped her clear them. It’s a beautiful testament to the Black family and our complicating challenges.

I talk often about growing up in a Black community where the men often caused the women more harm than good. As a child, I struggled to love my father and many other men in my life because of their blatant disrespect for women. I didn’t understand why so many women remained in torturous relationships. I vowed never to let any man have that kind of power over me. By this stage in my life, my mother had rejected my father’s philandering and was raising us children alone. She was a militant Black woman akin to Angela Davis. She spoke truth to power and strived to empower her daughters to reach high and far. I am thankful for that today.

The Aretha story reminds me of the many hills and valleys women go through in the course of one life. Though the elder women in my life struggled under many chains of oppression, they pushed the next generation to break those chains before being constrained by them too. So, when one of the younger generations stumbled, our elders felt a tremendous blow to their legacy.

I remember when I told my mother I was pregnant at 16. Disappointed and concerned, she sighed deeply and simply said, “Cyneatha.” I was the one with potential, the one who would get out from under the dark cloud of our circumstances. I was the one the family knew was going to make something of herself. Then, so close to the finish line, I got pregnant. After the initial shock, my family rallied around me, as Aretha’s family did for her, and prepared for a baby. I now see how blessed I was through it all, but my choices led to a decade of valleys.

CeCe Winans song “Alabaster Box” is my anthem. It reminds me of what I have been through and how giving all to Jesus is my only means of survival. You should listen to this powerful song about Mary and her costly jar of perfume poured out on Jesus’ head. My jar, too, is extremely expensive. It has been poured out far more times than I care to admit.

What price have you paid to be a woman, daughter, wife, mother, teacher, lover, friend? In the dark days, have you stumbled your way to Jesus? Read Mark 14:3-9 and notice how Mary forged on to Jesus despite much criticism. That is what it means to be a woman: pushing forward no matter what.

To all the women I admire—from the great Aretha Franklin, Shirley Chisolm, Angela Davis, and Mother Teresa to my close and most adored friends including Pat Plude, Nekeisha Alayna Alexis, Jenny Moffett, and my big sister Vicky Scott—I am grateful for knowing even a small part of who God has created you to be. Your light and your dark places too guide me. As women, we grow stronger in the powerful cloud of sisters around us.