Bringing the Fight Home

My work as an environmental activist opened my eyes to the inequalities in my marriage.

ONE DAY BACK IN 2014, a man knocked on the door of our family home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with papers in his hand, asking me to sign over permission to survey our property because a natural gas pipeline was coming through our backyard.

I refused to sign, sent him away, and began researching this pipeline. The Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline is a 42-inch transmission line that will take fracked gas from the Marcellus Shale region of North Central PA to export facilities in Maryland and Louisiana to be sent to Japan and India. The company behind the pipeline, Williams Partners, was threatening eminent domain to seize our land and exploit it against our will.

My righteous indignation kicked in about as strongly as it ever has. I’d grown up in this house along the pristine Tucquan Creek. As a child, the natural world around me contained all my best friends: the trees and groundhogs, trout lilies, hemlocks, hummingbirds, and phoebes. I built these relationships to ease the loneliness of living rurally, and having parents who forbade involvement in extracurricular activities. My husband, two kids, and I had moved back here in 2006 after my father died of cancer — the family home would have been sold if we hadn’t bought it ourselves. I loved our home and land and I could not allow them to be destroyed without a fight.

I became an activist in just a few weeks, with my husband right alongside me. We called a townhall meeting to share what we had learned about the pipeline project with our neighbors, those things the industry reps wouldn’t tell us when they came to our doors. Three hundred and fifty people showed up. We organized a core group, started a nonprofit — Lancaster Against Pipelines — and began to resist the project in earnest.

“I still have trouble using the label of activist. I’m a tenth generation Anabaptist from Lancaster County. Pacifist to the core.”

After about two years of this work, I had to admit that I had become an activist. I still have trouble using the label of activist. I am a tenth generation Anabaptist from Lancaster County. Pacifist to the core. I don’t even kill flies in my house without warning them first (and trying to catch them and take them outside). Activism seemed like something radicals do, and I did not see myself as a radical in any way, shape, or form. I was a peacemaker, and for me, as for most Anabaptists, that meant avoiding conflict.

About a year into my organizing against the pipeline, I learned a valuable lesson about justice and peace from a preacher friend. She taught me that being a peacemaker is about standing up for justice. That if there is no justice, there is no peace. Her work at the time was with Black Lives Matter, but the message had universal implications and I began to become more aware of the injustices occurring all around me — from corporations putting profit over people, to factory farms, to racial profiling and excessive police brutality against people of color.

At some point in the midst of it all, I began to realize that there were certain inequities in my own personal life that I had been ignoring. I realized, for instance, that I had no idea what I liked or wanted because I was always deferring to my husband and two teenage kids. My increased awareness of the violation of the natural world by corporations drew my attention to the violation of my own person as a woman at the hands of a white male-dominated society. I had been practicing accommodation at its best, “peacemaking” at its best.

I had always lived deeply rooted in my femininity, proud to move in the world as a powerful woman even though I knew I lived in a patriarchal society. But now my increased awareness of the violation of the natural world by corporations drew my attention to the violation of my own person as a woman at the hands of a White male-dominated society. As this awareness arose in me, I began to look at my marriage differently. I began to see how the society we live in had affected two educated, progressive adults who theoretically were living lives outside the box of typical gender roles.

A long-planned family vacation really brought this home. Fighting the pipeline was consuming work and took most of our time. We had trouble finding space for a family vacation, but after more than a year of trying, we finally set a date to hike part of the Appalachian Trail. One day, a week before we were to leave, my husband told me he really wanted to go to North Dakota to Standing Rock and support the resistance out there. He is a Native American religions professor, and the overlap of our activism and his work was a strong pull.

When he asked (and he did ask) if he could skip our family vacation and go to North Dakota, I felt a twinge of ... “This isn’t right.” I knew that it would never cross my mind to not go on a vacation we had planned with such difficulty and which we had all been looking forward to. I could not understand how it was even an option for him.

But I didn’t say no. A few days later my husband informed me that he and my son had decided that my son would go along too. And so they did, while my daughter and I went on our hiking vacation by ourselves.

That incident got me thinking about how I had consistently and willingly sacrificed my own professional career, my own desires and interests, even my own food preferences, because of the needs and wishes of my husband and children.

Two years before this vacation fracas, for instance, when I was in the middle of a seminary degree at Lancaster Theological Seminary, my husband suddenly realized that he had worked for a PhD because he wanted to be a college professor, not a high school teacher as he then was. He also realized that if he didn’t make the change soon, he wouldn’t be marketable at the college level. So he looked for a college teaching job, found one in Montclair, New Jersey, and I pulled out of my program and moved there with him and the children.

I was reminded, also, of how I supported him when he was in graduate school, working on his PhD. I worked full time, gave birth to both of our kids, and dealt with the boss from hell, who undoubtedly precipitated the premature birth of our second child. And when he was working on his dissertation and traveling for ten days at a time to Montana for research on the Crow Reservation, I never said no. I carried the load of raising our two young children, and the responsibilities of our home, as well as my part-time work as a teacher.

Through all of that, it never occurred to me to look for a better professional position that might force him to drop out of his degree program. I had to ask myself, “How was it that he thought it was OK to have me pull out of my degree program?

I am convinced that it is not because he is clueless or unfeeling. I am convinced it is not that he didn’t care about my professional career. What I see, instead, is that the privilege of the White man in our world creates a mindset in even the most aware and sensitive of men, allowing them to live and move in selfish ways through life, even when they are typically not selfish. As can be expected, my husband and I have been talking about this. A lot. This privilege carries with it the promise of success. It carries with it the expectation of getting what one wants at the expense of others while being totally oblivious to the fact that it is at the expense of others.

I realized that just as my conscience would not allow me to stand idly by while a pipeline was installed in my community, I also could not keep silent about my growing awareness of the gender inequality in my own home and life. As can be expected, my husband and I have been talking about this. A lot.

We have not stopped the pipeline. It is being installed as I write this article. But we have built a powerful movement that culminated in a nonviolent civil disobedience action that began in October of 2017 and is still ongoing. We have had over 20 actions that ended in arrests of nearly 60 community members. Our community has come together to sing songs, hold hands, pray, and stand witness to the injustice, using our bodies to stand between bulldozers and the earth, in order to say no to the violence and rape of our land and our communities.

My increased awareness and pain at watching our beautiful Pennsylvania community be destroyed by the gas industry has paralleled my awareness and pain in naming the gender injustices I’ve seen lived out in the church where I pastor, in the movement we’ve created with Lancaster Against Pipelines, and in the loving arms of my family. The industry is pushing forward their agenda in a system where it has power that seems indestructible. On the homefront, though, I feel more hopeful and grateful. While my conversations with my husband have not been easy or comfortable, they have been necessary and productive. And as he seeks to see things through my eyes and experience, his awareness increases. Our day-to-day interactions and decision-making habits have been changing.

That’s one man. We still have a long way to go in helping White men accept the extent to which their years as oppressors is coming to an end. Whether it be in the cornfields of Lancaster County, where bully industries have the legal right to exploit poor communities, or in the homes of educated, well intentioned, beautiful people, the injustices of humanity are all connected. And it seems, at least in our country, that nothing changes without some strong, radical women standing up to name the injustice, even in the face of violence and ridicule.

I encourage us women to remind one another of the truth of who we are as women — powerful in our ability to compromise and show empathy. But to also hold another truth close to our hearts — that compromise need not mean capitulation, and empathy can also mean saying no to the people we love, and who love us.

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