At Bearings Online, we seek to examine relationships between religion and culture, and to that end we are publishing a series of essays written by evangelicals on their understanding of faith in the era of President Donald Trump. This week, writer Marlena Graves shares her experience on the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage, which brought together evangelical women in bright red lipstick for a modern-day freedom ride. To read more essays in this series, click here.
Many people travel far from home in order to make pilgrimages. They join with like-minded people to travel to holy places, to walk in the footsteps of saints or of Jesus Christ himself. On November 12, 2017, I set out with roughly forty other ethnically and racially diverse women for a pilgrimage from New York state to Washington, DC, not so far from my home. We visited “holy sites” in the fight for social justice and equality in our own country. But these were not just sites of struggle in the past. They opened our eyes to work we still need to do. And we called ourselves the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage.
The Ruby Woo Pilgrimage was named after MAC Cosmetics’ lipstick color, Ruby Woo, a shade of red that looks good on all skin tones. Lisa Sharon Harper of Freedom Road convened the pilgrimage. MAC Cosmetics gave us permission to use the name. For us, the shade is symbolic of strength and unity. Ruby Woo is an eye-catching and powerful color. It lets people know that we are here, present. The lipstick meant to us, and anyone who might notice, that we are showing up together in Jesus’s name.
The Ruby Woo Pilgrimage opened my eyes to the crucial roles Christian women played in bringing about justice in this country. It inspired me to keep going forward despite having grown up a very poor woman of color and being continually burdened by the nagging feeling that speaking out is an exercise in futility. It is hard for some of us to believe that our voices will be heard and that we can make a concrete difference when historically, and in our own lifetimes, we are trampled on by society and the church—even by our fellow evangelicals. The pilgrimage showed us women who stood up and made a difference, empowering us to do the same.
We started in Seneca Falls, New York, at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park. It’s where the first women’s rights convention took place in 1848. There we discovered why women started fighting for their rights. At that time, women in America didn’t have a right to custody of their own children if they divorced—even if it was due to domestic violence. A woman didn’t have the right to the wages she rightfully earned, nor the right to own property. She was property. Women couldn’t vote. In Seneca Falls, we learned about the vital role women of all colors played in the women’s suffrage movement. These women were initially unpopular and considered troublemakers. People criticized, shunned, and harassed them. Nevertheless, we are indebted to them. Even the most conservative among us could not enjoy the rights we take for granted had these women played it safe because they were too intimidated to speak up and act up.
I had to ask myself again: to what extent am I willing to be criticized, shunned, harassed, and ignored in order to do what is right?
We left Seneca Falls around lunchtime. That night, we rolled up to the National Black Theater in Harlem. There, we met civil rights icon, Ruby Sales. Sales was chock full of wisdom and grace when she could’ve been full of hatred. Three things she said that night stand out to me. First, we should name things for what they are. For example, “genocide” is the term to use when referring to what America has done to Native Americans. We have a genocidal history. Of course, she is right. Second, men were the faces of the civil rights movement but women were the force behind it. And third, we can always have hope for redemption no matter how dire things look. Her answer concerning hope was in response to a question about our current socio-political climate—a climate that allows white supremacy to run rampant. Ruby has more hope than I do, even though she has experienced horror and violence that I probably never will.
After several more meaningful stops, we made our way to Washington, DC. We spent an afternoon in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. There, too, we saw documentation about how women were a major force behind abolition, women’s rights, civil rights, arts, and culture.
My experience at the museum was heartbreaking, sobering, and encouraging. It was heartbreaking and sobering because it is a stark memorial, a reminder, of the incarnational hatred our country has unleashed, and continues to unleash, against black and brown folk. And it was encouraging because even amid their captivity and suffering, even though we as a country continue to oppress the African-American community, beauty and brilliance continues to emerge. I left the museum empowered to continue to speak up and to act.
The next day, we ended the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage by lobbying on Capitol Hill. As a group, we visited the offices of female congressional leaders. Individually and in smaller groups, we spoke with staff at the offices of our own representatives about issues important to us such as immigration reform, domestic violence, and mass incarceration.
I’m now thinking about the congressional aides who expressed utter disbelief when we told them we were evangelicals. I am keenly aware that outside evangelical culture, the term “evangelical” is politically loaded. It is synonymous with religious fundamentalism and hardline politics—with people who purport to live for Jesus and family values but who quickly sell out both in exchange for political power. I am thinking in particular about some megachurch pastors and university presidents and those who endorsed Roy Moore as a senate candidate in Alabama.
The term is odious in part because many who loudly claim it are so unjust, continually adding insult to the injury of the poor and marginalized here in the United States—to the people we learned about on our pilgrimage and to many of us pilgrims on the pilgrimage. So maybe I should heed the opinions of those who say the term “evangelical” is anathema—as good as dead. Maybe I should retire it and look for a new term to describe me and others like me lest we are confused with those who oppress. It is something else the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage is forcing me to think about.
I am careful with my words, and don’t usually use the term “life-changing,” but there is no other word to describe what the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage was for me: it was life changing. For now it’s enough for me to show up in bright red lipstick, to be present, to be counted, and offer an alternative vision for what an evangelical woman can look like. The vision is of a woman committed to Jesus and his righteousness. I am hungry for the Gospel and justice in Jesus’s name and Jesus’s way.