The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast

Now What?: A Conversation with Molly T. Marshall

November 28, 2023 Molly T. Marshall Season 2 Episode 6
The Leadership Center for Social Justice Podcast
Now What?: A Conversation with Molly T. Marshall
Show Notes Transcript

This episode is a re-release of the Soul of Social Transformation Podcast hosted by Rev. Dr. Gary Green II and Rev. Dr. Justin Sabia-Tanis.

What are next steps to explore your path? What else do we need to learn? Who do we need to talk to? What do we need to watch, read, listen to …? And we engage our moral imaginations: What does a just world look like? What methods of engagement do not yet exist that need to? What would enable our communities to thrive?

Our guest Rev. Dr. Molly T. Marshall has served in theological education for nearly forty years. Marshall believes she was put on the earth to love students, teach theology, guide spiritual formation, and challenge patriarchal structures that would hinder women from full acceptance in all forms of ministry. She has worked as a youth minister, campus minister, pastor, scholar, and theological educator, seeking to dismantle all forms of oppression.

Episode Transcription available here

Host: Gary F. Green II, Justin Sabia-Tanis

Producer: Adam Pfuhl

Podcast Engineer: Michael Moua

You can find out more about the Leadership Center for Social Justice on our website and on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Now What?: A Conversation with Molly T. Marshall

Gary Green [00:00:01] Are you passionate about social justice and ready to bring about real change as part of your life's work? Have you ever wondered how to bridge the gap between your unique gifts and the world's deepest needs? If so, then I want to welcome you to the Soul of Social Transformation, a podcast designed to help young adults explore vocational possibilities that bring to life our deepest hope for healing our world. I'm your host, Gary Green along with my co-host Justin Sabia-Tanis. We are excited to journey with you in this series of conversations that features six leaders who have discovered and created ways to make meaningful change in their communities. They each bring a wealth of experience and expertise in addressing some of the most critical issues of our time, including racial and economic justice, mental health and marginalized communities, and justice related to native lands and indigenous communities. By highlighting their stories, we hope you will be inspired to find creative ways to translate your passions into concrete action for a better world. 

Gary Green [00:01:09] Well, Reverend Dr. Molly Marshall, thank you so much for being with us today and agreeing to have this conversation with us. So can you share with listeners first a little bit about your journey and how you got from taking your first steps toward vocation to where you are right now? 

Molly Marshall [00:01:30] Well, it's a long story and nobody wants to listen to a podcast that long. I grew up in northeastern Oklahoma. I was a church kid. And so what some of our listeners will hear is a Christian theologian speaking, but one very respectful of many, many journeys of faith and spirituality toward a life of significance, which is what vocation ultimately is about. Becoming most fully yourself in the service of others is how I look at vocation. 

Well, I was a church kid. I come from a line of pastors. I know I'm not what they expected, though, as the next one. Both great grandfathers were Baptist ministers and I have some of their books. My family is rooted in Texas, rooted in Indian territory. And so a great grandfather who was a coal porter and started churches among native peoples, indigenous people. So it's quite the journey. And so it's intertwined. I remember, though, as a child, as a 12 year old, a pastor asked me a question and I was a very mischievous kid, but maybe the pastor saw some leadership gift or something and simply said, Have you ever thought about working with young people when you grow up? Well, no, I hadn't. I barely was one. But that question took lodging. And so I suggest that we must pay attention to when people ask us questions. 

Another thing is that we must listen to affirmation. My first year in seminary, I thought I was going to just work with youth forever in a church, in a community center, maybe as a teacher, coach tennis and teach social studies, you know, any number of those. But on my first theology exam in seminary, the professor took time to say, "You do really good work, Miss Marshall", in his formal way. And so the idea of maybe academic life or teaching. But my story is honed through a journey of a pretty conservative, quite patriarchal, racist kind of identity. Segregated schools. I finished high school in ‘68. Segregated schools. Boys sports, elevated. Girls' sports, diminished. And I pretty soon figured out, probably late grade school, early junior high. This is not fair. It's not fair how girls are treated. It's not fair how black kids in Muskogee, Oklahoma, are treated. It's really not fair how Native American kids are treated. You know, the largest Cherokee population in that part of the world. The capital of the Cherokee Nation is Tahlequah, Oklahoma, just 30 miles from where I grew up. And so my sense of justice about fairness and wanting to believe I could do anything that I perceived God would call me to do. 

And that kind of upset some things in my rather orderly family. I have two brothers. My rather orderly church, where I never saw women do anything in public in a worship service. So these things stirred pretty early and it didn't hurt that I was pretty competitive, you know, sharp elbows with my brothers. Growing up between brothers and saying, you know, anything you can do, I can do better. So that was a part of it. Part of it is spiritual. Part of it is just absolutely hard headed. Go for it. 

Gary Green [00:06:09] Yeah. Awesome. I appreciate both the hard headedness because I grew up the same way as a kid. When they say you can't do something, that makes you want to do it. But I also appreciate your comments, your reflection, the relational nature of hearing and listening. Because one of the things that I never knew when I was growing up and trying to listen for the voice of God in my upbringing, in terms of what am I supposed to do or what's my part? You know, you just are told or I was told, you just kind of have to listen for that voice or you'll know and I think it's helpful to hear, But that happens through the embodiments and wisdom and questions of other people and being able to understand that that's okay. It doesn't have to be the clouds opening up. 

Molly Marshall [00:07:13] Exactly. I mean, vocation, I think, begins with listening for a voice. And you can trace that out of the gospel of John, of Jesus asking early followers what are you looking for? I mean, he didn't presume, which I thought was really wonderful. What are you looking for? But when we think about vocation, we know that it's personal, but it's never private because the gifts we are given are always to be used for a greater good than our own. And so I'm glad to have that theological framework. But that's also the way moral imagination works. We're never simply entrusted with a particular aptitude, a charism, the gift of grace without there also being obligation. But I don't mean that in an onerous way at all. 

Gary Green [00:08:07] Right, right. Right. Yeah. Thank you. 

Molly Marshall [00:08:11] And, you know, I'd go so far as to say, then I'll hush, Justin. I would go so far as to say that vocation and to think about vocation is not just for the privileged. But often because people are just struggling to survive, it seems like a luxury to think about, well, what do I want to do with my life? When it's, where am I going to sleep tonight? Or how is my family going to manage this or that? But I think in the largesse, the great expansiveness of the holy, there is a desire for every person to have a life of meaning that contributes. 

Gary Green [00:08:59] That's beautiful. Thank you for that. 

Justin Sabia-Tanis [00:09:02] It's like the old union song We need bread and roses. We need what we need to live, but we also need to have deep meaning. 

Gary Green [00:09:10] Yeah. 

Justin Sabia-Tanis [00:09:12] You know, one of the the reasons for this podcast is really to explore how people understand what their part is in the larger movement towards social justice, the larger sweep of broad incremental change of the movements as they arise. And I'm wondering if you might talk about how you discern your role in this world changing, worlds building the better the beloved community process of it both for yourself and perhaps if you have thoughts for other folks as they're discerning that. 

Molly Marshall [00:09:51] I discerned that it probably was helpful not to try to carry every justice cause because one could make a larger impact if one focuses. So my burgeoning feminism in the life of the church then spilled out into a public education. It spilled out into whom do we elect? But I saw my part, given where I was in my particular ethic, I saw the need to advocate for racial and for gender justice and that I could give my attention to that. One of the reasons why I ultimately decided or felt beckoned to do theological education is I did not think it would get better in communities of faith for women, in terms of leadership roles, until it got better at the seminary where they were forming the identity of people who would think differently about gender in faith leadership. 

Gary Green [00:11:13] For persons who are kind of at the beginning of that journey, how might they go about discerning what their unique part is in relation to the whole? I mean, you talked about focusing, but I'm wondering if you can say a little bit more about that for listeners who might be at that front part of their journey. 

Molly Marshall [00:11:36] I think vocation often arises out of a deep listening to the world's groaning needs. I don't think necessarily the clouds part, the audible voice comes, the inspiration just arrests you one day. I think vocation, discerning vocation, is iterative, but the groaning need of the world that continues to find lodging in our compassion, our empathy and energizes us to be able to make a difference, we ought to listen very deeply to that. 

Now, I don't think anybody is going to, everybody's going to do just one thing forever. I don't. That's not the kind of world we live in. We don't need to box ourselves into being a General Motors person till the end of time. I mean, there are different things, and I have done a number of different things. Community organizing for migrant families in Southwest Texas, youth Ministry in the church. I taught in a school for troubled adolescent girls while I was in seminary. Girls who were locked up. And then I have been a rural pastor, and then I've been in theological education as a professor, as a dean, and as a president for about 40 years. But these other things were ingredients to the whole. And so it is iterative. I love this line from the novel by Gail Godwin, Evensong, "You know something's your vocation, if it keeps making more out of you". Which is just,you know, just wonderful. Vocation is not static and there's a dynamism to it. 

Justin Sabia-Tanis [00:13:46] I was going to say, I think that's one thing that's really exciting about some of the younger generations, really understanding this idea that vocation can be seasons, you know, that we can contribute in multiple ways. And I think there was, I think all of us have had that experience of doing those different things. But there's been pressure to sort of, you know, stay in your lane, whereas now I think there's a flourishing of we're built by multiple experiences and multiple contributions we're making to the world and the world is making to us.


Molly Marshall [00:14:25] And our capacities grow through experience. And we can take on differing roles of leadership that perhaps would have been foolish to attempt at a different epoch in our lives. 

Gary Green [00:14:40] I find it so helpful when you talk about the discernment process being iterative. It speaks to, for me, the ways that this has been very much even a journey for me where I thought my call, so to speak, was to pastoral ministry, and that was really just what got me to seminary, to then have my mind blown open to realize, oh maybe, I only saw a piece of the picture. And this kind of unfolding that happens throughout our lives and our careers. And as that unfolds in unexpected ways, I'm reminded of the ways that challenges come up often. And I think about, you know, knowing a little bit about your story and knowing some of the challenges you've faced. So I'm curious if you can talk a little bit about some of the challenges you've had and how do you continue to discern vocation in the midst of those things, especially when they, in other instances, have potentially derailed somebody's journey down a certain path because of whatever political realities there might have been? 

Molly Marshall [00:15:54] Primary challenge I have faced is that of gender. Given the ecclesiological background, I came out of Southern Baptist life. I'm no longer one. I moved to American Baptist Life and then I became a United Church of Christ Minister this past year as I came to United. Because I share its values in terms of social justice and inclusion. 

But I had many, many persons who tried to steer me away from a claim to spiritual authority that would be equal with men. I had many try to steer me away from a preaching class, steer me toward what would be more appropriate children's work, women's work, social work. And I just wouldn't have any of it. I just continued to plow this route that I felt. I was being called to deepen my sense of theological framework. And now, you know, quite frankly, I was run out of town at my first seminary because I challenged the status quo. I challenged it in terms of gender, and I challenged it in terms of patriarchal theology, particularly how we treat other ways of faith. And, of course, that just got people on their ear because I challenged the old dictum, is there salvation outside the church? And, you know, there you go. You raise that among those people. And it was more gender than theology, but they called it theology to paper over that it was gender, but know it was both most likely. And other areas in terms of how the church has listened or not listened to the voices of women. 

I've also been relatively active politically, not yet in Minnesota, in terms of advocating for women's leadership in foundation work, women's leadership in civic government, just areas that I felt like women could make a significant difference. Yes. And at the same time, my belief in inclusion at my former seminary, we did a nondiscriminatory policy which the school had never had. And this isn't the one that fired me. This is my second one. And basically, we came to believe that any kind of discrimination over sexual orientation or gender identity or someone who had been incarcerated or any number of other things really should not be on our books. We wanted it to be genuinely non discriminatory. And that began to open up a sense for young adults and not so young. Hey, I could be in a place like this. This would be a safe place to explore. 

Justin Sabia-Tanis [00:19:32] That's amazing. And if you go back just a little bit to something you said, I'm thinking about this. You know, there's times when everyone says this is not the path for you. Why don't you go do, why don't you go work with children? Why don't you do this? And yet you still had that strong sense of what you are called to do, that plowing ahead in the direction that you feel God leading. So I'm wondering, how do you know the difference between what is truly your call that you stick to versus sort of the chatter of the world or the distractions of the world or the many voices that people are hearing today from social media or other places? How do you know, especially when you're going against the tide? 

Molly Marshall [00:20:16] And we are bombarded, aren't we? I think we're bombarded more now than we've ever been, in terms of all the sources, all the chatter, all the nudges, the pokes that we get. Well, I do think we need to listen to others. I think there's more to hear than we can hear by ourselves. And so to have a circle of trust. I think that was what a Quaker Richard Foster said, "God has more to say to us than we can hear by ourselves". And I believe that to be the case. So we listen to people that we trust and maybe we do that old quaker practice of a meeting for clearness. I'm thinking about doing this. What do you think? 

I had such a meeting before I entered Ph.D. studies. I was serving a congregation in Little Rock, and we were doing some things that needed doing there. But I felt like there's got to be a longer arc to this. I really don't want to do junior high lock-in's the rest of my life. I really, you know, I really feel and I listened that my capacity to teach was what was being affirmed. And I thought Ah okay, Well, let me listen. Let me listen to that. But once again, it is this, step by step. 

I love what Jürgen Moltmann, the German theologian, has said, "the road emerged as I walked on it". And he said he couldn't necessarily see around the corner. But the road emerged as he would take the next hesitant step. And so that's the best metaphor I have. I got a friend who walked the Camino last summer, and one morning it was so foggy that she could hear cowbells, she could see no cows. She couldn't see, but she could take the next step and the next step. And things become clearer. Now, see, that's a risk. That's risk. That's faith. That's hope. And sometimes we're risk averse. But I don't think we'll ever get to what we optimally can become if we are risk averse. 

Justin Sabia-Tanis [00:22:41] Gloria Anzaldúa has also said something very similar about, you know, when we're walking, there is no bridge. We make the bridge by marching, by being on the bridge, which I think is wonderful. 

You know, one of the reasons we're doing this podcast is we really want to engage in this sort of intergenerational conversation of what do we have to say to one another? You know, and there's really wisdom in engaging people at different points in their life journey. And you've described this long and amazing career that you've been talking about. And so I wonder if we might sort of take advantage of that position in life where you are. You know we're reminded that our indigenous relations tell us that we should be thinking seven generations before us and seven generations behind us. So kind of moving into that, looking back, looking forward space. We're wondering if you could reflect on both, you know, what of the heritage that you inherited do you treasure most and what might be your dreams for the great, great, great grandchildren of folks in college today, of today's young adults? What are your dreams for those generations in the future? And maybe how might our work, what we do for justice today create a world that we're dreaming up for those young people in the future?

Molly Marshall [00:24:03] That's great, Justin. I treasure that the life of my family intersected with the lives of indigenous people. The Trail of Tears, that deportation from the southeast United States and Florida to Indian territory. Deeply painful, deeply tragic. And my forebears were not indigenous people, but intersected those people in terms of education, churches and all of that. And so I treasure that. I treasure that I have a heritage in faith. Of course, there were a good bunch of skeptics and heretics in the family tree. Thanks be to God. But heretics always make us better. Yeah. Hard fought and all grateful for that. So we weren't all church mice. There were those who, you know, push back a little bit on the preacher's legacy. But I do treasure that I grew up in a worshiping community in a stable, not wealthy by any means, lower middle class family, advantages of education, advantages of being willing to try things. 

As a young woman and after college, I went and did this work with kids crossing the border, working in peanut fields in Comanche, Texas, and trying to help them get school records. I mean, you know, I was doing social work without knowing how to do social work. And so I treasured those opportunities to go as a young woman to Jerusalem, you know, just a week after the Seven Day War in ‘74. I mean, just opportunities that stretched me from a triumphalist perspective toward others, which leads me to think about seven generations. 

What I hope our work today would bequeath and I think it focuses on just a couple of areas. And one is that we value the interfaith reality, the religiously plural reality in which we live, which will only become more so. We're not going to say this is a Buddhist nation and this is a Christian nation and this is only a muslim nation. We're going to have more and more and I don't want to say syncretism, because that makes it appear as if everything is diminished. But there's going to be more and more interfaith connection that sharpens what Krister Stendahl said, would cultivate holy envy, that we would begin to admire those trajectories and pathways and practices of others. I very much want that. 

Hans Küng, the Catholic theologian, had said there won't be any peace among nations unless there's peace among religions. And I want the religious force, which actually is where the biggest philanthropic dollars move through the system, they do out of the religious affections of people. Now, of course, that's not religion narrowly defined by any means. That would be interfaith centers for spirituality. That would be any retreat center, any number of things. I would also hope that we arrest this crazy notion of the expendability of creation, that there's always more to use up, there's always more, and that it is inexhaustible. Well, we know it is not. And so I'm hoping we're talking seven generations from now that there is a livable, hospitable, verdant place for our great, great, great, great, great grandchildren to live. I think vocation today requires that we take that on. Both of these in some way. 

Gary Green [00:28:56] Yeah. Yeah, I so deeply appreciate this, Molly. And just, what you've offered is so helpful for, I mean, for me as someone who's on the path and for me, years ago when I was getting started, I wish I would've heard this. And so thank you so much for being willing to think with us, to share your journey. Yeah, I think it's really helpful. 

Molly Marshall [00:29:25] Well, to those who are listening to this podcast, I'm just grateful that you are persons who are seeking meaning, seeking depth and seeking to make the world more just. I think that is at the heart of authentic vocation in our time. 

Gary Green [00:29:46] Thank you, Molly. 

Molly Marshall [00:29:48] You're welcome. 

Gary Green [00:29:49]  Until next time.