JENSEN LA VENDE
The world celebrated International Women’s Day last Thursday and honoured women who are change agents while highlighting some of the concerns and trauma women face today.
A stone’s throw away from Newsday’s Port of Spain head office, lives a woman worthy of accolades not just for one day, and yet, all she wants is to help communities and talk about Jesus.
On March 18, at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Shelley-Ann Tenia will become the first woman in the country and Caribbean to be bestowed the title of The Very Reverend, a two-fold post making her a rector and dean in the Anglican Church.
Talking about her promotion, Tenia’s response was, more or less, who cares about titles. She is serving, wants to serve and is elated to be allowed to continue serving and that is the heart of who she is and what her faith is rooted in.
Tenia, 41, grew up playing outdoors but did not adhere to the labelling of “tomboy” and hopes to create the space where a conversation can take place on gender specific limitations in society.
She is not a feminist but her desire is to bring change in communities by doing things differently and through the lens of a woman in a patriarchal world.
“People cringe when I refer to God as she, as I often do. But God has no gender and he created us male and female. I have testosterone and oestrogen,” Tenia said with a smile.
The only girl in her family, with three brothers, two of them younger than her, Tenia learnt from her father and grandfathers how to be an equal with men. It is from this perspective she plans to address her new position.
But she also knows her vantage point in life is different to that of men. She recalled stories of going to areas which some call hotspots, but which she identifies as “vulnerable areas”, and being treated differently than men.
“When I go into a community I don’t go dressed as a priest, I go normal. I will get the the unwanted sexual advances and all the things that women face but I won’t get the hostility that if a man goes, he will get. People will look at me and raise their eyebrows like ‘who is that?’ but that’s it.”
Tenia’s encounters contrasts to those of her colleague, Fr Ashton Gomez, who in his early days at the St Michael’s parish in Diego Martin was accosted by criminals and told how far he should go to reach his flock.
Tenia, a single woman driving a Nissan B14, has no fear venturing into vulnerable places in her downtown Port of Spain parish that includes parts of Laventille, Beetham and Sea Lots.
Her hope is to help residents living there to see their resilience.
“I want to challenge them to believe in themselves and encourage them that there is good in their own communities. The external may be harsh but there is greatness internally. They are figuring out how to live each day despite all that is going on around them, that is resilience.”
Tenia added that the environment children grow up in is important to their development, and plans to initiate a transformation among residents so they can see themselves at their best and strive to become their best. Her upbringing and her Bachelor’s degree in social work, she said, helps her to meet people at their level and show them how they are able to be elevated without becoming dependant.
Tenia has 11 years experience as a priest and left her passion of social work to pursue a Masters in divinity. To her they are the same, as people and community are at the centre of both disciplines. As a priest she has an added bonus of being able to speak about Jesus.
Her new position will allow her to have some command over the national conversation as it relates to women and their treatment and she plans to season her talks with hope.
“The objective is that both men and women will one day be able to see over the fence together. We need each other, it is not an either or, discussion is important. We should set up both boys and girls to succeed. Why let boys run around playing while girls sit and study? We have to teach our girls they are not servants of their brothers and teach girls hard work is to be shared. Teach them both to be whole people and let them know their worth is not their gender but the quality of their character. Who they are in heart and mind is their character. In Christ we are not male or female, slave or free.” Tenia believes women’s issues are men’s as men have a great role to play in shifting the conversation and she hopes to steer the church along the path of righteousness, community and love, but from the eyes of a woman.
She assured she is in no way attempting to lessen the value of men but, within a Christian context, offer a different perspective. She observed there are patriarchal women and most of her greatest critics have been women while men have been most supportive of her priesthood.
This, Tenia said, was not aimed at bashing others as she understands people come from different backgrounds and their outlook on life will also be different.
With that understanding she wants to encourage men to be nurturing, saying this will develop by allowing boys to play with dolls. And women can develop their dexterity by girls being allowed to play outside and with toys stereotypically given to boys.
“How will people learn if they are not exposed to the information? We have to make them whole people. We are making ourselves in the image of our fears as opposed to the image of God,” Tenia declared.
“We have an inherent equality that we are both created in the image and likeness of God. The old way is no longer working and we keep doing it that way because it has been done that way for a while? There needs to be transformation by examining the system and removing what are harmful in the way we teach our children and and keep what is good.”
Policy and social shifts can only uplift everyone, she remarked, and if this view makes her a feminist, then she accepts the title. But to her, she is merely “taking Jesus seriously” and whatever title comes with that she accepts.
On abortion, Tenia supports it, within context. She gave scenarios about violent rape and women on the verge of death due to a pregnancy as support for her position. When asked about the church’s stance, Tenia said it is not anti-biblical.
“There is nothing doctrinal on abortion. The church upholds life so I am pro-life, but if a woman is being abused and she knows during her pregnancy later down the road she will be beaten and the life of the child, and her life is in danger and the man does not want the child, what is she to do?”
She said intro vitro fertilisation pregnancies are also equivalent to abortions and if one is good, why isn’t the other.
The church has contributed significantly to society but there is more that can be done, Tenia believes, as the Anglican church is about being involved. That involvement she hopes will see HIV testing done at the cathedral’s weekly health fair.