Community Development, Whipped and with Jam

Yesterday we had a long-organised Afternoon Tea with the Ladies. C and I met up at 11, and got to work setting a table with white cloths and Royal Albert serviettes, mixing scone dough, whipping cream. I decided to make finger sandwiches, and ended up with, alongside a huge pile of discarded crusts, some fairly scary-looking piles of lettuce, ham and misshapen bread. I soon reverted to triangles, but even these were challenging enough. Before I knew it 45 minutes had passed.

I said to C, “I thought women just whipped these things up in two seconds flat”. 

C put her hands on the bench, leaned forward and turned her head to raise an eyebrow at me. “Honey,” she growled, in that world-weary yet wizened tone of hers, “there is nothing that women just ‘whip up’ in two seconds flat.”

As I wrestled with my bits of ham and bread and salmon and cucumber, I had a momentary, self-conscious thought: “Which other 29 year old woman is doing this, at 1pm on a Wednesday afternoon?” Probably the ones employed in hospitality, but probably not the ones with degrees in law and social science and theology. I thought of the day’s calendar entry, which had ‘Baking with C’ as the morning activity, and ‘Afternoon Tea’ for the latter part of the day. I mean, it would be the kind of thing you would see scribed into my grandmother’s diary. Actually, probably not my grandmother, because she was more of a career woman. Maybe my great-grandmother. 

I may be something of an embarrassment to the feminist cause when one considers my dedicated engagement with the domestic arts. I’m a novice in the sandwich department, to be sure, but only because I spend more time baking ANZAC biscuits and flourless chocolate cakes. I also put on a cracker roast, and I rather enjoy looking after small children. I have not been unknown to pull out the occasional craft project, either.

The fact is that these more feminine skills are part of the tool kit that I use everyday, to carry out the job that I have bestowed upon myself. And that job is: ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’.

As a ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’, I am part of a long history of people, who have been dedicated to bringing faith communities together, to foster relationships and nurture the body of Christ into being. These people have used the simplest of tools: making cups of tea for people, putting on lunches, gathering people in their homes, ensuring that there is always an extra seat for one more. This is the tradition that I stand in, and I’m not afraid to pull out the old cookie cutter in the process.

If I mentioned to any of the three Barbaras who were at yesterday’s afternoon tea that I was a ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’, I would receive three quizzical looks. Because the fact is that they have been ‘developing community’ all their lives, sans fancy title.

And that’s why my newly bestowed title is also something of a protest. Why is it that we have Pastors, and Preachers, and Deacons, and Treasurers, but the greatest honour these skilled community development practitioners received was to be called a Morning Tea Lady, and, if they were lucky, thanked for their tireless work?

I have waited a long time for someone to recognise the work I do as important, and give me a title. But that ain’t gonna happen, peeps. That’s why I have to invent my own title, and stand up in it tall and proud, with millions of women behind and at my side. I am a ‘Community Development Practitioner (in a church context)’. If anyone can think of anything catchier than that, please let me know.

The fact is that women have often done this critical work not by virtue of the fact that they are women, but because they are skilled and gifted at engaging in the sacred act of preparing food, and bringing people together. By elevating my own role as something that sits alongside Paster, Preacher, Deacon or Treasurer, I hope to bring out the critical importance of these community-gatherers to the community of Christ.

It is possible that I have developed a fuller philosophical frame in which to place these traditionally feminine tasks than, say my great-grandmother (who I doubt ever used the term ‘philosophical frame’ in her life). This has been the gift of feminism, which has said that women should have the choice to get an education, and go into traditionally male areas if they want. My re-claiming of an historically feminine role, and my ability to imbue this role with status, is only possible in a context where women have a choice not to take on roles that would have once been expected of them. Feminism has empowered women with choice, and I think it has taken up until now for my generation of feminists to say, “It’s ok if I choose to do something that other women, in the past, have done simply because they were women.”

Women have never ‘whipped up’ sandwiches in two seconds flat, any more than they effortlessly put on meals for family and friends, or brought communities together to nurture critical bonds. This is the stuff that brings the Kingdom of God into being, and it is community development at its best. So community development is what I’m going to call it. For myself, and for the many, many women who have come before me.  


(I am indebted to my co-conspirator, Carolyn N, for talking through this stuff with me. I have incorporated a good degree of her wisdom into this piece.)