The day before the 56th United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) officially convened, hundreds of women gathered in Salvation Army’s palatial auditorium for the CSW NGO (Non-governmental organization) Forum.  I was one of these women.

I am here as an employee of the advocacy ministries of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), member of the Lutheran World Federation.  But today, I write not as an employee who is here to support Lutheran presence and encourage advocacy after CSW… today, I write as a woman humbled and inspired by other women.

Advocacy, at the very heart, is driven by stories—stories about the lives of real people in real places facing real challenges.  When we share our stories, we help organizations decide what to prioritize, we give our elected officials insight into the lives of their constituents, and we—purely, honestly, and intentionally—influence policy and public perception.  Events, like CSW, are valuable in that they bring people face-to-face to share stories and create organic conversations about the struggle and the hope in working towards a world that is just and safe for all women.

My role here as a communications director presents unique challenges and responsibility—specifically because I am often floating around events taking pictures and video.  I am honored by this role of documenting these precious moments of worship, education, conversation, and human connection.  These pictures and videos are invaluable in telling the world the important stories shared here.  During my very brief time here, I want to contribute hundreds of quality photographs that women can use in their personal reflections, spiritual growth, and advocacy efforts in their communities and capital cities as they go forth from this event.   Yet I am not always able to simply sit and listen.  I am often not a part of the conversations, I am on the “outside” recording them.  (The camera, unfortunately, often creates a wall between me and other women, because cameras can make people feel uncomfortable and make the moment feel unnatural.)  I sometimes feel that I cannot give the speaker at the microphone my undivided attention, because I am thinking of lighting, angles, flash, battery life, background noise, and contrast.  Frequently I am moving from group to group to capture images of these women, rather than dwelling in their powerful presence.

In jest, I told a friend and colleague that I feel like a “Martha at CSW”, referencing the New Testament story of Mary and Martha, two sisters who played different roles when in the presence of Christ.  Martha was busy, fluttering around the house, preparing for and facilitating Jesus’ visit to their home.  Mary sat with Christ, dwelled in his presence, learning and conversing from her friend and Lord.  Yet it was exactly through this role, as a photographer, that God reached down and touched my heart… when I was “Martha”, my Lord—in his mysterious and beautiful way—transformed me into “Mary.”

In the vast auditorium during the NGO CSW forum, my role permitted close proximity to the global leaders that were speaking from podiums of prestige on stage.  One of the esteemed panelists was Layla Alkhafaji, a leader in bringing democracy and equality in post-Sadaam Hussein Iraq.  Ms. Alkhafaji’s credentials are extremely impressive: she was a member of the first Iraqi parliament and now is the Director of International Relations for the Al-Hakim Foundation, promoting intellectual excellence, religious dialogue, and cultural understanding.  She shared how her organization works to encourage religious leaders to be involved in the Islamic Day for Anti-Violence Against Women, and teaches people that violence against women “is not accepted in any religion, including Islam.”

Yes, indeed Ms. Alkhafaji’s work, vision, and accomplishments are remarkable.  Yet her personal story is as heartbreaking as her resume is notable.  From her place on the panel, Ms. Alkhafaji described to the audience that under Sadaam’s regime she was “scrutinized, arrested, tortured, sentenced to execution” (a sentence later converted)—not for terrorism, but for being “outspoken” and refusing to join Hussein’s Baath party.  In painful irony, she was arrested on International Women’s Day, and spent ten years of her life (as a young woman—like me) in prison before escaping to Toronto in 1993.   She saw the execution of twenty-five women, telling the crowd, “I witnessed that and carried that with me to Canada.”

A few hours later I was near the first few rows—designated for “VIP’s and Speakers”—snapping photographs of these leaders, when I encountered Ms. Alkhafaji posing for pictures with women who were inspired by her.  I clicked my camera’s button to capture a few for Ecumenical Women’s website and, to my great surprise, Ms. Alkhafaji gently summoned me to her.  She kindly asked me if I would email her the pictures and handed me her business card.  I was humbled to receive her contact information, shook her hand and thanked her for her work as a global leader, and went back to taking pictures.

After another speaker, Ms. Alkhafaji and I crossed paths again.  We were able to converse this time, and I shared that I work in communications and grassroots advocacy for the ELCA.  She looked at me with her gentle eyes—eyes that had witnessed horrendous violence and murder, and yet eyes that once belonged to a girl-child… her gentle eyes that recognize foreign soil (and a nation I’ve never visited) as home, and yet reminded me of my own mother’s gentle, beautiful eyes.  She earnestly said, “I want to work with you—I want to work with Christians in the U.S.  I want to work with Christians in Iraq, and the Christians here—we need everyone.  We must work together.”  And then, in one of the most humbling moments of my life, Ms. Alkhafaji asked to take a picture with me.  In that moment, I wasn’t the photographer—I was a woman, standing beside another woman.  I wasn’t Martha, I was Mary.  For that moment, I could dwell in the presence of a strong, hopeful, and purposeful woman.  I was in the conversation.  This was personal, this was moving, and this was humbling.

The line separating us—me, a lonely and lowly photographer, and her, a global leader and honored speaker, disappeared.  The wall separating American Christian and Iraqi Muslim was gone.  No lines, no walls—just two women.  This moment of a sincere call for interfaith and international collaboration to help all hurting and vulnerable people is forever captured for me.

The photograph of me, Kate, aside her, Layla, is a well at which I can revisit the spirit of this powerful moment.  It is a well at which I can gather my thoughts and my prayers for peace, equality, and justice.  I can invite others—my family, my friends, my church, and my elected officials—to meet me at this well.  At this well, I can share Layla’s story, I can offer my story, and I can listen to others’ stories.

As I leave CSW tonight to return to my life and work in Washington, D.C., I ask the God of my mothers and fathers to bless, protect, and strengthen all women and men who gather here to listen and share.  I pray for courage, perseverance, and wisdom as we go forth and work for peace, equality, and justice in our world.  I thank God for these moments of unity, collaboration, and dialogue.

And I thank you, dear sister, for sharing on this blog, and for reading a piece of my story today.

Kate Gaskill  (kj.gaskill@gmail.com)

:) And I’m currently working to post all those pictures!  It’s a slow process, but I’m hoping to have all Ecumenical Women photographs and video that I worked on posted to the Ecumenical Women Picasa by Friday, March 2

 (www.picasaweb.google.com / username: ecumenicalwomencsw56 / password: uncsw56)