At the rock-hewn churches of Lalibella, where history is so thick it seeps from the walls, I stood outside the holy of holies. By virtue of my gender, I was barred entrance to that most sacred of places.
The men at the door said “no women allowed.” I heard “you are unclean. Unworthy.”
With some measure of discomfort, the men in our party stepped inside. “We’ll report back,” they said. “We’ll take pictures and show you.” Their words hinted at the guilt they carried for being the chosen ones. They didn’t want to leave us behind.
Waiting on the outside, we three women made light of the situation. “What if we storm the entrance?” we laughed. “Perhaps if we trip on the doorway and fall into the room…” Kebede, our Ethiopian companion, didn’t take it so lightly. “They will stone you,” he said, his face reflecting the seriousness of the offense. “Or beat you with their sticks.” All of the priests in this place carried long staffs with silver or gold crosses on top. I imagined those crosses smashing down on our backs.
In this foreign country, it was not my place to challenge history. I stayed outside.
Twinges of memory poked at my consciousness – my own history ringing in my ears. “You cannot read the Bible in church. You are a woman.” “You cannot be class president. You are a woman.” Each time I heard the words flung like stones – “You are unclean. Unworthy.”
I looked down at my bare feet on the stones worn smooth from centuries of worshippers. I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that these feet could walk on holy ground. I knew that these feet were no less worthy than the feet of those inside the holiest of rooms. After years of stones, I had learned to hold my head up high and believe the truth of “neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female.”
I am woman. I am worthy. I can only put my faith in a God who tore the veil of the holy of holies and welcomed me to step over the threshold. “You are worthy,” he/she whispered in my waiting ear. “Come and be clean.”