Yes, I have said these (or similar) words from a few pulpits in the Pittsburgh area. I generally start by greeting the congregation and explaining the connection we share and why I’m preaching or leading adult education or collecting hotel soaps, wash cloths and gallon zip lock freezer bags. I don’t usually publish sermons, but it felt important to include this one in this blog.
“The Sticky Business of Being Clean” is the title I usually give for bulletins, but once someone has heard it, they refer to it as the period sermon. The congregation that I currently serve has heard two versions of this sermon (years apart) and they are my biggest supporters. Our Presbyterian Women group has supported women preachers for years and advocates for women rights and supports mission that touches the lives of women and children. If I had to pick a favorite comment from that group it was from a retired pediatrician who told me my sermon was “nervy and good”. I’ve preached this sermon at a few other churches who were looking for a pulpit supply preacher (one congregation did not get the information ahead of time about what I was preaching on… so now I try to do a better job about that). I’ve had mixed reviews in these places. Some feel that it is not appropriate to talk about periods and sex in church (usually older white men). But to be fair, I’ve had older white men say they were glad that I was doing this work. The reason that I will continue to preach this sermon is that at each church there has been an older woman (or several) who shook my hand and said, “Thank you” with tears in her eyes. Some of these women allude to medical issues they’ve had and others are happy to hear a female preacher give a female oriented sermon. Those tears let me know that I am standing on holy ground. Thanks be to God.
The Presbyterian Women at Third church decided in 2014 to make reusable feminine hygiene products. They were inspired by the Pittsburgh Presbytery PW’s decision to make Little Dresses for Africa and later their version of menstrual pads. The women at Third Church did some research and choose to support and work with the patters from Days for Girls International. When I arrived at Third Church in November of 2014, I was greeted with patterns, fabric scraps and a vision. It was the kind of vision that was near and dear to the heart of our Presbyterian Women, a vision we believe is near and dear to the heart of God, it was a vision to improve the lives of vulnerable people.
The Days for Girls Mission is Simple:
Creating a more dignified, free and educated world through access to lasting feminine hygiene solutions.
Days for Girls was founded in 2008, when Executive Director Celeste Mergens prepared to travel back to Kenya to continue working with orphanages and communities in the wake of great political and economic upset. When she asked the assistant director of the orphanage what the girls are doing for feminine hygiene, the answer was shocking: “Nothing. They wait in their rooms.”
The conditions were cramped, unsanitary, and would leave girls without food and water for days unless someone brought it to them. Furthermore, sanitary products were available, but only if girls were willing to suffer sexual exploitation in exchange. This moment was the beginning of awareness to the vulnerability millions of women and girls face throughout the world every month, simply due to this basic biological function. These women and girls suffer in silence, due to cultural ideas and taboos surrounding this issue. Because of this, girls and women can feel that they are tainted, or fundamentally flawed or less in some way. Washable, quality hygiene kits and accompanying education changes all that.
Third Church decided to establish the Pittsburgh Chapter of Days for Girls. From the outset we have sought to be ecumenical. We have reached out to our sisters and brothers in our area. Our team is made up of Presbyterian women and men, students and volunteers form the Literacy Pittsburgh, young men stationed in the area as Mormon Missionaries, students from Chatham University and The University of Pittsburgh, Women in the Pittsburgh Community Correction Center, and ladies who also volunteer with Treasure House Fashions. We have volunteers from other local churches too. We are constantly looking to expand our partnerships and group of volunteers. This year we are hoping to partner with a group of Pitt students who will be traveling to Honduras next summer.
We have found a sort of mission within this mission. We have identified groups of people around our church that we wanted to work with: those who have learning and language challenges and those who are reentering our community after incarceration and local college students. The church basement hums with the buzz of sewing machines and of conversations with new friends. We are women, helping women, by helping women.
In 2014 we made 75 kits, in 2015 we made 705, and in 2016 we have made 1,453. This year we have made over 2,000 of these kits to be distributed to girls around the world. But we don’t just ship the kits and hope they land in the right hands. A person trained in the Days for Girls curriculum accompanies each of these kits. The curriculum includes how to use and care for the kits, basic reproductive health, and self-defense.
Inside this kit are products that can be used and reused for up to 3 years. Two shields that fasten into underwear, 8 liners that can be changed throughout the day, two plastic bags (one clean one dirty) to help manage the liners, two panties, a wash cloth, bar of soap, and ovulation chart. But more than that, there is dignity, independence, and education.
Today we will explore what the bible has to say about menstruation, what that means for our mission project (Days for Girls) and how we can help those who feel excluded from community because for whatever reason, they are unclean and unloved.
Excerpts from Leviticus 15:19-32
When a woman has a discharge of blood that is her regular discharge from her body, she shall be in her impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening. Everything upon which she lies during her impurity shall be unclean; everything also upon which she sits shall be unclean. Whoever touches her bed shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening. Whoever touches anything upon which she sits shall wash his clothes, and bathe in water, and be unclean until the evening; whether it is the bed or anything upon which she sits, when he touches it he shall be unclean until the evening. If any man lies with her, and her impurity falls on him, he shall be unclean seven days; and every bed on which he lies shall be unclean.
If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean.
Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.
Excerpts from Mark 5:21-43
Jairus fell at Jesus’ feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” So he went with him.
And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?’” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”
When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” Then they went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about.
Leviticus indicates that a woman is unclean and is isolated for 7 days even if her menstruation doesn’t last the full week. She washes herself and presents an offering so that she can be clean again. The New Interpreters Bible commentary indicates this gives a woman a break from her husband and shows him that it is God who owns her not the husband.
The feminist in me wonders if the writer of the NIB commentary knows that women like sex and it might not be about having a break from her husband. It may also be that husbands need a break from their wives. To attribute liking or not liking sex to a gender isn’t helping any of us. But that is a more modern reason for disagreeing that biblical women didn’t necessarily use menstruation as a break from their husbands.
The NIB goes on to say that the isolation wouldn’t have been so bad because women didn’t always have monthly periods. The expectation at that time would be that women would marry much younger and were trying to have a lot of children. Once one is weaned the next one is conceived so women didn’t really have that many periods so they weren’t left out of society one week every month. I’m not so sure I completely agree with that.
I wonder about the women in the bible who we are told were barren. They were childless and experienced this time apart from their husbands differently than a woman who was fruitful. Each period reminds them of the expectations that are not fulfilled. Each period reminds them that they are empty and alone.
I also wonder about the women facing abnormal bleeding, not only are they dealing with a medical condition but also isolation. Leviticus indicates that the uncleanness lasts as long as the condition does. This treatment of suffering women is stigmatizing and dehumanizing. There wasn’t a cure for endometriosis then and there isn’t one now. It is still a stigmatizing disease. Many women don’t seek help for abnormal bleeding today because they are embarrassed by it.
While women aren’t kept separate from our society while they are menstruating there are social stigmas that surround this natural occurrence. And in many parts of our world girls and women are still separated from society while menstruating.
Often women will only talk openly about menstruation, endometriosis, infertility, miscarriages and other “girl problems” with other women. I am thankful that this project has opened up opportunities for women to share their stories and find healing. And it has provided a safe place for volunteers to hear stories they wouldn’t necessarily hear and even to ask questions.
I’m not here to discredit sex education in this country or any other country. But there are places in which men (and women) have little information about menstruation.
I have learned a lot about our world through this project, especially from the young college women who are keeping up on women’s issues for school and as political activists. And some of them have been using reusable menstrual products because of their concern for the environment.
In some parts of our world getting a period is seen as a sign you did something wrong. Girls feel shame and guilt instead of celebrating this step into womanhood.
In some parts of our world, girls don’t know about periods until they get theirs. The reasons vary for this, sometimes its because its too taboo to talk about, sometimes it is because people believe that it won’t happen to every girl.
In some parts of our world, having a period means you are eligible for marriage and girls are married off very young.
In some parts of our world, girls and women have to live separately from their families while they are menstruating. In 2016 two women in Napal died in huts used for separating them from the community while they menstruated.
We don’t hear these stories in the news often but you don’t have to search hard to find them. I encourage you to check out daysforgirls.org to learn more about the work that this organization is doing to help women all over the world. While the website does explain some of the hardships women face, it provides hope that we can help.
Having access to quality sustainable hygiene and health allows girls to experience the education, safety, and dignity that we all deserve.
This not just a girl issue, it is an everyone issue. When girls have access to sustainable hygiene they miss less school. When girls are educated they are more likely to delay marriage and child bearing. They are better able to provide for their family and raise healthier happier children and less likely to live in poverty. The whole community is enriched when women are educated. Not only academic education, but also the physical and social education of young women is important.
Taking care of the poor, the outcast, and the unclean of every kind are Christ-like activities. The story I read from Mark is also in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. It is one of the many stories in the gospels where Jesus does something outside of the social norms. It is remarkable that Jesus did not rebuke her for making him ritually unclean. In desperation the woman acted contrary to the Levitical laws and moved into society in one last desperate attempt simply to touch the Jesus, believing he could heal her.
Jesus does not accuse her of attempting to steal power from him, because she can’t take what is already hers. Her faith in him has made her well. By praising her for her faith, Jesus demonstrates his contempt for social structures that punish the sick and stigmatize the natural, which includes God-given functions of a woman’s body. While menstruating women weren’t kept in colonies like lepers, they are separated for a time from their community. This woman’s unusual bleeding was keeping her from full community. Jesus restored her so she could return to her normal life. But more than that, Jesus’ saving and healing demonstrates that the kingdom of God is near.
The raising of the dead girl is also a sign that the kingdom of God is near. Remember that Jesus was on his way to see a sick girl when he encountered the hemorrhaging woman. By interrupting the journey to Jairus’s house with that story, Mark is able to show that Jesus can heal a chronic condition without even touching the person directly. Her story also highlights the importance of faith to the healing. Jesus is not a healer with magic powers to sell or enchanted robes that emit healing vibes. The interruption also creates a time delay in the narrative, providing space for the girl to die, messengers to report to the father and mourners to gather at the house. By interweaving the two stories, Mark has also provided an opportunity for the father to witness the healing of the woman and his faith to find strength in her faith.
Children of God, we are witnesses to the love of God in Christ. We are the faithful ones that must proclaim the kingdom of God is near. We are the church, the body of Christ, and we are the agents of healing.
We need to embrace the biblical passages dealing with subjects that make us uncomfortable. We follow Christ’s example, and live and work among those who are or are made to feel unclean, the vulnerable and those who are in need our help. We invite those who feel excluded to their rightful place as children of God.
A book about Biblical Women, says that, “Jesus would show the same contempt for present-day social structures, which blame the victims of rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and poverty. Jesus’ passion for justice would not allow for discrimination or unjust social structures of any kind.”
It would be a tall order for me to tell you, to go out and do what Jesus would do and all of us would fail if we tried.
But what I’m asking is that you think about where you can help bring healing and reconciliation. I’m asking you to love others, not in words and prayers only, but in truth and action.
I hope that you are inspired to help with days for girls. I hope that you are inspired to help with other groups that bring healing to our broken world.
 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., “Leviticus” in The New Interpreters Bible Commentary volume 1, Ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon Press: 2015), 595-598
 Dr. Paula Trimble-Familetti, Prostitutes, Virgins and Mothers Questioning Teachings about Biblical Women (Fawnskin, CA: Personhood press, 2014)
 Dr. Paula Trimble-Familetti, Prostitutes, Virgins and Mothers Questioning Teachings about Biblical Women (Fawnskin, CA: Personhood press, 2014)