Altars to an unknown goddess

sisterhoodsymbolI have always been fascinated with intentional religious communities and the New York Times ran a news feature on one the other day that was very well done -- with one serious gap. In "My Sister's Keeper," we meet a community of women in the heart of Bible Belt Alabama that has no trouble maintaining its doctrinal standards, even while bumping into Southern Baptist neighbors. You see, these women are true separatists, practicing their own brand of fundamentalism.

It's clear that reporter Sarah Kershaw knows that the religious angle is present, because the stream of religious images is constant in the body of the story. When a community needs to establish its own hospice-care system, you know that it is dealing with ultimate issues.

The name of the community is Alapine and here's the heart of the story:

They called it a lesbian paradise, the pioneering women who made their way to St. Augustine, Fla., in the 1970s to live together in cottages on the beach. Finding one another in the fever of the gay rights and women's liberation movements, they built a matriarchal community, where no men were allowed, where even a male infant brought by visitors was cause for debate.

Emily Greene was one of those pioneers, and at 62 she still chooses to live in a separate lesbian world. She and 19 other women have built homes on 300 rural acres in northeast Alabama, where the founders of the Florida community, the Pagoda, relocated in 1997.

And what about the future?

The communities, most in rural areas from Oregon to Florida, have as few as two members; Alapine is one of the largest. Many have steadily lost residents over the decades as members have moved on or died. As the impulse to withdraw from heterosexual society has lost its appeal to younger lesbians, womyn's lands face some of the same challenges as Catholic convents that struggle to attract women to cloistered lives.

"The younger generation has not had to go through what we went through," Ms. Greene said. She and other Alapine women described leading double lives when they were younger, playing the role of straight women in jobs and even marriages. "I came out in the middle '60s, and we didn't even have the word lesbian then," Ms. Greene said. "We are really going to have to work at how we carry this on," she added. "In 20 to 25 years, we could be extinct."

This implies that these communities are preparing for some kind of evangelistic effort among the the young lesbians of America and female bisexuals who have yet to made adequate professions of faith.

But here is the mystery, to me. While the story is saturated with religious images -- the sisters in this secret, hidden, gated community live on streets named after goddesses, like Diana Drive -- there is no specific content about organized religion. Are the sisters agnostics, pagans, a mixture of various liberal mainline faiths? Are they feminist Catholics? Are any of the sisters ordained? We are not told. They are driven by very religious motivations and they are practicing strict, strict, strict doctrinal separatism. But we do not know if these beliefs link to organized religion -- other than faith in radical feminism and to the vows that define their corner of the sexual revolution.

Most of all, these womyn are driven by one doctrine, which is that womyn are uniquely free of sin. Men, you see, are at the heart of what is wrong with this violent, fallen, sinful world. As one sister says:

"To me, this is the real world," she said. "And it's a very peaceful world. I don't hear anything except the leaves falling. I get up in the morning, I go out on my front deck and I dance and I say, 'It's another glorious day on the mountain.' Men are violent. The minute a man walks in the dynamics change immediately, so I choose not to be around those dynamics."

Like I said, this is strong reporting and it's clear that the Times team knows that the religion question is there.

But I found myself wanting to know one more detail, one extra layer of facts to put this community in context. Here's my question: This is clearly a religious community. Do the sisters know that? What is the doctrinal content of the ties that bind?

Please respect our Commenting Policy