Faith in Women:

COVID-19 forces a faith-informed reproductive justice nonprofit in Mississippi to work towards online organizing in one of the most unequal states for women in the nation.

Kate Cammell |

In April 2018, Reverend Anna Flemming-Jones and Ashley Peterson arrived for a workshop on compassionate care at the opulent Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Jackson, Mississippi, the former King Edward Hotel – now a state historical landmark and political center. There, beneath the high ceiling, crown moldings and spiraling marble staircases, Rev. Flemming-Jones and Peterson joined more than two dozen activists and clergy from around the country to discuss and practice ways to tend to the needs of their congregants. The duo are the program coordinator and executive director, respectively, for Faith in Women, a nondenominational religiously-informed reproductive justice nonprofit working across the state of Mississippi. Flemming-Jones and Peterson co-led the workshop on how to be, as their blog put it: “both a compassionate presence and prophetic witness for reproductive health, rights, and justice in their communities.”

In one exercise during the training, participants had to arrange themselves on a reproductive health and justice spectrum. As different issues like abortion or birth control access were discussed, they had to position themselves in the room, moving to spots along a line of strong disagreement to strong agreement. It was one of Rev. Flemming Jones first events with the organization and one of the first times she remembers finding community. She noted, “I remember realizing that I was a lot more liberal than I had understood myself to be. It felt subversive to be in a training that mentioned abortion rights in such a conservative city and state.”

Ashley Peterson, Executive Director of Faith in Women

Peterson added, “Being a progressive person in Mississippi is often an isolated and isolating experience. In coming together for training sessions or advocacy events someone might experience strength in numbers for the first time.”

Now, as COVID-19 forces people to stay home or change how they can legally gather, Rev Flemming-Jones and Peterson are reimagining how to achieve their mission of bringing together a community centered on bodily autonomy together in an era when many people have little control over both the movement and wellbeing of their bodies. Faith in Women’s work was already challenging to begin with; the organization fights for reproductive justice in a state where topics like abortion and comprehensive sex education continue to be taboo for many people, and where a history of racism has created some of the greatest health disparities in the nation.

Mississippi is the worst state in the country in health affordability, prevention and treatment, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a nonprofit conducting independent research on national healthcare issues. More than 58,000 Mississippi women, or a quarter of the state’s female population, lack access to insurance or Medicaid coverage, jeopardizing their access to reproductive health services. The state has the third-highest teen pregnancy rate in the nation and a single licensed abortion clinic still operating.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), which provides both letter grades and a numerical state ranking system of how women fare in each state with categories ranging from poverty to reproductive rights, ranked Mississippi as the worst state in which to be a woman navigating health, wellbeing and poverty. Its highest letter grade in any category is a C-.

However, Mississippi does appear at the top of one list. It’s tied with Alabama as the most religious state in the nation.

Peterson saw this as an opportunity. She was born and raised in Mississippi, where she noted matter-of-factly: “You can’t do anything without acknowledging that faith is going to play a huge role in the conversation.” The organization is a cultural liaison of sorts between church leadership and congregants, and between the religious and secular worlds. They know how to speak the language of each group and act as translators using words that resonate in both faith and secular advocacy spaces like “compassion” and “dignity.”

The organization started with an attempt to provide clergy with comprehensive sexual health resources for their female-identifying congregants. Having grown up in the Methodist church, Peterson knew that “many churches host one-off conversations with youth about the importance of abstinence, or even teach a denominationally-sanctioned curriculum, but very few churches treat sexual and reproductive health as part of the full picture of the spiritual lives of their members.” Instead, Faith in Women connects clergy to comprehensive curricula, like a program from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Our Whole Lives.

Dr. Nakeitra Burse, a leading public health expert in Mississippi and CEO of Six Dimensions health consulting firm, noted that these health disparities have historical origins, which is why the intersectional and long-term cultural organizing work Faith in Women is doing is so important. “Faith is a big part of Mississippi’s culture,” Dr. Burse continued, “We’re in the heart of the Bible belt, so the faith-based community is a very strong community in Mississippi. Those are the leaders that people look up to.”

Anna Fleming-Jones, Program Coordinator of Faith in Women

Faith in Women expanded from the educational sphere to organizing women across the state, advising policymakers and partnering with secular organizations, including Planned Parenthood, to provide a religious perspective to women’s healthcare issues. They’ll offer biblical interpretations and justifications for reproductive health and coach organizations on how to better connect with religious women.

The organization serves a core group of about 20 clergy members, nearly all women themselves, along with a wider community of just over 100 women and church leaders. Most of the clergy are located in and around Jackson with some in the Delta and Gulf Coast regions of the state, and mostly represent Protestant congregations, encompassing United Methodist, Cooperative Baptist, Presbyterian USA or Episcopal churches. However, a large part of Faith in Women’s work brings together diverse communities to provide space and opportunities for like-minded people, religious or not, to gather.

For progressive clergy who work in more fundamentalist religious spaces, especially in the Deep South, where even conversations surrounding reproductive topics from birth control to abortion are often socially unacceptable, these advocacy spaces are welcome respites. Rev. Susan Chorley, a Baptist minister who journeyed from Boston for the Space for Grace training session said, “The depth of the conversation among participants and the facilitation allowed us to create connection and community in a very short amount of time. I left the training feeling hopeful and invigorated by the work ahead of us.”

Now, downtown Jackson looks so abandoned that “The Walking Dead” could film in the empty streets, according to Rev. Flemming-Jones. As COVID-19 continues to sweep across the globe and many states are under stay-at-home mandates, organizing events like the compassionate care workshop are indefinitely on hold. Peterson said that nearly 90 percent of Faith in Women’s work took place in-person before the pandemic and the group is finding it difficult to recreate the level intimacy that is so crucial to their efforts on Zoom. The group’s primary work— organizing— is typically rooted in physical communion and drawing together diverse perspectives which they’re finding harder to coordinate online.

Reproductive justice is a framework that is based on an intersectional approach to sexual health equity. The term was coined in 1994 by a group of black women social justice leaders who gathered in Chicago and were later called Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice. Forward Together, a social justice network, defines reproductive justice as, “all people having the social, political, and economic power and resources to make healthy decisions about their gender, bodies, sexuality, and families for themselves and their communities.”

This framework is crucial in Mississippi where black women face particularly adverse reproductive health outcomes, as do other communities of color and LGBTQ individuals. In just one glaring example, the mortality rate for black women is 40 deaths per 100,000 compared to 12.4 deaths per 100,000 for white women according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet, in response to the state’s history of reproductive inequality, there is also a long history of social justice organizing, of which Faith in Women is now a part.

As COVID-19 causes this organizing work to shift, Peterson and Rev. Flemming-Jones are coming to terms with and uncertain future. Peterson lives in the coastal city of Biloxi, Mississippi about three hours south of Jackson, where Rev. Flemming-Jones lives. Pre-pandemic, Rev. Flemming-Jones felt their organizing events were “almost like a friendship movie when people feel all alienated and meet up and are like, aw these are my people.” As she spoke toddler arms reached into her Zoom camera frame. Peterson nodded her head in agreement adding, “that opportunity to just get together and be ourselves, that’s what I’m really struggling to reconcile with this COVID situation.” Behind her, a hand-drawn rainbow arced across the whiteboard of her home office.

Now both women are busy juggling their full-time work and childcare from their respective homes. Peterson has a two-year-old son and Rev. Flemming-Jones has two sons, a six-month-old and two-year-old. Many women in their networks are mothers in similar positions. Peterson also said that “a very real and practical roadblock is that not everyone has access to stable internet or reliable computers/phones that can handle video conferencing. Especially in more rural parts of Mississippi, like the Delta, high-speed internet is harder to come by.” Another concern for the group is privacy as they talk about bodily trauma and sensitive topics online. Rev. Flemming-Jones added, “effective organizing in this realm comes from trusting relationships. Those kinds of relationships are so difficult to build online.” Faith in Women’s virtual organizing struggle reflects a broader challenge faced by many advocacy groups across the globe.

Peterson and Rev. Flemming-Jones know that reproductive justice might not be at the forefront of people’s minds because of the pressing concerns of illness and death amid the pandemic. They worry that the coronavirus crisis will only exacerbate reproductive health outcomes in the state. Peterson worries for Mississippi women trapped in abusive homes and young people cut off from “school- and community-based resources like confidential STI screening and testing, contraception, and sexual health information.” She continued, “The very technologies that we’re so dependent on right now, such as telemedicine, have always been heavily restricted in Mississippi when it concerns reproductive health. The danger now is that our state administration is able to pass further restrictions, such as designating abortion an ‘elective’ procedure, while people are distracted by the virus.”

Indeed, in late March Mississippi governor Tate Reeves called on state healthcare officials to stop performing abortions during the pandemic. Texas and Ohio officially banned abortions, calling them non-essential procedures. Though Mississippi’s clinic remains open and is continuing to perform the procedure, reproductive health advocates warn that restricting abortion access during this time creates a path toward abolishing it permanently. Rev. Flemming-Jones said, “The only way this pandemic might somehow be a cause for positive change would be if Mississippi expanded Medicaid. Which seems unlikely.”

Faith in Women is attuned to this changing landscape. Flemming-Jones and Peterson are talking with community members to hear what their current needs are and hoping to partner with a counselor in their network to provide free mental health services. And, while the conference rooms of the King James Hotel where they met in the fall sit empty, they’re figuring out a way to do similar workshop exercises on Zoom.