by Kimberly Knowle-Zeller

It started with a small amount of flour. Gathered in a circle, women passed the bowl from one hand to the next. One woman added yeast and salt, followed by water. The bowl passed to the next woman, who began mixing the ingredients together. The bowl made its way around the circle, with each pair of hands mixing, kneading, working the dough. Around and around the bowl went.

As their hands worked the dough, the stories of the women came to life. This was a weekend women’s retreat, where we opened by making bread. First we shared our names. Ruth, the oldest woman in attendance, introduced herself, adding that she felt too old to be in the group. Seated next to her, Leslie, the youngest attendee, echoed this sentiment, stating that she felt too young for the group.

Yet both women showed up. Deep down, both Ruth and Leslie knew the power of gathering with women and women only. They knew if they took that first step—showing up—they would be surprised by what God had in store for them. Their honesty opened the way for others to share their doubts and fears.

As the bread bowl got passed around the circle, more stories emerged. Tears interspersed with hearty laughter, as the full range of emotions and experiences entered into this holy space. Whether one was a mother, a grandmother, a student, a friend, a widow, a stay-at-home mom, a full-time working mom, someone newly divorced, a church newcomer or a life-long member, being women together united us.
I keep finding myself with the women.

It began with a small amount of nuts and couscous. Every morning in Nyanga Bantang, a village in the Republic of the Gambia in West Africa, women gathered to begin preparing the day’s food. This included grinding nuts and grains into a fine powder. Their work took strength and time, as the women moved their arms up and down, rhythmically pounding the meal. Amid the loud thumps the women shared their stories. They laughed, and they cried. They talked about the latest baby born; the elder who died. They pointed out any new pieces of clothing. They shared the village gossip.

Morning after morning, I joined them, seeking their company. Many days I didn’t fully understand what they shared, due to my limited understanding of their language. But I got the heart of their stories, their smiles and their tears. I saw the way they helped each another. If a woman didn’t feel well or her baby was fussing, the others would take over. If someone had guests visiting and needed more food, the others would offer their share. Whether one had lived in the village her whole life or had come to live here through marriage, whether one was a student or someone about to be married, whether one was single, married or widowed, whether one was Gambian or an American Peace Corps volunteer, the connection of being women united us.

I keep finding myself with the women.

Each time I gather with women, I feel the presence of women who’ve gathered together for centuries, across the world. Long ago, on a morning not yet known as Easter, as Julie A. Kanarr points out in this month’s Bible study, “it is the women, together with the Beloved Disciple, who remained with Jesus at the cross.” Their hopes had been destroyed. Their fears were realized. Their tears were flowing. Yet they showed up. They witnessed the worst kind of death imaginable. Yet they didn’t abandon Jesus, and they didn’t abandon each other. I like to imagine them together, clasping hands, crying, holding one another up. Each body is strengthened by the others. Each one’s grief is offered for the other, for Jesus and for the world.

I keep finding myself with the women.

Women get it. They know the healing power of soup after a loved one dies. They know ice cream, cookies and lots of chocolate can help heal a broken heart. They know the magic of coffee for the bleary-eyed mom of a newborn. They know the perfect book to recommend, which laugh-out-loud meme to share, and the random text to send to remind a friend she or he is not alone.

Women know playdates are best in the company of friends. They know wrangling kids at church takes a village—friends, fellow mamas, aunts and grandmas. They know the goodness of quilts, care packages and homemade cookies. They know the beauty of Bible study groups where you show up tired, frustrated and overwhelmed, but are met with words of welcome and love: “We’re glad you’re here.”

Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is an ELCA pastor, writer, mother of two and spouse to Stephen, also an ELCA pastor. She lives with her family in Cole Camp, Missouri. Her website is

This article is excerpted from the April 2019 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather.