The chaos and confusion in the United Methodist Church continued this week with the news that two amendments to our denomination’s constitution failed to pass the required two-thirds ratification by annual conferences. These amendments had passed at the 2016 General Conference. When I read the amendments prior to Annual Conference last year, I saw a church with a commitment to ending discrimination against women and girls. What I didn’t anticipate was the focus on Christ’s human identity as male during the floor debates, nor did I expect that people would turn their focus to how people name God rather than focusing on the need to advocate for women and girls as beloved children of God. The debates were disheartening, and it seemed as though the concerns about women and girls who face discrimination were dismissed as no longer valid issues that needed addressing.
I have written previously about my practice of wearing black on Thursdays – in solidarity, prayer, mourning and awareness of rape and violence against women and girls. I’ve know too many women who have been victims of sexual violence and am a survivor myself. Every time I go to the grocery store and pick up an apple, a bag of carrots, an orange pepper, I think about the farmworker women who face terrible working conditions and a much higher rate of sexual assault than other jobs. It is obvious to me that the work toward equality and justice for women and girls is not yet complete. The church has work to do.
Woman’s Work For Woman
Women working for the health and safety of other women is not a new phenomenon. Methodist women have been working to improve the lives of women and children for almost 150 years. In March 1869, eight women gathered in Boston and organized the Women’s Foreign Missionary Society. These women were motivated by the work of missionary wives who had been sending back reports and letters from their mission stations where they worked alongside their husbands. Although the mission boards of the mid-1800s supported and sent only men as missionaries, the women worked just as hard as the men in learning the language and customs of the people to whom they were sent.
But What About Colonialism?
The most frequent comment I hear about the missionary movement during this time is that it was tainted by colonialist attitudes. It is true that there were mistakes made – at what point in human history have mistakes not been made? When people answer God’s call, they do so in clay vessels. And no matter the mistakes that were made, the women missionaries served God to the utmost of their abilities, and when women organized for mission, they made it possible for other women and girls to thrive.
Dr. Dana Robert states: “What appeared as ‘holistic mission’ from the missionary perspective was often perceived by the missionized as cultural imperialism designed to tear down their own customs and societies. The emphasis on social change toward western norms, couched in the language of helping to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, made ‘Woman’s Work for Woman’ a partner with the myths of western superiority so prominent during the late nineteenth century. At the same time, its focus on global sisterhood and the essential unity of humankind was a valuable corrective to patriarchal notions that valued men over women, and boys over girls in many parts of the world. The social service institutions fostered by ‘Woman’s Work for Woman’ are remembered in retrospect, even in non-Christian countries, as one of the most positive legacies of the Protestant missionary movement.” (Robert, Dana L., American Women in Mission: A Social History of Their Thought and Practice. 1997. Macon: Mercer University Press. Page 136)
Nevertheless, They Persisted In Mission
The women who organized in Baptist churches, Presbyterian churches, Lutheran churches, Methodist churches and many other denominations understood that they were called to mission work because they knew they were God’s beloved children. They knew the grace of Christ and the love of God, and through the power of the Holy Spirit these women persisted in organizing for mission against formidable odds. Restricted from collecting funds for their organizations at church functions, they gathered in each other’s homes. Women insisted on continuing to support mission work in the general church while still saving additional money to support the training and sending of women missionaries. Criticized for gathering with women of other denominations, the women persisted in gathering across denominational lines in order to study the Bible together, to know God more deeply, to pray together for women missionaries and the women and children they served. Nevertheless, the women continued in their commitment to mission to and with women and girls around the globe.
Women today, 150 years after the beginning of the women’s missionary movement in the U.S., remain committed to mission to and with women and girls. Discrimination has not been eradicated. Violence against women continues. Women earn less than men in the U.S., Latina and Black women earn less than white women. Girls are not given opportunities for education at the same rates as boys, and in some places girls lack access to feminine hygiene supplies and lack legal safeguards against child marriage. United Methodist Women are committed to mission, to advocating for women and girls around the globe. They pray together, study together, raise funds together, so that women and girls will know that they are God’s beloved children.
Whatever arguments may come in the United Methodist Church over language about God, I have hope because of women in mission, especially United Methodist Women. I have hope in spite of denominational chaos because I know that faithful women remained committed to the work of mission in spite of barriers. The fruitfulness of their work gives me strength for the journey of mission work to end discrimination against women and girls today.
The Witness – Women In Mission
A partial list of laywomen in mission who have inspired me:
Harriet Lathrop – branded an “imp of Satan” for establishing a school for poor children
Ann Hasseltine Judson – translated Daniel and Jonah into Burmese, first translator of scripture into Siamese
Eliza Grew Jones – translator and evangelist in Burma
Mary Lyon – founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which trained 175 female missionaries in its first 50 years
Ann Wilkins – pioneer missionary in Liberia
Women’s Foreign Missionary Society – first financial action was to support an Indian Bible woman in 1869
Isabella Thoburn – established the first women’s college in India
Clara Swain – first fully trained woman doctor to be sent as a foreign missionary, the hospital she founded is still in service today
Lucy Rider Meyer – her work with the Chicago Training School revived the role of deaconess in the U.S. and the work of her students founded countless schools, orphanages and hospitals
Maria Brown and Mary Porter – established Peking Boarding School & advocated for an end to the practice of foot-binding
Helen Kim – first Korean president of Ewha Women’s University, a women’s college begun by Methodist women missionaries
Helen Barrett Montgomery – author, mission theologian, major contributor to the ecumenical United Study program for women’s missionary societies
Alma Matthews – provided hospitality and safe housing for women and children immigrants in NYC
Maura Clarke & Ita Ford – Maryknoll Sisters, missionaries with the poor in El Salvador, assassinated in 1980
Pauli Murray – lawyer whose research for Methodist Women provided key information used in Brown v. Board of Education case
Regional Schools – the many women of the Woman’s Division who chose not to organize School of Christian Mission training seminars according to the segregated Methodist Church conference lines
Theressa Hoover and Mai Gray – pioneering African American women in Woman’s Division / UMW leadership roles
Glory Dharmaraj – mission theologian and educator, retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women – click through for her piece on gender and General Conference
Dana L. Robert – Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity & History of Mission, Boston University School of Theology. Director of the Center for Global Christianity and Mission
Thelma Stevens – argued for racial inclusion during 1944 General Conference despite being publicly ridiculed
Georgia Harkness – theologian who confidently argued for the equality of women in scripture with Karl Barth, at the 1944 World Council of Churches meeting
Mbwizu Ndjungu – a missionary who serves alongside her husband in Cameroon, she founded a feeding centers ministry in Senegal that reached 500 children, established United Methodist Women units and equipped them to teach and do hospital visitation ministry