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Women challenge churches to redefine mission

Women in discussion at the CWME conference

By Heather Chappell

The mission of women is often very ordinary. It happens every day, sometimes in very quiet ways.

It happens in Canada when a woman encourages the spiritual gifts of her three daughters. It happens in Nigeria when Christian and Muslim women join in solidarity to protest religious violence in their town. It happens in India when a woman with a theological degree offers to volunteer at her church because, as a woman, she will never be ordained there.

"Women in the church are doing many things, but often hesitate to call it mission," says German missiologist Katja Heidemanns, who led the only workshop dealing specifically with women's issues at the 13th Conference on World Mission and Evangelism near Athens, Greece. "Often their work is not recognized because it doesn't fall under the official, narrow understanding of what mission is." The workshop, which focused on women in mission, included presentations by women working in various areas of healing and reconciling ministry.

Women often flourish in the areas of education, health care and pastoral care. Jacinta Maingi, from Kenya, has worked for 22 years counselling those living with HIV/AIDS. She views the church as a healing space, a hospital for those who are physically, mentally and spiritually sick and wounded. "Christ came to those in need," she says. "And we must do the same."

Nilda Castro of the Philippines ministers to migrant people through The Mission and Ministry of the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People. She believes that the only way to bring about healing and reconciliation is through love. "Not just any kind of love," she explains. "Rather, the love that is a reflection of God. This is a love that makes us ready to die on the cross for one another." Castro feels that women are particularly predisposed to this type of sacrificial love through their connection to childbearing and motherhood.

Women need opportunities

Of course, mission belongs to and should involve everyone, regardless of gender. "All of us, male and female, young and old, are called to proclaim the good news to all people," says Rev. Dr Hyacinth Ione Boothe, a professor at United Theological College of the West Indies in Jamaica. She feels that women must be themselves, and not try to become men. "The compassionate and nurturing side of women should be reflected in their ministry," she says. "However, they need to explore ways in which their witness will enrich the fellowship of the church without automatically subscribing to the traditional hierarchy of ministry in the church." She stresses that women need to be involved in all areas of ministry. This can be difficult in churches where the ministry of women is still not recognized or encouraged.

There is so much that women can do. "Women don't need empowerment. They are already empowered," says Maingi. What they do need is support and opportunities that will allow them to use their gifts in ways that serve the church and the world.

When questioned about the lack of topics specifically related to women, conference organizers stated that women's voices will be heard inclusively throughout the conference during worship, plenaries and workshops. However, the lack of official focus on women at the conference has disappointed some delegates. Janet Plenart, Executive Director of International Ministries for the Mennonite Church Canada, feels that much could be gained by allowing for more specific dialogue and sharing on women's issues.

As women work together to redefine the understanding of mission, they have a great opportunity to bring a new dimension to the church's concept of itself. "Women have the particular role of challenging the church to be true to the liberating message of the gospel," says Boothe.

(*) Heather Chappell is a writer from Toronto, Ontario. She works as programme assistant for The Presbyterian Church in Canada in the areas of stewardship and mission education.