Seven of us landed in Johannesburg this morning. Our base for the next 10 days is the lovely setting of the Mazenod Retreat Centre in Lambton just outside Johannesburg. The seven is made up of four Baptists representing the Baptists Together BME Women Ministers Network (Triumph, Beatrice, Carol and Gale) and three Methodists representing the Methodist Women in Britain (Charity, Molly and Mary). Tonight we had the pleasure of meeting the Director of the Mission Unit for the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He spoke of his excitement at the vibrancy of the growing Christian faith in children and youth and the centrality of the church in Southern African communities. At the same time he talked of the biggest challenges he sees in community life as being in the areas of human trafficking and food poverty. Over the next few days we will explore the potential role women in leadership are playing and potentially can play in all of these areas and more. There's already a growing sense amongst the seven of us that there is much we will learn during our time out here.
We began the day with the reading I had chosen for the day Psalm 24, which speaks of the earth and everything in it being God's. It was with those words in mind that we headed to the World Heritage site 'Cradle of humankind.' As we headed into the caves we came face to face with all sorts of facts and questions that science throws at you about how the environment has shaped the evolution of humankind and how humankind is shaping the environment. There was a lot we questioned but one thing was for sure - It was not difficult for us to begin to make the link between environmental issues and the food poverty that the Director for Mission for the Methodist Church in Southern Africa spoke to us about the previous night. Tomorrow we begin our conversations with women in leadership here in South Africa as we attend the 'Magnify' conference and hear firsthand how they are bringing their knowledge, creativity and experience to the life and mission of the church over here.
Today we had the privilege of spending the day at the 'Magnify' Women in Leadership conference. An initiative led by Jane Day a Baptist minister from the UK working on secondment to the Methodist Church in Southern Africa. This is a pioneering initiative here in South Africa as it is leading the way in bringing together women from a range of ethnic and socio-economic groups after the damaging effects of the Apartheid regime. As we explored a day of prayerful reflection on the theme of 'Communion with each other and God' we heard instances of how these women are drawing on their collective insights and experiences to help transform the lives of vulnerable girls and women, as well as the lives of children living in poverty, which includes advocating for access to education for children with disabilities. We left with a sense of the great and necessary contributions women as leaders are and potentially can bring to the church. As we made use of prayer shawls, imagination prayer, prayer awareness walks, broke bread together and so on, we got a real sense of what might be possible if more girls and boys, women and men acknowledge the God-given potential and calling of women to leadership. Tomorrow we look forward to the privilege of preaching in churches here, where we may well feel led to touch on that very point.
Day 4 and 5
Members of our team preached at churches in and around Germiston yesterday, which was also Mother's Day here in South Africa. Some preached in all white churches, others in all black churches and one of us in one of those rare churches here that is actually multiethnic and is also intentionally seeking to be multicultural. Each of those church settings provided in there different ways a moment for us to show the value in having women in leadership and the helpful insights people from different cultural backgrounds can offer. As we focused more on 'Mothering Sunday' as opposed to 'Mother's Day' and gave a more global dimension to intercessory prayers and sung worship, as well as named female images of God in the 1 Peter 2:1-10 lectionary reading for the day...Following on from the embracing of diversity yesterday, we had the contrasting experience of spending time today at the Apartheid museum, which marks the rise and fall of the damaging Apartheid regime which was of course built on its exclusivity on the grounds of 'race.' The most frightening aspect of the regime for many of us was the extent to which parts of the church birthed and bought into the regime. This led us to spend the evening reflecting on how the theme of reconciliation needs to be at the heart of ministry and mission. This theme may well inform the discussions we have tomorrow with the national Methodist leadership here in South Africa on the importance of the development and resourcing of women in leadership.
We spent the day at the Connexional office for The Methodist Church of Southern Africa. Our first meeting of the day was with Methodist women ministers from across the region where we shared our respective experiences of being female ministers in South Africa and in the UK. Our second meeting of the day was with the General Secretary and Presiding bishop. It was interesting to hear that: Aapproximately 200 of the 700 plus of their Methodist ministers are female; None of their serving 12 bishops or the Presiding bishop that oversees them are female; and In 2015 they appointed their first ever female General Secretary and she continues to holds this office. We were also actually honoured to have the one and only ever female bishop they have ever had, present in our first meeting of the day. She shared how she felt that it was the support she had from a male bishop championing her that had been crucial in her appointment as a bishop back in 1999. Further that she went into the role with both a good grasp of what the role would entail, and the legitimacy of being elected by the people. These two things were invaluable as she served as a bishop from 1999 - 2007. It was also inspiring to hear about the grass roots level work that female ministers had undertaken in recent times to offer their time to teach in many local churches on issues such as interpreting Paul's writing on things like women covering there heads. This was in the context of local church organisations issuing directive guidance on women's dress which was quite restrictive and not consistent with a more open policy at national and international levels of the Methodist Church. As we concluded our discussions there was a consensus amongst the women ministers present from both South Africa and the UK that there was a need to support education at grass roots level in local communities in conjunction with faith leaders on gender based equality issues that organisations like Tearfund are undertaking. In addition we concluded this needed to be complemeted by accessible educational resources for congregations and ministers which explore Feminist and Womanist theological perspectives on gender based equality issues. Those collective efforts we felt would lay the foundations for more women to emerge and thrive as leaders and ministers in our churches and wider communities.
The day was spent in Soweto. The place Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived for many years of their lives. The place that was the heartbeat of so much of the struggle against apartheid. It might seem surprising then that our first stop in Soweto was a treatment centre for addiction at a hospital. However, one of the things that has shaped post-apartheid life here in the townships of South Africa has been the rise in drug use and drug addiction. It was good to hear from the mainly Christian staff team about the creative techniques that this particular centre for young men was using to tackle addiction, such as drama based sessions. Government funding in the area of addiction treatment here is limited and particularly scarce for women fighting addiction. The scope for the church over here to assist in this addiction treatment area was clear, and the prayer is very much that the church will find a way to offer this assistance. Our next stop was the Regina Mundi Catholic church. A church which was a key meeting place for Soweto people to discuss anti-apartheid strategies when political meetings in public places were banned. It struck me as to how ecumenical the movement was amongst those in the church in South Africa who struggled against apartheid. Our next stop was the Hector Pietersen museum. A place that marks the role young people played in the struggle against apartheid. Hector being a 12 year old boy who lost his life in the 1976 uprising by students. Some of us left Soweto praying the church will be sufficiently resourced to help meet the needs of a current generation of young people both male and female trying to cope with the aftermath of the brutal psychological, economical effects of apartheid regime on them, their families and communities. We remain convinced that a sufficient resourcing of the church to respond to this need will have to include the resourcing of adequate numbers of both women and men in its leadership structures.
On our penultimate day there was time for some planned facilitated reflection on our time in South Africa, as well as time for shopping for gifts to take home! Our reflection time focused on 3 questions: What has surprised you? What has been challenging? How have you encountered God? Our answers were varied and in many ways that reflects the diversity of the team. Our diversity extends from things like the different countries we were born in (Britain, Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Nigeria), our cultural heritages, to our Church tradition, and spirituality! Wherever we have gone and whatever we have done it is clear our diversity has shaped that experience. Living in community as we live out that diversity it is clear has been as rich a source of learning, as exploring ministry and mission in South Africa. We attempted to capture some of that in a creative drawing activity. I wonder what we will remember about the process of jointly creating that picture, in weeks, months to come...
On this our last day, we went to our first fully Baptist event - A Women's Conference by the Baptist Union of South Africa. Having spent all of our time in South Africa so far in predominantly formal Methodist settings, it was quite a contrast to be met with an immediately apparent less formal liturgy and setting. We were asked to give words of encouragement and tesimony to the women gathered. This was where our diversity came to the fore, and many present said they were blessed just by that. Each of us spoke a word that touched someone there. Some of us chose to partially sing or sing and dance part of our testimony. Greetings were brought by us in our different languages. Some of us spoke from our perspective of being married and having children another from the perspective of being single, each stressing the importance of knowing your value and purpose whatever your status. Another spoke on how being mentored or being a mentor is important. Another on the need to know and be faithful to your calling. Yet another on the importance of exploring biblical texts on the role of women in church life from different perspectives, and the importance of raising awareness of and challenging gender based violence. No sooner had we shared our testimonies it was time for us to leave the conference and head to the airport. The delegates couldn't believe it was time for us to leave and neither could we. It was also time to say goodbye to our host Revd Jane Day, who together with her husband Revd Stephen Day organised the programme we have been privileged to enjoy during our time here in South Africa. Our prayer - other groups will come and experience some of what we have and also be blessed. We leave richer for the experience, better resourced as women in leadership, and hopefully in a small way have and will inspire others in this commitment to grow more women in leadership.
To find out more about the BME Women Ministers' Network click here.
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