Dispatches from Crossing the Line: “Lines of Memory and Encounter on the ‘Mission Field'”

Lines of Memory and Encounter on the ‘Mission Field

Panel 2: Friday, June 23, 8:30 to 10

Three presenters gave papers focused on women on the “mission field”—either those serving as missionaries, or being missionized.

Joel Horst Nofziger presents his paper on Eastern Mennonite Mission workers in Ethiopia.

‘I Was the Kind of Woman Whom the Culture Expected’: The Experience of Mennonite Missionary Women in Ethiopia

By Joel Horst Nofziger, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society

  • Recorded and transcribed oral histories of ten Eastern Mennonite Mission workers who served in Ethiopia in the 1940s-1990s.
  • Explored the challenges of language training—and lack thereof. While women missionaries wanted such training, mission administrators rarely supplied it. As a result, these missionaries often experienced loneliness and tended to communicate only with those who shared their language, mostly other missionaries and male converts.
  • Described the interpersonal, cultural, and religious challenges associated with “intercultural mixing.” Although EMM actively discouraged it, some single women missionaries married Ethiopian men. These couples faced discipline from the mission board as well as social stigma.
  • Conclusion: EMM workers crossed national lines as well as cultural and religious boundaries in their work.

“Mennonite Brethren Missionary Women Encounter Dalit Women in Colonial South India”

By Yennamalla Jayaker, Mennonite Brethren Centenary Bible College:

  • Twentieth-century Mennonite Brethren mission workers in colonial South India had significant impact, especially in uplifting Dalits (the “untouchables,” members of the lowest caste system) through education.
  • MB missionaries provided not just religious education, but also general education in subjects such as reading, writing, etc.
  • Women missionaries played a key role in these educational endeavor, as school builders, teachers, and more. The key to their success was learning the local language of the Dalit and teaching in that language, rather than English.

“Gendered Historical Memory, Tanzania Mennonite Church Women and the East African Revival, 1940s-1950s”

By Jan Bender Shetler, Goshen College:

  • Due to a family situation, Bender Shetler could not attend and instead sent a student to read her paper.
  • Advancing the work of Africanists such as Derek Peterson, Bender argued that the East African Revival was not only a cosmopolitan, transnational discourse that provided Christian converts with an alternative to the nationalist discourse of ethnic patriots—but also a gendered discourse.
  • Through participation in this revival movement, church women learned a particular kind of life narrative or testimony (in which they described their move from spiritual darkness to salvation) that they repeated in church settings. This testimony enabled them to resist certain tribal rituals (i.e. female circumcision) and to understand storytelling as a form of empowerment—one that was threatening to male leaders.
  • In this sense, the East African Revival was a “feminist space,” one in which women participated in cross-ethnic fellowship and forged relationships beyond the Mennonite Church and beyond Tanzania.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.

“Overcoming Barriers and Building Empowerment: Stories of Anabaptist Women in India” by Cynthia Peacock

Cynthia Peacock, Banquet.jpg

Cynthia Peacock, the second keynote speaker at Crossing the Line, gave a warmly received talk on the achievements and challenges of Anabaptist women in India. Cynthia spoke from her decades of ministry experience in India, first with Mennonite Central Committee in India and then with the Mennonite World Conference. She began her talk by describing a challenge faced during her work: how could she, and the women she worked with, build bridges across the boundaries they encountered?

She shared stories of two women in India who served as role models early in her work. The first, Pandita Ramabai, was a high-caste Hindu woman who converted to Christianity and became a Bible translator and worked to uplift women of lower caste. The second, Mother Teresa, was someone Cynthia worked with personally, as part of her work with MCC in Calcutta. Cynthia shared stories of how Mother Teresa fearlessly overcame boundaries and asked government officials for support of her relief work.

Cynthia then went on to tell stories of some of the setbacks she and other Indian Anabaptist women encountered as they tried to take on more active roles in their churches and denominational structures. For example, she and a group of women spent three years working on a constitution for an independent women’s group within the Anabaptist church hierarchy in India. They had received some support from male church leaders, but when the leadership changed they were completely unsupportive of the endeavor, and even physically destroyed the copy of the constitution the women had brought to the meeting.

She also spoke of her efforts to provide Anabaptist women in India with theological training. These efforts did not always have the full support of male church leaders. In one instance, Cynthia and other women tried to organize a women’s conference, and the male official in charge of a final logistical detail failed to fulfill his responsibilities, which caused the conference to be postponed indefinitely.

In addition to stories of setbacks, she told of women’s successes as they played more active roles in churches. Cynthia’s own church grew from a five-member house church to a much larger church with a Sunday School serving over a hundred children, in large part because the women of the congregation were free to use all their gifts in service of the church. The women in her church organize programs, preach, lead worship, and have an important voice in matters of church governance.

She ended by sharing how she had overcome barriers in her own life. God’s help, and the help of supportive friends, have strengthened and empowered her through the difficulties she has faced over the course of her own life. With God’s help, she overcame fear and shyness and began to share her story as she ministered to other women. She gave glory to God for all that has happened in her life. Indeed, she concluded, John 5:5 and Philippians 4:13 have proved true in her life. Apart from God, she could do nothing, but she can do all things through Him who strengthens her.

See other writings on “Crossing the Line: Women of Anabaptist Traditions Encounter Borders and Boundaries” here.