Saturday, August 29, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

church and ministry

Yesterday at church, the pastor welcomed three old women who had come in support of another old woman, a regular at the church, whose son and his new wife were supposed to attend that day to receive a special blessing for their marriage. The son and his wife never came, so the significance of the other visitors' presence had to be found elsewhere--and it was.

The three visiting women all represented "classic" Pentecostal denominations, in this case, the Assemblies of God (AOG) and the Apostolic Faith Mission (AFM). Both of these denominations trace their origins to the founding event of modern Pentecostalism, the revivals of Azusa Street in Los Angeles, 1906. Within months of the movement's origins in California, participants in the Azusa Street revivals were on the ground in South Africa.

I do not know whether or not these three old women know of their churches' American roots. In this case that is not the most relevant point; Pentecostalism has taken on a life of its own within the South African context, and it was events pertaining to that particular history which concerned the pastor on this day.

"All of these ministries which we are leading come from your churches," he said, addressing the old women. "We are your children."

The pastor's statement was the most explicit affirmation that I have heard within a congregational context of the distinction that scholars have made between Pentecostals and New Pentecostals. The "we" of the pastor's statement is church leaders of his generation, forty-somethings on down, who lead "ministries". The pastor's type of Pentecostalism can perhaps best be distinguished from his spiritual parents by name rather than doctrine; he and his contemporaries are inclined to use "ministry" more than "church" to describe their work for the Lord. Thus the pastor's "church" is Harvest Time Ministries. On Sunday, another woman who now worships with Harvest Time Ministries explained that she used to worship in town with Last Hour Harvest Ministries. Last November, I met a young pastor who was leading simply God's Ministry. Our Mennonite colleagues in South Africa do worship with a "church", Breakthru Church International, but it is part of a "ministry", New Zion Ministries International.

I often wonder about the independent character of such ministries. In this situation, the pastor was expressing his dependency on those who have gone before. He owed a debt of gratitude to the mothers of the AOG and the AFM who, on this day, had entered his church to confer a special blessing upon his ministry.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009


I remember being struck a few years ago when I first read these words from Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Ghanaian theologian. She had written of the female as "the archetype of the human" for her status as the one whom human cultures expect to sacrifice self so that others might live (176-177). Oduyoye sees in the self-giving orientation the model of humanity, the meaning of what it means to be truly human. The problem, Oduyoye wrote, is that only half of the human race, namely the female, is commonly called upon to exercise self-giving. This results in a situation in which women are disproportionately crushed, for they continue to be who they are supposed to be in the context of men who live by a different cultural definition of humanity. Oduyoye's proposal, however, was not to discard the female's well-worn way of being human; it was to invite the male to understand his humanity also according to the pattern of self-giving, or, as Oduyoye calls it, the way of "mothering" (Oduyoye's essay Feminist Theology in an African Perspective can be found in Rosino Gibellini, ed., Paths of African Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 166-181.).

Last week, after Anna had preached the story of Ruth to illustrate how women could build up the church, the male pastor of the church confirmed the word for his mostly female congregation. "I also was absorbing this word. I also am a mother, you know."

As we made our way to leave that day, we noticed also another young couple who has recently joined the church and begun to exercise leadership. They are the third couple to attend the church, the other two being the pastor and his wife and Anna and I. The husband did a thing I had seen no other man do in our more than three years here: he tied their baby on his back. Mothering indeed.


responsibility and exemption

We had a lovely visit last week from a friend who lives in Pretoria. She is an Afrikaner great-grandmother who has fought apartheid and racial inequality her whole life. Being around her always reminds me of the difficulty of being an Afrikaner in South Africa and the guilt that would go along with your birthright. I have always been able to exempt myself from feeling responsibility for the sins of any given culture.

Growing up as an American Mennonite missionary kid in Ireland, I tried hard to fit in and generally did. I first realised the extent to which I would never fully fit in when, in response to a particularly devastating IRA bombing, my best friend told me how ashamed she felt to be Irish. I could not comprehend this level of identification--if she did not agree with the actions of that group then she had no reason to feel ashamed. I was always able to maintain enough distance to see those acts as the problems of others, to build my identity on a position rather than a connection to a particular people.

Moving to America, I could claim my Irishness. And more often and more effectively I could claim my Mennoniteness. We have always been pacifists who fought the system and were 'in the world but not of it.' My grandfather's barn was painted yellow when his people refused to go to war. This was my heritage and I was proud of it and not responsible for the atrocities and injustices of the nation at large.

The only place where I have felt the full impact of cultural shame is in my whiteness. In some ways coming to South Africa exhonerated me from even this shame--I am white but not the particular white culture that has been the oppressor here.

Too often I believe myself to be different and exempt. Maybe this has allowed me to work for justice in a way that cultural guilt would have prevented. I must believe this to be true because my accumulation of cultures and identities only gets more complicated as I move through life. And is finding our identity outside of a particular people or nation not our goal? Taking responsibility for injustice and not allowing guilt to overwhelm is how we move forward. I have found my particular path to this as has my Afrikaner friend.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

liberation for women?

I was asked to speak yesterday at a special 'weekend for the women' at our church. The topic was to be "the responsibility of women in building up the church." The dilemma became how to address women who occupy a more gender-stratified society than I do. For example, at churches of this type men are always the official pastors while the pastor's wife is expected to unequivocally support her husband in his role.

Several months ago the pastor told Joe that he wanted to talk to him about a problem he was having. When they met, Pastor Ntapo told Joe that he didn't think his wife was supporting him as fully as she should and that it was holding him back in his ministry. Joe asked him what his wife's gifts were, to see whether there were ways in which she might be unfulfilled and in which the pastor could support her more fully. Pastor Ntapo looked at him and in a moment of honest realisation said: "you see, in our culture, women do not have a will of their own." He loves his wife and wants to support her and his head may disagree with his statement, but his life and instinct have been influenced by this belief.

At the same time, women have a great deal of responsibility within the congregation and society and serve as the backbone which provides the structure from which men can hold the up-front roles. The pentecostal tradition of the testimony, in which there is a slot in each week's service for someone to get up and share a story or a way in which God has worked in her life, has been seen as a great gender and educational-difference equaliser. Women are also asked to pray, to provide counsel, to teach the children, to lead worship, and generally to fill whatever gaps appear on a given day, including preaching.

So how was I to address these women? Do I encourage them to claim their God-given gifts to claim formal positions of leadership? Do I encourage them to exercise their power within the structure available to them?

I took my counsel from the book of Ruth. The book provides a unique glimpse into the ways in which women work within their societal structures to manipulate events to bring about the good of all. Instead of being told from Boaz's perspective (as too many stories are), the book tells the story of how Ruth and Naomi brought about the circumstances that eventually led to the birth of David and, much farther down the line, of Jesus. The book begins and ends with a patriarchal frame--beginning with Elimelech who had a wife and sons, and ending with a male genealogy showing how the union of Boaz and Ruth led to David. In so doing it asks an enticing question--in how many other stories that are told from a male perspective are women the unknown agents of change and control? Is this book the canon's effort to mediate itself and provide a clue to something missing in other parts?

I preached this text and used it to encourage the women to claim the power that they do have and to use it for great good--to be immersed in the Story in order to be properly prepared for the positions of leadership that they hold. When teaching the children, they need to be teaching the stories of the faith that give the children resources for dealing with the real world in the way that television soap operas cannot. When giving testimony, they can be prepared with a week's worth of reflections and new insight instead of relying on the old cliches too common to this genre. When praying, they can know the God to whom they pray by knowing the story. As the standard of their leadership increases, so too can their power within the church. Some women are already doing these things and I am certainly not blaming them for the inequality of their society but it is my observation that they are too often willing to cede the thinking and telling to the men, falling back themselves on cliche and inherited wisdom. Hope and worth are the real needs.

Did I pass by my chance to preach real change to these women? Did I allow myself to preach complacency within an unjust structure?

I hope not.

As I prepared to preach, I looked around and noticed the four men in the building each holding a child. There is a cultural shift happening here and it will be a slow change for everyone. A necessary step will be for the women to prepare themselves and to claim their God-given gifts, no longer seeing themselves as powerless and hopeless, taking their example from Ruth and Naomi who used the structure given to them to bring about change and good.

Mama Goniwe sharing a testimony.

Sis Nandi leading singing.

Multi-generational dancing after church --Zinje, Mama Deleki, Nontoko, and Mama Cengani.


My ideas about the book of Ruth are influenced by Richard Bauckham's Gospel Women (2002).