News Analysis: Mennonite Women Find Their Voices

Published in The Mennonite November 2011.

International Women’s Fund: $74,000 in grants to 57 women in 18 countries

by Laurie Oswald Robinson for Mennonite Church USA

Rebecca Osiro served many years as a lay minister among her people in Kenya, bringing songs of hope and healing to a homeland plagued with HIV-AIDS and other challenges.

Today she is also praising God for the empowerment she gained as a recipient of the International Women’s Fund (IWF) to prepare for full-time pastoral ministry. The support she received through Mennonite Women USA’s IWF scholarship program helped fund her theological studies. The studies prepared her to become pastor of a congregation in Nairobi—the first woman to be ordained in the Mennonite Church in Kenya and a model for other African women who want to burst beyond restrictions to broaden their horizons.

Rebecca Osiro became the first woman to be ordained in the Mennonite Church in Kenya and currently serves as a pastor in Nairobi. Photo by Steve Keener.

“The education I received gave me skills to better face the tasks and challenges in the ministry and community,” says Osiro, assistant secretary of a leadership support group, African Anabaptist Women Theologians. “The training exposed me to the international community, opened doors for a higher level of education and offered a means of wider networking.

“I now also assist young high school women in establishing income-generating opportunities and help them identify their gifts in the church, such as singing and leading devotions and Sunday school classes for children. The young women are now planning to produce Bible story songs for children in the African context.”

Growing chorus: Osiro is part of a growing chorus of Mennonite women across the globe for whom financial support transforms an undeveloped call into a full and fruitful ministry. For the past three decades, programs sponsored by Mennonite women have enabled many of their Anabaptist sisters around the globe to be blessed with training for ministries that in turn bless the entire church.

The former Mennonite Women in Mission organization in the late 1970s began providing scholarships for women seeking theological training. Since 2001, Mennonite Women USA has awarded a total of $74,000 to 57 women in 18 countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America.

Women theologians from across the Americas met in Guatemala in 2007 to plan the women theologians gathering prior to the Menno­nite World Conference assembly in Asunción, Paraguay, in 2009. Most of the planners and many of the participants were women who received scholarships for theological studies. From left: Alix Lozano, Colombia; Elizabeth Vado, Nicaragua: Gladys Siemens, Brazil; Sandra Campos, Costa Rica; Ofelia García, Mexico, and Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, United States. Photo by Linda Shelly.

The small scholarships of $500-$1,000 have empowered women to provide God’s hope and healing. And the global significance of these women’s gifts has encouraged Mennonite Women USA to enlarge the fund annually from $7,000 to $10,000, says Rhoda Keener and Ruth Lapp Guengerich, co-executive directors for Mennonite Women USA. Referrals are made by Mennonite Church USA agencies, and recipients are chosen by the Mennonite Women USA board of directors.

“As I have worked with applicants and recipients,” Keener says, “I have been amazed and humbled by the impact these women’s ministries have had in their communities and their congregations. Their comprehensive ministries are providing healing for domestic violence, support for economic needs and … biblical and scriptural teachings. They help women in crisis—and when they help women, they help the entire community.”

For example, recipients have helped develop counseling services for women in Chile, address economics in Africa, provide ministry to empower women in India, tackle human trafficking in Asia and train for a career in peace-building in the United States. Many of these women have also enlarged their spheres nationally and internationally.

The testimonies of recipients Sandra Campos, Rachel Bagh and Elizabeth Soto Albrecht harmonize with aspects of Osiro’s story but also resound with the originality of their particular call, ethnicity and cultural background.

Sandra Campos, Costa Rica: As an IWF recipient, Sandra Campos has grown in her ministry locally, regionally and globally. She coordinates the Costa Rican Bible Institute and teaches some of its courses. She also serves as president of the Conference of Mennonite Churches in Costa Rica and has been appointed as a Latin American representative to the Mennonite World Conference (MWC) Executive Committee.

In September 2010, she served as one of the organizers of the third meeting of Anabaptist Women Theologians of Central America, Belize and Panama. The gathering focused on several topics, including the current role of women in the church.

Participants formed a declaration that included promoting models of leadership that reconcile the biblical with the contextual and further theological exchanges among women in various countries and organizations.

The support she received through IWF helped to form Campos into a leader who both reflects on these deeper issues and takes action to work for change and greater empowerment for women.

“As I serve in my various roles,” she says, “I am given the opportunity to propose and implement changes in the national church through education programs, such as the Bible Institute for Justice and Peace Program. At the regional level, I am helping advance Anabaptist Women Theologians of Central America. This is helping build a greater awareness of our need to train women for greater participation in places that traditionally were shaped exclusively by men.”

Because of attitudinal changes and increasing educational opportunities for women, the Costa Rican church has licensed seven women for pastoral work, she says. Theological training has allowed her and others to transcend the old boundaries.

“As women, we feel useful in our service to others and do not settle for being a spectator,” Campos says. “We try to be part of work, changes and achievements that are part of building God’s kingdom.”

Rachel Bagh, India: Since IWF recipient Rachel Bagh completed her theological studies, she has been developing circles of support for theologically trained women in India. She is also teaching in a seminary and is involved in the development of conflict mediation workshops.

Bagh believes that increased theological training opportunities for women can lead them in living godly lives at home, at church and within their communities. The training can help them manage their homes with greater understanding in the Lord and impart kingdom values to their children, she says. Training can also help them better share the gospel message in their local communities and to provide help in domestic crisis situations.

“Domestic violence is rampant,” she says, “and theologically trained women can help children who are at risk, extend financial help to educate girls, raise funds for church and mission and become agents of transformation.

“It is through the pastors group of the church and women through whom this work of conflict mediation can be extended,” Bagh says. “As we get organized, there will be opportunities for women to extend the cause of peace.

“Theologically trained women of our churches need to renew their calling and commitment and realize their role and their ministry in the church and in the society. We are moving towards this slowly but surely.”

Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, United States: Mennonite Women USA recognized Soto Albrecht’s gifts for leadership and provided an IWF scholarship to help support some of her theological training. The small IWF stipend has reaped great dividends for the church through Soto Albrecht’s wide-ranging ministry.

For example, Soto Albrecht, is the first Hispanic person to become moderator-elect for Mennonite Church USA. She has also authored two books that address issues related to women, family wholeness, and peace and nonviolence. They are Family Violence: Reclaiming a Theology of Nonviolence (Orbis Books, 2008) and Seek Peace and Pursue It: Women, Faith and Family Care (Faith and Life Resources, Mennonite Publishing Network, 2010).

“Because Mennonite Women USA believed in me enough to support my theological education, their investment has helped me turn around and give it back to the church in the form of ministry and ser­vice,” says Soto Albrecht, a member of Laurel Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa.

Soto Albrecht grew up in Puerto Rico, where she was baptized in her home church, Iglesia Menonita el Buen Pastor. She earned a doctor of ministry degree in the international feminist program of San Francisco (Calif.) Theological Seminary. She also earned a master of arts in religion from the Seminario Evangelico de Puerto Rico in San Juan and a bachelor’s degree in health education from the Universidad de Puerto Rico. She also studied at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.

Soto Albrecht served with the Colombian Mennonite Church. During her last two years in Colombia, Soto Albrecht was pastor of Armenia Mennonite Church and was ordained in October 2004. She helped lead the Latin American Center of Anabaptist Resources (CLARA) and served as academic dean of the Colombian Mennonite Seminary in Bogotá, Colombia.

Currently, she is coordinator of field education and consultant for cross-cultural seminar trips for Lancaster Theological Seminary, a United Church of Christ seminary.

Song of giftedness: People involved in developing new leadership throughout the global Anabaptist church are hearing and affirming the chorus of IWF recipients. Their voices are gaining passion and persistence as they pursue God’s call in the face of the 21st-century challenges and opportunities.

“The global church consists of both women and men, and in fact, women in many places around the world carry the bulk of the work and are the most present and ongoing in the life of the church in terms of social ministries and evangelism,” says Nancy Heisey, past president of Mennonite World Conference and undergraduate dean at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. “There has been a disconnect between church male-dominated leadership and what happens in congregations. By bringing women into the realm of theological and biblical training, they are being brought into leadership levels in the church in all kinds of ways.”

Tim Lind, church-to-church relations coordinator for MWC, agrees. “The fact that there is an agency in the global Anabaptist family that is dedicated to supporting women’s theological studies in itself gives value to such women in the eyes of the churches and church leaders,” he says. “Both for those churches that already support women in pastoral ministry and for those that do not yet, this is an encouragement.

“Many church leaders claim that they are not opposed to women’s ordination and pastoral ministry roles but that there are few or no women with the educational qualifications. Mennonite Women USA support has helped remove this obstacle.”

Linda Shelly, Mennonite Mission Network’s director for mission relationships in Latin America, believes that the more women as well as men are encouraged to pursue God’s call, the more the church will grow in its song of praise to God, the giver of all giftedness.

“The more that IWF encourages women, the more they are coming forth,” she says. “And the more they are coming forth, the more opportunities we have to provide not only dollars but the solidarity of spirit that strengthens relationships and connections across the globe as both men and women pursue God’s mission together.”

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