This was first published in Mennonite World Review, May 2013 by Laurie Oswald Robinson
When Carolyn Heggen considered going abroad with Sister Care — a Mennonite Women USA-sponsored seminar to empower lay women for caring ministry — she, as co-facilitator, wondered what she could possibly have to teach women outside the U.S.
“So much of what I know about courage, resilience and persistence I have learned from women overseas,” said Heggen. “But we do have resources of education, of free time to create and write, of technology that many women don’t have… . We don’t spend four or five hours a day securing enough water so we can cook and do our laundry.”
When the first international seminar was held last fall in Cuttack, India, 325 attended.
Rhoda Keener, co-director of Mennonite Women USA and co-facilitator of the seminars with Heggen, founded and piloted Sister Care in 2008. Since then, demand for Sister Care has swept through Mennonite Church USA, where it will have been held in all 21 area conferences by the end of 2013.
Now Mennonite women around the world are asking for Sister Care in their regions. In addition to the seminars, trainings are being offered so Sister Care can be led locally in places like Guatemala and Nepal.
Need for support
The need for support abroad is obvious, according to Heggen, a psychotherapist who specializes in gender issues and trauma recovery.
“Nepalese and Indian girls are often married off before puberty to assure their virginity,” she said. “Many Latin American girls are abused or raped. And the homicide rate for males in their 20s in one Honduran community is one out of 150, leaving women without husbands and sons and daughters without fathers.”
Sister Care addresses this suffering through fellowship, worship and the development of caring tools.
In August, Heggen and Elizabeth Soto Albrecht, moderator-elect of MC USA, will offer the seminar in Colombia, and possibily the Southern Cone in South America.
Recently the Sister Care manual was produced in Spanish as well as English, and women are being trained to give the seminar in their own contexts.
Keener and Heggen gave the first leadership training in Guatemala last year and this February in Nepal. The next leadership training — to be provided by Latin American women trained in the material — will be held in Mexico in late May.
Olga Piedrasanta, a participant at Sister Care Guatemala, wrote this affirming testimonial:
“I saw 61 women praising, singing, telling stories of suffering and pain, but recognizing the spirit of God in their lives… . I saw women sharing joys and sorrows. I saw hugs and women growing close to each other. I heard deep dialogue, sharing of knowledge, mutual support, friendship and loving care.”
The struggles of women across the globe can be dramatic. Even in North America, Keener said, material wealth masks inner pain, and abuse issues fester in silence. Compounding the problem is the failure of many congregations to validate women’s experiences and gifts.
“Long before I became executive director of Mennonite Women USA, I wanted to more deeply integrate my healing journey with my faith journey,” Keener said. “I became convinced of the need for this integration when I began to connect with women across the church.
“Many women expressed how they felt so alone, and congregational leaders expressed the need for more woman-to-woman ministry. This convinced me that a theology of God’s love and grace needed to be more connected with a psychology of healthy care of one’s self and others.”
So Keener began the seminars, the first taking place in Harrisonburg, Va., and attracting 90 attendees. In four segments they share tools that are biblically centered in Christ and use insights from theology and psychology: claiming identity as God’s beloved, caring for self and others, compassionate listening and transforming loss and grief.
Doris Diener coordinated a seminar in Sarasota, Fla. She is the minister of women for Southeast Conference’s Mennonite Women organization. From childhood she remembers that on a relative’s birthday women in her family would gather to spend time together while doing housework as a birthday gift for her.
“Women carry a tremendous load without the conduits of care that women from former eras had to help carry it,” Diener said. “Many women work both inside and outside the home and carry lots of responsibilities… . Because of less face-to-face time with others in their communities, they are feeling lonelier and more isolated, and women are hungry for places to connect and to share their stories.”
Spectrum of ages
Keener and Heggen are thrilled to see a wide spectrum of ages represented at Sister Care seminars. They said younger women tend to be more emotionally open and honest, qualities that often elude older women who were taught to be more private about their pain.
The seminars have included women as young as those in their 20s such as Anne Diller, Erica Garber and Alyshia Zimmerman, who attended a Sister Care seminar in spring 2012.
Keener and Heggen invited these three Eastern Mennonite University students in Harrisonburg to create a 12-session Sister Care video series for their joint senior class project. The series and a companion workbook, to be completed in August, will extend the seminar’s reach into Sunday school classes and small groups.
“I was one of the youngest women in attendance, but I was pleasantly surprised to experience how the seminar applied as much to my life as it did to women who were in their 50s, 60s and 70s,” Diller said.
Nurturing women of all ages and backgrounds is what Mennonite Women USA — which in 2016-17 will celebrate 100 years of ministry — hopes to perpetuate, said Ruth Lapp Guengerich, co-director with Keener of Mennonite Women USA.
Sister Care resonates with Mennonite Women USA’s mission — nurturing life in Christ through Bible studies, sharing each other’s stories, caring for each other and providing opportunities for mission and service. This nurturing may not happen as much around the quilting frame as it once did. But it is still happening around the coffee cup, in small groups, Women in Conversation retreats and Sister Care.
“Through Sister Care, we are sending the best of our understanding of what it means to live out our faith in caring community in ways that fit our 21st century,” Lapp Guengerich said.