This article first appeared in the print version of The Mennonite.
by Anita Hooley Yoder
Now this, I thought, is a real “World Conference moment.” I was having a conversation in Spanish with a woman whose family came from a Low German-speaking Mennonite community in Mexico. Although neither of us was speaking our first language, we quickly connected over our interest in ministry among women—I as the writer of a history project for Mennonite Women USA (MW USA), she in her work with “Old Colony” Mennonite women. We also were both familiar with Sister Care, the program of self-healing and mutual support created by MW USA.
The woman I was speaking with, Anna Giesbrecht, had actually gone through the Sister Care seminar twice. Neither of her Sister Care experiences was led by MW USA personnel. Rather, Giesbrecht received the material from Ofelia García, a Mexican Mennonite pastor, and other Latin American leaders. García was trained at the 2013 Sister Care weekend seminar led by Carolyn Heggen and Rhoda Keener in Guatemala. García has since adapted the material for use in many different contexts, including as weekly meetings and as Sunday school lessons for children of both genders. And now Giesbrecht has taken the Sister Care materials to the Old Colony Mennonite women of Chihuahua.
Giesbrecht guided the women through the Sister Care material in 12 weekly sessions. Two pieces of the material particularly caught their attention: the unit that calls women to acknowledge “I am a daughter of God,” and the section about expressing pain and grief. “I think that in general we traditional Mennonites have a problem; we didn’t learn how to express our feelings,” she said. She recalled a significant moment related to the biblical passage where Tamar (King David’s daughter) is abused by her brother. A woman came up to her after the discussion, expressing surprise that this was in the Bible. “The same thing happened to me with my brother,” she told Giesbrecht. “Well, we cried,” Giesbrecht said. “We cried a lot. And I believe that there was much healing.”
I was fascinated to hear about this moment of healing for a German-speaking Mennonite woman that stemmed from materials originally created by English-speaking Mennonite women, then adapted by Spanish-speaking Mennonite women.
And rather than meaning being lost during this transmission, it seems only to have been enhanced. At Mennonite World Conference (MWC) this July, I heard reports of Sister Care seminars presented in Portuguese, presented to Catholic women, to indigenous women, and to an authority in a local branch of Argentina’s Women’s Department. I heard about Sister Care presented as a one-day seminar or a bi-monthly meeting, presented in churches and daycare centers and restaurants and homes. MW USA has led eight seminars in Latin American countries for a total of 467 women. Linda Shelly, Mennonite Mission Network director for Latin America, estimates these women have taught an additional 95 seminars eventually reaching 2,800 women.
Conversations about Sister Care were not the only signs of MW USA connections at the MWC assembly.
Many of the women involved in MWC leadership have received scholarships for theological study through MW USA’s International Women’s Fund. Four women on MWC Commissions (out of about 10 total female Commission members) have received these funds at some point: Cynthia Peacock (India), Alix Lozano (Colombia), Rebecca Osiro (Kenya), and García. At the assembly, Osiro was commissioned as MWC vice-president, and Peacock was recognized for her work as chair of the Deacons Commission. These women have been connected with and supported by many organizations besides MW USA, and in some cases MW USA’s contributions were only a small part of their expenses. But I came away from the assembly realizing that MW USA’s International Women’s Fund is not only helping train female leaders for local churches and communities; it is helping produce leaders for our global Anabaptist church.
Mennonite women’s organizations have a long history of global connection and support.
Most Mennonite women’s groups started as sewing circles or “Ladies Aid societies” whose members sewed clothing and collected money to support overseas missionaries and mission projects. Through their publications, the denominational women’s organizations promoted awareness of the church’s mission endeavors and the challenges faced by people from various cultures. The Women’s World Outreach Fund, started in 1979 by Women in Mission (the General Conference Mennonite Church’s women’s organization), supported women from different countries in college or seminary studies, either in North America or in their own context.
In the early 2000s, Mennonite Women (the predecessor organization of MW USA) began several Sister-Link projects. These projects attempted to forge international relationships between women with some element of mutuality. One of the most vibrant Sister-Links was a partnership with African women theologians. At the 2003 MWC assembly in Zimbabwe, African women who had been networking for several years named seven women to a leadership committee of African Anabaptist Women Theologians. MWC staff helped connect the women with MW USA, who found donors to provide scholarships for women the African theologians selected. Sylvia Shirk, a pastor in the United States, organized a prayer partner/pen pal project, linking the seven founding members of the African group with seven women theologians in the United States.
This Sister-Link formally ended in 2009, but MW USA’s global partnerships continue. MW USA has supported the recent development of networks for Anabaptist women theologians in Latin America and Asia. (The MWC Global Sharing Fund, Mennonite Central Committee, Mennonite Mission Network, and other groups have also given significant support to these networks.) In 2015, MW USA’s International Women’s Fund provided a total of $10,000 in scholarship money to 20 women from 11 countries. And Sister Care International remains active, with upcoming seminars scheduled for Cuba, East Africa, and tentative plans for Indonesia.
Fostering global connections is not always easy, of course.
Communication and organization are difficult across geographic and language barriers. Funding is always a challenge for an organization solely dependent on donations and grants. In some ways, MW USA’s strong global relationships highlight its relative lack of vibrant relationships with women of different races and cultures in the United States—though planning is underway for Sister Care seminars led by Hispanic and African American women in this country. It is also interesting that many prominent international female pastors and seminary professors, especially in Latin America, are strongly connected with the organization. This is not the case for the most visible female pastors and professors in this country, who seem more likely to connect with MC USA’s Women in Leadership Project or mixed-gender groups. No one organization can serve everyone, but it should be noted that not all Mennonite women in the United States see themselves or their interests reflected in MW USA.
Still, these global connections are fun to cultivate and celebrate. Perhaps the ultimate “World Conference moment” I experienced at this summer’s assembly was the gathering to explore the formation of a global Anabaptist women theologians network. Leaders in the Latin American Women Theologians movement facilitated the gathering, along with Elizabeth Soto Albrecht (recent Mennonite Church USA moderator and another former International Women’s Fund recipient). We met in continent groups to discuss the
questions: Do we need a global network for Anabaptist women theologians? And if so, para que—for what? The sense in the North American group I joined was that if the Latin American women are asking us to do this, then yes, let’s do it. After the discussion time, each continent answered the first question with a “yes,” to cheers and murmurs of affirmation from the Latin American women.
“We are just beginning, but what we are beginning is something very encouraging and very real,” said Angela Opimí, co-coordinator of the Latin American Women Theologians.
Opimí also recognized Rhoda Keener, former director of MW USA and current Sister Care director, noting that “she has accompanied us in many ways.” The four-hour gathering ended with a ritual where banners labeled with the different continents were joined together in a kind of dance. It was a fitting symbol of connection and beauty. (MW USA and the Women in Leadership Project will serve as the connection point in the United States for this global network.)
It was during this gathering on the last day of the assembly that I realized I had moved from an observer—busy trying to gather quotes and stories for my history project—to a participant. I wanted to be a part of these women. I marveled at the faith and tenacity that is required to be a female church leader in Zambia or Paraguay or India. I am eager to see even more fruit from the global connections fostered by MW USA. Their support of women around the world equips and inspires those women, but those women have also inspired me. Their gifts have been released in service to the wider church, and their stories are now a part of our story.