Question: Wealth

The idea of donor fundraising has always been a sore subject, but my visceral reaction to a recent development conference I attended surprised even me.

Because I lead a women’s organization that depends on donations, fundraising is a constant concern and the part of my job that I least enjoy. I thought I hated conversations about money because I don’t have much of it and because I was unable to fully grasp how finance works. But, the more I engage in financial matters, the more I realize that I do, in fact, understand it. My distaste for money talk is rooted in my fury about the economic system itself. 

Our system works like this: those who have money are asked to share it with those who lack it. Sounds simple enough—but look into the weeds of the way this works. If you “have,” you are privileged to decide who is worthy and who is not of receiving your generosity. You can choose how much or how little to give. If the recipient of those gifts does not respond in a way that benefits you, you can withhold donations in the future.

Those who “have not” must learn how to stroke donor egos: tell compelling stories, write brilliant thank you letters, dance a jig, and walk humbly before the giver all at once. With wills of steel, they must rebound from personal blows in short order so they can set out again with the next story and request.

How can anyone be happy with this system? I know a number of good, generous wealthy people who never intend to demean the “have nots.” I wonder what they think about all the fundraising efforts spent to placate the donor’s ego. If I were wealthy, this kind of approach would make me sad. I don’t believe most wealthy donors need or want this kind of patronizing. I wonder how they would feel about the fundraising conference I attended.

MW USA’s new initiative, Choosing Sisterhood, invites women to begin dismantling societal divides by finding a sister very different from themselves and walking with her. The goal of Choosing Sisterhood is to build strong relationships that will help us enter into different cultures and find common ground and God’s love. The hope is that, over time, the unjust systems of racial, ethnic, and gender inequality will begin to fall.

When it comes to our economic system, I’m more impatient. Look at Leviticus 25 and see the kind of economic system God establishes. When you study God’s model with the year of Jubilee, you’ll see that God’s way ensured that generational poverty or wealth would be kept in check. In contrast, the wealth gap in the country is out of control and only getting worse. The system is designed so that the wealthy can easily acquire more, and those with scarce resources are locked outside the system altogether. Very few people actually change their economic status over the course of their lifetime; a person is either generationally wealthy or generationally poor.

I don’t think we have time to build bridges carefully; the inequalities in our financial system are killing too many people and communities. We need to make drastic shifts soon. This doesn’t mean I’m not aware that dramatic changes are tough. I knew from the start that the protest movement Occupy Wall Street was going to fizzle. When you start messing with people’s money or perceived economic interests, they react and often overreact.

My biggest concern has to do with the church, the people of God. Biblical mandates on how to respond to economic disparity are clear. God’s people are not to store up earthly riches (Matthew 6:19-21); we are to leave a generous portion of our income for others (Deuteronomy 15:11); we are not supposed to charge interest (Exodus 22:25-27). . . . The list goes on.

The Bible is filled with lifegiving instructions about how to manage our wealth. Why, then, has the church in the U.S. largely abandoned them? We willingly lament societal ills and debate the biblical response to them, but when it comes to our behavior regarding wealth, the church is silent. Either we are ignoring Scripture, or we are not comprehending that most of us are the wealthy ones to whom God gives so much instruction.

I am looking for women who want to tear down the system! I am thinking along the lines of the Montgomery bus boycott during the Civil Rights movement. We need people who are willing to lose their profits in order for others to gain their basic human dignity. We need people who will forfeit a return on their investments for the sake of forcing systemic change.

Even as I say this, I am aware that our current system is designed so that investors will not or cannot withdraw money from it. I know that funds are supposedly locked up for the investor’s own good, but I’m convinced that this monetary incarceration is really to prop up a system that is sinister to the core. Worst of all, those at the economic controls have convinced us that the system is at minimum, necessary, and in most cases generous, democratic, and benevolent.

We need lending institutions that don’t charge the poor interest and provide safety nets for small businesses and other efforts bettering the lives of women, people of color, and those in generational poverty. I envision the creation of financial institutions whose stated goal is not to be a means by which the wealthy obtain more wealth but rather to move individuals, families, and communities to economic stability.

You see it, right? I know that I must be a pawn in the game for now, but this is only for a while. I need women young and old, wealthy and poor, to stand up and say NO MORE. Let’s begin now to dismantle a system designed for a select few. Let us start now to create a new system that reflects the Scripture we hold so dear.

Are you already working in a church or ministry with a vision for systemic change in our economic system? I would love to know about it. I don’t have the answers, but I am convinced that if we work together and are willing to sacrifice, we could dismantle economic injustice in our country. The system continues to churn only because we all join in its elitist and patronizing game.

Ponder: The Family of God

I was making my way through Middlebury, Indiana, one Sunday morning on my way to 8th Street Mennonite Church in Goshen. As I drove past a couple of Amish horse and buggies, I slowed down and passed them on the left. Before long, I was passing numerous Amish families riding bikes and walking. I realized they too were on their way to worship. The diversity of God’s family made me smile.

I drove slowly to give my sisters and brother room and safety on the road. I waved at many of them; some waved back while others did not. I thought about how the Amish are of the same Anabaptist family roots I claim as my own, and that made me feel good. I wondered if they consider me part of their family of faith. I imagined they couldn’t easily identify a black woman in a green Mustang convertible as a sister in Christ; they may have only wondered what a black woman was doing on back roads in Middlebury!

In the midst of all this, I aimed unkind thoughts toward other cars and trucks speeding by without slowing down. Some didn’t even move over to give the Amish families room to walk on the side of the road, so the children, women, and men were repeatedly obligated to walk in the grass. Those drivers were disrespecting my family. Shame on them for not being more respectful of their neighbors!

I consider my encounter on the back roads of small-town America and how it might relate to lessons learned on the road to Emmaus. The travelers on their way to Emmaus were grieving over Jesus’ death, yet still they were kind enough to welcome a stranger into their home for food and rest. What do they teach us about how we should travel this life?

I detect two lessons:

First, we should always remember that every man, woman, and child is part of our family in Christ Jesus. Our love and concern for one another and ourselves should be one and the same. How would you feel if your family was walking along the road and was forced off it by cars racing by?

Second, the travelers on the way to Emmaus did not understand Jesus as Lord and Savior, yet nonetheless they welcomed him into their home. I don’t wear a plain dress and bonnet, and the Amish don’t share the lifestyle I’m used to—but why shouldn’t we see one another first and foremost as children of God? I don’t know how the Amish perceived me as I passed them along the road, but I wonder about it. When, if ever, will we act according to our conviction that race/ethnicity, religious tradition, and gender cannot define our status before God? Whether Amish or atheist, black or white, male or female—didn’t Christ come for all?

The biblical story of the road to Emmaus makes it clear that revelation occurs in the breaking of bread. I may never have occasion to break bread with my Amish sisters and brothers, but it is vital that I break bread with those who otherwise may never realize that I am their sister in Christ.

Affirm: A Sexual Reformation

Several books have shaped my understanding of sex. The first was in the late 90s: The Vagina Monologues, by Eve Ensler. Vagina Monologues unapologetically told the stories of women and our often-unhealthy experiences with sex and our bodies. The book provided us with a place to enter conversations about our own stories.

In 2010, I saw the Tyler Perry movie For Colored Girls and read poems of Ntozake Shange. The movie and poems helped me gain a new perspective on my identity as a black woman and the roles I and women like me play due to the harm done to us. The movie and the poems are powerful, and I think every woman of color would be able to find themselves in one or more of the characters.

I was recently offered another life-shifting resource, a new book titled Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Reading Shameless has catapulted me into new awareness and ways of talking about sex.

Shameless is a theological storytelling of how the church and our theologies have shaped grave misunderstandings about God’s word. The author touches on important issues that have caused many women to question, hide, and hate their own bodies and personhood. She walks us through how the things we hear, see, and feel influence our lives as sexual beings. When shameful words and beliefs dominate, they cause lifelong damage.

Nadia Bolz-Weber’s work will shock and produce some level of anxiety for any reader—and for some, probably more than they want to deal with. I say this to warn people with fragile sensibilities. If this is true of you, then you may not be able to read this book. You may also want to stop reading this blog post because the story I am going to tell could very well touch on your sensibilities.

Many years ago, my husband and I ran a weekly teen ministry at our home church in Elkhart, Indiana. Each week, some 40 teens would gather to discuss all manner of life and how God is in the details. Most of the children were not churchgoers, and many had negative feelings about the church, yet they came every week to talk. One week, our conversation had something to do with sex. A 16-year-old girl told us that her mother would say, “don’t let no boy trick you out your panties.” Any conversation about sex, teen pregnancy, dating, or relationships led to that standing line. This, she said, was her mother’s version of “the sex talk.” She hated it.

The young lady went on to tell us that she lost her virginity to a boy, and her mother found out. Her mother chastised: “Didn’t I tell you not to let no boy trick you out your panties!” She calmly responded, “He didn’t; I gave them to him.” Her mother’s inability to offer her daughter a healthy way of understanding her body and its value caused her daughter to reject her message and what was likely deep concern.

It’s not just what you say but how you say it. Parents would do well to learn how to have positive and honest conversations with our children about sex and sexuality. We need to leave behind talk laced with commands and distressing scenarios.

Shameless: A Sexual Reformation helps us to think through the religious and commercial origins of our fear of sexuality. Nadia brilliantly tells the biblical story without the harsh interpretations many of us grew up with, inviting us to hear it with new ears. This reading has awakened me to a new perspective and pushed me to read the familiar stories again.

I recommend Shameless: A Sexual Reformation for those who seek to find a new love for the church and those who hope or need to talk about sex with their children, youth group, women’s groups,  or church leaders.

The Mennonite Women USA booth at MennoCon 19

You can’t miss our booth. It’s the one with four one-of-a-kind quilts. Read more about each quilt. Tickets can be purchased for a chance to win one of these quilts. Only $20! Visit us at the Mennonite Women booth. Not in Kansas City? You do not need to be present to win. You can buy tickets from our online shop. Designate how much you want to spend, click the “select program” button below the article about the quilts and scroll to the bottom to complete the credit card information. Please provide a phone number where you can be reached. The drawing will begin at noon tomorrow, ,July 5. Buy your tickets NOW!

Sister Care brings tools for healing the residue of wars

By Rhoda Keener and Carolyn Heggen

Two Sister Care leadership training seminars were held in eastern Ukraine, May 16-18 in Dnipro, and May 25-27 in Zaporizhzhia, cities located just north of Russian-annexed Crimea and 135 miles west of the current conflict on the border between Ukraine and Russia. Most of the participants were part of the Russian Baptist church or leaders of various social service agencies.  Seminars were led by Carolyn Heggen, psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care International Director for Mennonite Women USA (MW USA). 

Read more.

Ponder: Abortion

Over the past few weeks, several states have passed new laws criminalizing abortion. I don’t have a political agenda in this pondering; I just suggest food for thought. In preface to my proposal to follow, I affirm that when the first heartbeat is recognized, life is present. I believe all life is precious and that Jesus came for all of God’s creation. And, I think that taking any life is not our choice but should be left to God.

That said, I suggest that we start by considering our definitions. If the purpose of banning abortion is to give every person life, then how are we defining life? What is it? Is it simply breathing? Does the term life assume food, clothing, and shelter? How about medical care and basic education? What about love and acceptance? Are these not requirements for life?

There are on average half a million children in foster care in the United States. In 2017, that number rose to nearly 700,000. Children tend to enter foster care around the age of 8 years old. Most foster children live in multiple foster family homes, and 11 percent live in institutions and group homes. One-third of these are children of color. Children who do not find a forever family have a higher likelihood than youth in the general population to experience homelessness, unemployment, and incarceration as adults (Children’s Rights Organization).

The average woman does not want or desire an abortion, yet I know many women who have chosen to have one. Each woman came to the decision with heartache and grief, and many question their choices long after the fact. I can only imagine the additional emotional and spiritual turmoil a woman who has suffered rape or incest must go through.

This country has far too many children living in unhealthy foster care families, institutions, and group homes. To really offer life to all people, our response to abortion needs to include them. Let’s live into God’s word:

We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. — 1 John 3:16-18

If we must ban abortions, then I’d like to see the law call to account every capable adult with at least middle-class income and education in our nation’s care for the right to life. We’d start with those who identify as “right to life” Christians. Families would be picked at random. When a child or siblings enter the system—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or age—a family would be notified, and a child or children would arrive within 72 hours. Under this arrangement, the state would no longer spend so much of its budget to care for children. It is logical that people who believe that every child has a right to life willingly cover the cost of raising children unable to stay in their homes. We stand together and make sure every child in the nation is cared for properly.

As the second step of my proposal—after the half a million children in need of homes have been placed with pro-life Christians—the general population would be added to the registry to receive a foster child with the hope of becoming a forever home. Then, perhaps, we would be well on our way to ending abortion in our nation.

I know that “right to life” and “pro-choice” arguments will keep warring, because that is what we are wired to do: talk and complain about abortion without trying to come to a real compromise. Where is common ground? What are we willing to give up in order to make tangible, beneficial progress in this debate?

Mennonite Women and AMBS collaborate

International Seminar on Healing
by Rhoda Keener and David B Miller

For three days (March 31-April 2), the Wadsworth Room at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) became something of a microcosm of the global church. Here six couples from Africa, Asia, Europe, and North America met together to explore and test new resources and approaches for healing ministry in their contexts. When asked what they hoped to learn from Mennonite Women USA’s  Compassionate Care: Equipping Leaders for Healing Ministry seminar, Patrick Obonde, AMBS student from Nairobi, Kenya said: “I want to learn how to break through the social veneer, traditions, and culture that keep women suffering in silence.”  Shabnam Bagh, India added, “Women don’t speak, especially in the rural areas.”  Jonah Yang, Hmong pastor from Thailand currently living in Minneapolis said, “In my culture men have power over their wives. I want to learn how to break that. We need to reinterpret scripture.”

Read more. 

Celebrate: The Planet

I love the National Geographic documentary “One Strange Rock.” This series highlights incredible aspects of earth, nature, and earth’s inhabitants. Every time I watch an episode, I come away asking myself, Can that seriously be true?

One stunning episode is about how the earth has changed and almost destroyed itself multiple times. The viewer gets to see a rock wall in Bolivia with the footprints of eight or so dinosaur species. The earth there used to be flat—until molten lava underneath the ground folded it and created a wall. I imagine that fateful day: life walked along, minding its own business, when without warning the land beneath it heaved and shifted.

God formed the earth as a living, breathing creation that continues to change and withstand this harsh universe. In Scriptures, we learn about times when God has appeared present and active. Take, for example, the Exodus, when God parted waters and materialized in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. But, we also read about God’s long silences. Consider the four long centuries between the Old and New Testaments.

As a pastor, I have often wondered about God’s involvement in our world now. Many of our circumstances tempt me to believe that God is silent, watching and letting life do whatever it’s going to do. These ideas sadden me because they focus on frail humaity and our capacity to hate and destroy.

But then, beautiful reminders such as One Strange Rock remind me that God is not done with us yet. God’s creation is so much bigger and more resilient than human life alone.

Consider the lowly plant. Plants grow in the harshest conditions and find room in the most constricted spaces. They possess the fortitude and inner strength to break through rocks, water, and human-made structures. If one plants a tree too close to a house, the roots will push the foundation. When multiple trees are planted along a body of water, they will over time change the flow and shape of that body of water.

Marvel, then, at God’s sense of humor in creation. Consider how parrot fishes’ waste creates our island beaches. It’s funny as well as surprising! I never knew that when I relax on the beach, I am reclining on fish waste! God must laugh in delight as we encounter such creations!

I also recommend the documentary Life Without People, which shows how the planet might evolve without human interference. Within a relatively short period, the earth would likely return to a type of Garden of Eden: a self-sustaining, ever-evolving, life-producing oasis.

For now, those privileged to witness the marvels of this planet should do so; our earth continues to shift and turn, and we never know when upheaval will happen again. To those who may never leave their small corner of the world, I pray you can at least watch inspiring programming such as One Strange Rock and dream big!

Mennonite Women of Virginia celebrate Annual Missions Day

Mennonite Women of Virginia (MWV) holds an ‘annual missions day’ each spring. This event serves a variety of purposes. For 66 years, women from all around Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) gather for fellowship, a meal and to raise funds to share with mission workers and congregations in countries that have roots in Virginia Mennonite Missions (VMM). Food was brought to Ridgeway Mennonite Church by 130 women on February 21.

Grazia de Hernandez led music.

The 2019 theme was “Women Encouraging Women…through Prayer.” For the first time, Hispanic sisters were intentionally welcomed. All parts of the meeting were presented in both English and Spanish. There are four Hispanic congregations in VMC and we want to know and honor each other as sisters in Christ.

Veronica Sanchez (right) shared her call to ministry in Spanish, with Melanie Miller translating.

Angelina Pardini (right) talked about her work in Jordan in English, with Lizzette Hernandez translating.

Lynn Suter, VMM director of international missions, concluded the program with a time of guided prayer. 

Then the fun began – raising funds for sisters around the world.

Directed by Dianna Lehman, MWV missions needs secretary, women took a number representing a VMM mission worker/family or a congregation overseas. Gifts of $25, $50, $75 were soon offered. In the end $5,730 was raised!

The blessings of sharing this annual event together as Anglo and Hispanic sisters were abundant.

It is our goal to continue joining Anglo and Hispanic women in our MWV events. God has led is to this point and will continue to lead.

(Left to right) Gloria Lehman, Joy Gabriel, Aldine Musser

In March 2019, Gloria Lehman and Aldine Musser, MWV past president, traveled to Jamaica. They shared love gifts of $125 to each of the 13 congregations in Jamaica Mennonite Church which will be used for their women’s and children’s ministries. Joy Gabriel, president of the Women’s Department of Jamaica Mennonite Church, graciously receives the gift for her church, Good Tidings Mennonite Church, Kingston.

The delivery of these gifts with hugs and smiles represents “warm money” to our sisters. These resources are used to enhance women’s ministries and provide funds to attend their annual retreat.

Later this year, MWV representatives will share gifts with sisters in Italy, Albania, and Trinidad.

Question: Reject Negativity!

Chicago, Illinois, will inaugurate its first female African American mayor come April 2019. Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot emerged as the top two in the primary elections—so, no matter what, Chicago will be led by an African American woman. This is something to celebrate!

I have watched Toni Preckwinkle’s career as she led the Cook County Board for the past eight years. She has done an excellent job and is clearly a capable leader. Lori Lightfoot is new to the Chicago political scene but seem like a tough, driven woman who would be capable of handling the daunting mayoral responsibilities of such a big city.

So why the negativity?

I was so hoping these two “sistas” would get together and agree to run a positive campaign. I hoped they would stick to their respective agendas and refuse to throw one another under the bus. But, it has turned out to be a typical political campaign. Negative commercials, false or misleading information, and blatant distrust widen the gulf between the two candidates. I am disappointed.

My mother used to say, “If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all.” I wish Lori and Toni would have followed this time-honored advice. I wanted them to show the country another way of working out challenges for the good of all people. I wanted them to show us that negativity is unnecessary in a campaign and that what voters want is to get to know them and understand their vision and plans. I wanted them to do all they could to help voters to make informed decisions about whether or not they believe in the candidate and what she stands for.

As women, I call on us to stop working against one another. Now. Let us find ways to support and encourage each other. When we disagree, let us show that we are capable of finding positive ways to work through our differences.

As we enter arenas that have been dominated by men, let us not forget who we are and why men need us in the first place. We don’t have to follow the systems designed by men. When we see a better way, we don’t have to play the games of life the way they play them.

Let us show the world the beauty and essence of God that is in each of us women. Let the world see how we are made in the powerful image of the Most High God.