by Ruth Tucker
One of the important benefits Christianity has offered Third World women has been a cause around which to gather for social and spiritual purposes.
One of the important benefits Christianity has offered Third World women has been a cause around which to gather for social and spiritual purposes. In many areas of the world, at the urging of women missionaries, women’s organizations have quickly developed that have crossed tribal, territorial, and even caste barriers. Such a feeling of camaraderie among women of Africa and Asia was uncommon outside Christian circles during the nineteenth century. It paved the way for broader based women’s movements.
An example of this kind of networking occurred at the turn of the century in Portuguese West Africa, where an annual congress of Christian mothers was attended by hundreds of women. So eager were these women for Christian fellowship that it was not unusual for them to walk a hundred miles to participate. The program consisted of Bible studies as well as instruction on health, hygiene, and child care. Although such topics were clearly not designed to foster feminist ideology or to threaten the place of the husband in the family, the movement was referred to as a "revolt of the Mother." Women did gain an awareness of their problems and needs as they never had before (Montgomery 1910: 210).
Another such movement developed in Southern Rhodesia and Bechuanaland. Its primary purpose was to teach Christian morality and home life to women whose only understanding of marriage and sexuality came from tribes that encouraged polygamy and promiscuity. It was a uniformed organization called the "Red Blouse" movement. By the 1950s there were some 6,000 members. Although it had been started by a woman missionary, it was led by national women trained at local Bible schools (Kathleen Bliss 1952: 18).
Some of these women’s groups focused primarily on evangelism. To facilitate their efforts and encourage each other, the women formed support networks and often worked in teams. This concept has been widely developed in Africa. In the 1930s Methodist women in Nigeria, with the blessing of the male leadership in the church, developed a volunteer evangelistic outreach – an outreach so effective that it was reported at a missionary meeting that "Ijebu womanhood was coming into its own…" The women were deeply concerned for their "Mohammedan sisters," and expressed their enthusiasm in witnessing by saying the "mouth [is] not wide enough to tell of all the goodness of God." They organized street processions, city-wide rallies, open-air campaigns, and retreats, demonstrating effectively what could be done in the area of female lay evangelism (Oduyoye 1981: 69).
In some instances women’s organizations were imported from the West, but the most successful women’s organizations in the Third World are those that have been developed by nationals to correspond with their own distinctives and cultural traditions. Women marching down the street wearing yellow dresses, carrying banners, and singing songs and chanting slogans is not the North American concept of a respectable Christian women’s group. But in Africa, such spirited activity is appealing and can often be an inducement for other women to become involved. Likewise, the sense of belonging is not the same in North America as it is in many areas of the Third World. In North America, where women can belong to any number of civic or church organizations, membership and solidarity mean very little. In the Third World the situation is vastly different.
One of the fastest growing and most effective Third World women’s organizations to arise in the 20th century has been the "Women of the Good News," which was officially organized in Zaire in the early 1970s. It was the brain child of Virginia Jones, an American missionary, and Rebeka Eliya, a Zairian pastor’s wife, who during their exile from the Congo at the time of the Simba Rebellion became familiar with a women’s evangelistic movement, Quali ti tene Njoni in the Central African Republic that had been started by Grace Brethren missionries. Their paths separated in 1965, but the dream of a women’s evangelistic movement did not die. In 1970 they were reunited when Virginia and her husband were reassigned to Banda in Zaire. At that time, before the women had opportunity to make further plans, Rebeka announced that "Madamo Jones had come with a new women’s program, Ade Wene Pangbanga. The decision had been made. Virginia immediately made preparations to translate the program into Pasande. The movement began in the Zande district with some 100 women eager to participate (Jones, "Sketch" 1985.)
Of Rebeka, Virginia Jones has written, "She was the one who envisioned this program for the women in her church. She wanted the program in local language, and she wanted it to involve the preparation of women leadership… young women leadership." Likewise, "She insisted that the program was to involve every woman member, down to the last little, old lady. This combination of bridging the old and young, with all their varied personalities and abilities has been unique in the program" Jones 1981: 11).
From this unpretentious beginning in 1970 the movement grew rapidly. In the years that followed, through the combined efforts of women missionaries and women nationals, the program was translated into other tribal languages and the movement was initiated in several other areas of Zaire. After a decade of activity, the number of women in the movement in churches involved with the Africa Inland Mission had grown to over 15,000, and by 1985, that figure had surpassed 30,000 (Jones, "Sketch" 1984).
The total number of women in WGN far exceeds that number. The movement has crossed denominational lines in Zaire. By 1985 there were an estimated 10,000 women in the some 300 churches associated with Grace Ministries, Inc., the missionary arm of Grace Gospel Fellowship (Vinton 1986). The movement was also penetrating other churches-particularly the Conservative Baptists, Assemblies of God, and churches associated with other interdenominational mission boards-fostering a growth rate that has been difficult to calculate.
The rapid growth of WGN has been stimulated by the appeal it has had for women in all segments of society. In its ranks are rich and poor, city and rural, educated and uneducated. Naturally, the groups in more affluent urban areas have a different flavor than those in impoverished rural areas, but the organization is one, and the lessons and outreach activities are the same.
One of the reasons the Grace Brethren had developed this women’s program in the Central African Republic was to meet the needs of the middle and upper class women. Their status in life has changed significantly in recent decades. Their husbands "are the elite of every community with good salaries and nice homes… They do not spend every hour of the day digging in the fields. They do not have to carry water from the streams. They have begun to know what leisure is and they have money to spend for nice clothing. Some of them have servants to help in their homes. It is a new way of life indeed for these African women." Though WGN originated largely to meet the needs of these women, its appeal has far exceeded once particular social class ("Women of the Good News" 1967: 5).
The popularity of WGN is also due to the social outlet it has offered African women, but the primary focus is ministry-perhaps the most attractive feature of the program. "For a long time," writes Alene Dix, "African women were not considered as important or as having a ministry of their own in spreading the Gospel" (Dix, 1984). In many African churches social custom excluded women from leadership positions, but this parachurch organization has provided unparalleled opportunities for organized ministries that have been sanctioned, and welcomed, by the church leadership.
On the local level, women are organized in groups that meet weekly for Bible studies conducted by several women on a rotating basis. Bible memory is also emphasized, with each member expected to complete a booklet of required memory verses. Each group is subdivided into as many as five smaller groups that carry out different outreach assignments: 1) visiting the sick (providing water, food, wood, and words of witness and encouragement), 2) evangelizing unbelievers, 3) ministering to those who had left the church fellowship, 4) maintaining church building and grounds, and 5) visiting the elderly (Jones 1979: 1).
Kitambo Kysando, the pastor of a church in Beni, Zaire, which has an active group of some 50 women involved in WGN, depends to a large extent on these women for the church’s outreach ministry. Members of the group carry out a wide variety of services, with evangelism as a primary emphasis. They visit new mothers at the hospital, bringing them clothing for the baby; they do home repair for poor widows; they bring food to prisoners; and they fund scholarships for Bible school tuition (Kysando 1986).
Beyond the local church WGN has also been organized on a wider scale. A three to four-day district conference is organized each year to provide fellowship for delegates outside their local churches and to provide a forum for them to be challenged with biblical messages and fresh ideas for ministry. In addition, two days each year are set aside as a Women’s Day of Prayer and a Women’s Rally Sunday, the latter to acquaint the local church with the ongoing ministry of the organization. On this special Sunday, "the women do the entire program-including the main Sunday worship message." Every two years, leadership training seminars are sponsored by the districts for key women who were selected by their local group to attend (Dix 1984).
Besides the evangelistic and humanitarian outreach of WGN, there have been other achievements that have been equally significant. The organization "brought unity of its women to the entire church of over 1,000 congregations," and it gave "women a place of active involvement" in a structured environment. It also "provided an excellent training ground for women in leadership" (Jones, Correspondence 1985). Prior to the founding of WGN, women had little opportunity for meaningful ministry and leadership roles. "So much of the teaching," writes Dorothy Gaunt, "was for men, and few women were able to lead or minister to others" (Gaunt 1985). But with the initiation of WGN with its varied activities, women have been able to serve in non-threatening capacities, and move to more responsible positions as their confidence builds.
In the years since its founding, women missionaries have been replaced by nationals in top leadership positions, though they continue to serve as consultants. Munduru Tabita currently serves as the coordinator for WGN in all the African Inland Churches (CECA). Alene Dix, an American missionary, serves as the "Technicien"-her job being "to help" Munduru (Dix, 1984). Leadership training is an area where missionary expertise is in particular demand. Assuming a position of public responsibility has been an intimidating ordeal for many African women, especially those in rural areas where the literacy rate is low, and that continues to be a weakness for certain local chapters of WGN. Yet, women continue to rise out of their impoverished circumstances and serve as effective church leaders.
An example is Taade Estere, the second wife of a Zairian soldier, who put her away in order to join the Roman Catholic church. "Heartbroken because she loved him, she fled to an old relative living far in the bush country." There she began attending one of the chapels of the Africa Inland Church and was converted through a simple gospel message based on John 3:16. "Hunger to learn His Word brought her to the mission station and she attended the station Bible school for two years." When Virginia Jones was assigned to Niangara in 1974, Taade requested that WGN be organized there, and she served as the leader and organizer in that region. Initially the local pastors’ wives resented her, but she won them through her love – carrying firewood and water when they were sick. She has since moved to another district where she is leading WGN activities there (Jones 1981: 11; Jones, Correspondence 1985).
An important aspect of WGN is the sense of oneness and solidarity it offers the women members. Membership is not just for the asking. Women must complete a specified number of assignments before being officially inducted into the "club." As members, they are permitted to take part in the street marching, dressed in their yellow (Zaire) or blue (Central African Republic) uniform dresses and yellow head scarves. The uniform lesson manuals also provide a sense of solidarity, as do the songs and slogans. Each club has the same salute, creed, theme verse, and motto. The motto (or "cry"), as is true of other aspects of the club, is typically African. The leader shouts "Let us teach," and the members respond with "the Good News." The leader repeats, "Let us teach," and the members shout back "it to everyone." Then in unison they all cry out, "We the women of the Good News" (Jones, Correspondence 1985).
WGN is an example of an indigenous women’s organization that is more suitable to Africa than are imported ones. The transplanting of North American women’s organizations overseas is the reverse of what should be happening, according to Betty Pontier, who has actively worked with WGN in Zaire. She suggests that women in America could benefit greatly by patterning their Bible studies after WGN. In her view, American women are "fat spiritually," and they need an evangelistic and service outreach combined with their Bible studies. She has recently returned to Africa, to help bring WGN to the Sudan (Ponders 1986).
There has been some criticism of the active role women have had in religious life in recent years in West Africa. One missionary who returned to Zaire after a long absence was surprised by the independent spirit among women that she observed, which was not evident years earlier. Men, too, have complained about the change in the women’s status in the church and society. Joy Stabell, an American Baptist missionary to Zaire, asked the students in her French class "whether they felt there had been any change in women’s status in Zaire in the last 50 years." Thinking they would note the progress women had made in education and other areas, she was surprised by the response. "Yes, we notice a big difference. Women used to respect and serve their husbands. But they aren’t like that any more." When she suggested that treating a wife as a friend and companion was more appropriate than treating her as a servant, the response was, "If I treated my wife as a friend, she wouldn’t respect me" (Stabell 1983).
Does WGN have the potential of turning away from its original purposes and becoming a politicized women’s rights movement? Like any fast-growing, thriving movement, there are potential dangers, and many women in the movement have become more conscious of their "rights." The leaders of WGN who are associated with Grace Ministries have appealed for office space at the mission headquarters as the local pastors have. The next step, some predict, will be to insist on official representation in the church conference as the pastors have. But, according to Becky Vinton, a former missionary with Grace Ministries, the benefits of WGN far outweigh the potential for conflict between men and women in the church. She argues that WGN provides a forum for Christian women, who might otherwise become caught up in women’s political movements that are flourishing in Zaire (Vinton 1986).
This assessment is echoed by Raphael Etsea, vice-president of the Africa Inland Church (CECA) in Zaire. He concedes that there have been some problems that have arisen between WGN and the church leaders regarding the raising of funds, in that WGN has separate finances. But aside from that, any criticism of the strength and influence of the movement would seem inappropriate in light of the fact that it is "doing so much good" (Raphael Etsea 1986).
Most women missionaries and national leaders of WGN have strictly sought to prevent their movement from becoming a threat to the male church leaders. Far from being a feminist organization, WGN is very traditional in its orientation and seeks to meet the needs of the African women in their own context. The study guides are organized in four main subjects involving the woman’s relationship to 1) God, 2) her husband, 3) her children, and 4) her church (Ade Wene Pangbanga). The public visibility and spirited street demonstrations of WGN could mislead a visitor from the West, but the organization is, to its very core, biblical and family centered.
The male opposition to WGN often comes from outside the church. Men fear that their wives will be less under their control if they join the movement. This was illustrated in a WGN skit that Becky Vinton observed on a recent trip to Zaire. The skit depicted WGN members visiting the home of a woman who was not a member. After their greetings and chants, they asked the husband if his wife could join them. He was strongly opposed because he feared that would "make her smarter than me." Finally, he relented and permitted her to join. Later he told how happy he was that his wife joined because she was now a much better person (Vinton 1986).
The strongest evidence that WGN has not overstepped its bounds in a culture where the woman’s place is not yet on an equal par with the man’s, is the support it has from the church itself. The organization "has been approved and declared to be the official program for women throughout all of the Communaute Evangelicique au Centre de 1’Afrique, otherwise known as C.E.C.A."â€”those churches associated with the Africa Inland Mission (Gaunt 1985). "I have never heard any church leaders speak against the women’s work and this organization," writes Virginia Jones. "I have only heard praise and appreciation" (Jones, Correspondence 1985).
Today WGN is only active in Zaire and the Central African Republic. In Kenya, where there are hundreds of Africa Inland Churches, the movement has yet to be organized. In other African countries, and elsewhere in the Third World, a ministry similar to WGN could revolutionize women’s work and the churches as a whole.
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