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The Voices of Pacific Islander Sisters

November 16, 2005

I continue to listen and respond to the voices of my Pacific Islander sisters-in-theology/ministry, both as part of my vocational mandate and also because they are my friends.

I continue to listen and respond to the voices of my Pacific Islander sisters-in-theology/ministry, both as part of my vocational mandate and also because they are my friends.  As some of you may remember, my long-standing concern for and solidarity with Pacific Islander women in ministry and theology was formalized in my most recent Global Ministries re-appointment.  Although I am still based in the theology department at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, I am now working half-time (and hopefully this may become full-time in the next year or so) on behalf of a network of Pacific Islander women who are theologically trained, and who are attempting to birth into being their vision of finding a more effective way for their voices to be heard in their churches and societies.  Many of these women are former students of mine from my years teaching at Pacific Theological College in Fiji.  They come from all over the Pacific, including all the major Polynesian, Melanesian and Micronesian ethnic groupings, and all of the major denominations.  In addition, this network has expanded to include theologically trained Pacific Islander women in New Zealand, some of whom are ordained ministers (whereas most churches in the island-Pacific still do not ordain women).

Most of the islands-based women find that, after they graduate with their theological degrees and return home, their churches do not make use of their gifts and expertise.  Not only are they not ordained, they are not allowed to teach in their churches' theological schools or hold any responsible position at all in their churches.  They are effectively silenced and marginalized.  Yet these are intelligent, talented, theologically sophisticated women, who have much to say and much to offer their churches and societies.  That is why, in recent years, they have been clamoring to make their voices heard, and to create a vehicle through which that might happen on their own initiative.

That's where I come in.  These women's vision is to write and publish their own theology, and their own study materials for women in their churches, and to use me as their editor and facilitator in the quest to publish their work.  I have been functioning as an informal editor for these women (and their male counterparts) for many years, editing theses and other work, which they have written.  Some of the theologically trained Pacific Islander women based here in New Zealand have already published articles, and even some more substantive theological reflections. They are excited about joining together with their islands-based sisters to develop their own writing and publishing initiative.

And so I have had many conversations in recent months with these women, as we dream and strategize about how to proceed.  This is a daunting challenge, because at present we have no backers, no funding, only our own grit and determination.  I have had fruitful, encouraging and exciting conversations with a number of Pacific Islander women ministers who are based in Auckland (the hub of Pacific Islander communities in New Zealand), and with my Samoan sister, Joan Tofaeono (presently based in Fiji), who is a 'guiding light' of this vision.  We are also engaged in conversations with Anglican Maori and Pacific Islander women based at the Anglican/Methodist theological school in Auckland, as they are planning to develop a women's centre based there.  It is possible that we may be able to enter into some kind of cooperative working relationship with them, and we are carefully and prayerfully moving forward in preliminary discussions about this possibility.

Meanwhile, we already have several writing projects in the pipeline. Joan Tofaeono and I have completed a book about the role of the island churches in the problem of violence against women in the Pacific, and this is being considered for publication by a couple of major publishers.  It may possibly be the first major publication to be celebrated by our women's centre.  Several recent Masters theses written by Pacific Islander women would also make excellent books, and are ready for editing.  All we need are sponsors, and our instinct is that if we begin our work these sponsors will somehow be found, because what these women intend to do is so vitally important.  In a region and in churches where women's voices are silent, or only a faint whisper, this is a time that cries out for prophets (or, in this case, prophetesses!) who have the courage and insight to 'speak truth to power'.

And so we ask for the prayers of our brothers and sisters in the American churches as we attempt to do what many might say is impossible.  We are moving ahead in faith, not waiting on donors or grants or subsidies.  Whatever we are able to accomplish in the years ahead will be a huge advance over what has been these women's lot in the past.  I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to stand by their side and assist them in their prophetic mission.

In faith,

Lydia Johnson

Lydia Johnson is a missionary with the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin, New ZealandShe serves as a faculty member relating to counseling, extension and ministries programs of the Pacific People.

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