Educating the Oceanian Women
Lydia Johnson – New Zealand
Lydia Johnson – New Zealand
What a busy and productive year this is proving to be! The metaphor which most comes to mind is to describe myself as being like a midwife, encouraging (and sometimes cajoling and urging!) the new life which is emerging from my Pacific Islander sisters. Birthing imagery is definitely appropriate in this context: I was present at the Pacific-wide women’s consultation in 1992 when the Tongan Roman Catholic theologian, Sr. Keiti Ann Kanongata’a, first articulated a Pacific Islands women’s ‘theology of birthing.’ She challenged the small group of theologically trained islander women present to ‘come out of the confinement of the womb’ of Oceanian cultural values (which relegated women to second-class, subservient status), and birth themselves into being as mature prophets.
How far we have come since then! I recall very well an incident which happened at Pacific Theological College in the early 1990s, during my first (5-year) stint on the faculty there. One of the student wives had been recommended as having such potential that she should be admitted to the B.D. program alongside her husband. When she didn’t enroll, I invited her into my office one day and asked her why. Tears rolled down her face as she told me, “my husband says I am only here to make his studies go more easily by taking care of the home and keeping the children quiet; he says he doesn’t want to see me reading a book!”
Since then, small but growing cadres of Oceanian women have graduated with higher-level theological degrees. In the past few years some of these women have been dreaming and strategizing about the need to create their own ‘mouthpiece,’ their own means of making their voices heard in church and society. (Many of these women graduates have been un-utilized or under-utilized by their churches after their training; they are still waiting for full inclusion in the life and leadership of their churches.) I have been involved in this envisioning process from the very beginning, and have responded to these women’s pleas for me to serve as their editor. Their desire has also been to reach out to theologically trained Oceanian women in the Diaspora, mainly in New Zealand and Australia.
Thanks be to God, and also to Global Ministries, for playing a significant role in making this dream a reality! With their support, I have been able to say ‘yes’ to the women’s need for a professional editor to see their work from manuscript to publication. Also, thanks to Global Ministries, a small ‘seed’ grant has enabled us to set up office. Thanks goes too to the Presbyterian Church in Aotearoa-New Zealand, which gave us free office space and infrastructure support at their School of Ministry at Knox College in Dunedin (which has a sizeable percentage of Pacific Islander students), in return for my teaching on their faculty part-time. And thanks to the Oceanian women theologians who are responding with such commitment and enthusiasm to make this dream a reality.
The first half of this year was a whirlwind for me, as I moved to our new office at Knox, while still finishing out my last semester at the University of Otago, across town. Running back and forth between two offices and three jobs proved to be a bit daunting, but I survived! In the first half of the year we took several major steps forward: We came to life as Manahine Pasefika, the Association of Oceanian Women Theologians. (We combined the Oceanian word, mana, meaning ‘sacred power,’ with the root of the word for ‘woman’ in several island languages – hi’ne, or i’ne, to create a new word that speaks of our commitment to the sacred power and empowerment of Pacific Islander women.) We formed a collegial leadership structure of ‘coordinators,’ and now have three coordinators in place: Dr. Sr. Keiti Ann Kanongata’a (Tongan) as our Polynesian coordinator; Rev. Tamara Wete (New Caledonia) as our Melanesian and Francophone-Pacific coordinator; and Dr. Joan Tofaeono as our General Coordinator. We hope soon to have a coordinator for the Micronesian sub-region, and eventually country coordinators for each country represented. We have worked hard to recruit members, and enthusiastic ‘YES!’ responses are now coming in weekly. We have discovered theologically trained Oceanian women both in the islands, New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere whom we didn’t know existed!
Our first publishing project is taking shape, and we are in communication with a major theological publisher in England to collaborate in producing one of their International Study Guides. We are firmly committed to publishing both prophetic, consciousness-raising theological works, as well as study materials for churches at the grassroots level. An important by-product is the empowerment and capacity-building of our Manahine members in the process. What we are attempting is revolutionary and ground-breaking in this part of the world, and is a living example of how ‘critical presence’ can work.
For all of this, I am extremely grateful. I feel as though all my 20+ years of missionary service with Global Ministries have been leading to, and equipping me for, what I am now undertaking. Being a midwife is both exhilarating and a bit scary. There are risks involved. I am not one of the mothers giving birth, but an accompanier – I stand alongside, or in the background, but knowing that I do have something of value to give to the birthing process. Manahine Pasefika enfleshes my long-held and deep commitment to the needs of Oceanian peoples and churches, especially amongst their women. I am so grateful to be where I am, doing what I am doing, and sense anew every day the amazing grace of God, through the liberator, Jesus Christ.
In the Spirit of the Liberator,
Lydia Johnson is a missionary with the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. She teaches students in practical/applied theology, serves as a consultant to the theology department’s distant learning center and provides pastoral care.