Surprised by hope
I love challenges. As a Christian, I feel I’m constantly being challenged to think and act in visionary ways that enhance the in-breaking of the Kingdom on earth. However, in the real world, birthing visions into being is a daunting prospect. I’m involved in a new vision in my calling to be a ‘critical presence’ here in Aotearoa New Zealand, and here’s part of its unfolding story:
Dreaming in a visionary way with my Pacific Islander sisters has been exciting and energizing. For the past several years, several Pacific Islander women have been envisioning with me the creation of a new venture, which we’ve tentatively been referring to as the Center for Oceanian Women’s Theology. Its purpose would be to empower and encourage theologically trained women around the South Pacific to find a more effective way to enable their voices to be heard in their churches and communities. In the past these women have often found that their prophetic voices can easily be silenced or co-opted by the men who control their churches and theological institutions. They want to do something about this on their own initiative, to create their own ‘mouthpiece’, as it were. They want to find a way to publish not only their own theological reflections but also empowering, consciousness-raising study materials for the many church women’s groups, which are the backbones of the churches of the Pacific. And I’ve been grafted onto this vision as their editor – someone who will take what they produce and make it ready for publication in English (and hopefully, eventually, to find a way to translate these materials into local languages as well).
This is such important work. It is more important than it may sound. Islander women have described their own situation as women in their cultures as being trapped in a ‘culture of silence.’ For these Christian women to develop their own distinctive voice and to use it to empower their own long-suffering sisters would be a revolutionary act. I have been humbled and deeply gratified to be invited to be a part of this. And Global Ministries has recognized the urgency and importance of this initiative by freeing me to work on this with my islander sisters half-time for these next two years.
Vision is one thing, but enactment of vision is quite another! Once I returned from my six-month home leave and began a new term of service at the beginning of this year, I was left wondering how in the world this vision was to have a chance of becoming a reality. Only a handful of women are part of the core group of dreamers, and only one of them, a Samoan woman, has had the time and energy to be proactive in continuing to spin out the vision. In moving from ‘dreaming’ to ‘reality,’ we’ve been confronted by a host of perplexing questions: How would such a center be funded? Where should the center be based physically? (Some of the dreamers feel that it should be based in Auckland, where there are most Pacific Islanders than there are in the islands, both because it is a hub of islander theological activity, and because that more open location would free the initiative from the control of the male regional church organizations and institutions based in Fiji.) How would the center be organized and run, if its founders and participants would be dispersed across the vast expanse of the South Pacific, covering one-fifth of the earth’s surface? These and other practical questions are daunting indeed, so much so that at times I have felt the beginnings of anxiety and cold feet, if not outright discouragement.
The first ray of hope came with a fortuitous telephone conversation I had earlier this year with Winston Halapua, a Tongan Anglican priest whom I knew well for many years when I served in Fiji, and who is now the Principal of the Pacific Islanders’ College at St. John’s Theological School in Auckland. Winston has long been the most vocal and committed male advocate for women’s rights in the South Pacific, and my chief co-dreamer and I wondered if he might be supportive of the notion of housing our center at St. John’s. He was not only enthusiastically supportive but was keen to meet the Global Ministries East Asia/Pacific Area Executive, Xiaoling Zhu, on his recent visit to New Zealand. Winston made a commitment to ‘talk to key people’ and do everything he possibly could to explore possibilities for supporting our vision.
And then, a few weeks ago, came an unexpected fresh breeze of hope. My chief co-dreamer, my Samoan sister Joan Tofaeono (now based in Fiji) happened to be in touch with Jenny Te Paa, the preeminent female Maori theologian in Aotearoa New Zealand, and discovered that the Anglican church here has recently made a commitment to provide financial support for a very similar vision – to be based at St. John’s in Auckland! Jenny Te Paa has herself been mandated to spearhead the development of this center. Jenny is the Principal of the Maori College at St. John’s and an eloquent prophetic spokesperson who works tirelessly on behalf of Maori and Pacific Islander women. When I contacted Jenny directly, her response was overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic. In fact, she began her reply e-mail with the words, “let’s do it!” She was completely willing and completely open to the possibility of incorporating our Pacific Islander women’s vision into the vision already articulated by other Maori and Pacific Islander women here in New Zealand.
And so, just as my spirits were flagging and the obstacles beginning to seem overwhelming, hope blew over us like the wind of the Holy Spirit. Now plans are being made for my Samoan friend and I to meet with Jenny in Auckland, to brainstorm, plan, strategize, keep on dreaming, pray together, and start to make our vision a reality. We are like midwives, anxiously but lovingly present to assist in a birth and to welcome new life. Amazing!
I suppose the moral of this story is that we should never doubt that God will never abandon us in all our struggles, and that God will surely surprise us if we hold onto faith. This particular vision in this part of the world is still a long way from fruition, and will no doubt entail numerous obstacles along the way. But, as my parishioners in Jamaica used to say, “if you encounter a boulder on the path, don’t try to go through it or climb over it, find a way around it.” That’s what’s happening with the Center for Oceanian Women’s Theology, and I am so grateful to have a foothold on the path.
Lydia Johnson is a missionary with the Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. She serves as a faculty member relating to counseling, extension and ministries programs of the Pacific People.