Women Practicing Theology in the Pacific
Lydia Johnson – New Zealand
Sometimes I find it a bit daunting to know how to convey to the wider church in North America the sense of excitement, urgency and vision I feel working with the women of Manahine Pasefika. For those of you who may not yet be familiar with Manahine, it is a new association of Pacific Islander women-doing-theology, who aspire to ‘make their voices heard’ in a prophetic way in the churches and communities of Oceania. It is a ‘first’ in several respects: the first church women’s initiative in the region which is independent as well as ecumenical. It is also the first church women’s initiative to embrace both women based in the island nations and also Pacific Islander women in the larger diaspora – mainly in New Zealand and Australia. And it is the first network of church women whose mission is to write and publish.
Given the fact that so many people around the world with whom Global Ministries missionaries are in partnership are working in life-and-death situations – with the hungry, the sick, those suffering from violence and other forms of injustice – you may perhaps be wondering, “is writing and publishing by Pacific Islander women really a ‘critical presence’ mission?” The response of Manahine’s members, and my own response, would be an unequivocal ‘YES’! These are women who are finding their own prophetic voice, ‘speaking truth to power’ in their cultures and churches, and empowering themselves and other women in the process.
For example, a critical feature of Manhine’s publishing projects is the production of empowering study materials for church women’s organizations in the many churches of the Pacific. We are developing our first such Study Guide this year, and will be producing new study materials for church women’s groups each year. These guides address urgent social and ecclesial issues by relating the Gospel to situations ‘on the ground’ in contextually meaningful ways. There is a spill-over effect of awareness and empowerment for prophetic action: As Manahine’s members put their theological skills to work, they are themselves empowered. (In many cases, although they have theological training they are under-utilized by their churches.) Then, as the materials they produce are used by church women at the grassroots level, they too become empowered to work more proactively to bring new life and healing to their communities and churches.
Manahine Pasefika came into being last year in the form of a vision by a small core group of women representing the major sub-regions of Oceania (Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia). Global Ministries took a leap of faith to support me to serve as Manahine’s editor and administrator. We were able to begin thanks to the offer of free office space by the Presbyterian School of Ministry in Dunedin, New Zealand, which has a strong commitment to the many Pacific Islanders in its church. Other than this generous offer, we began with no funding – only a commitment to move forward in faith. Slowly but surely we are building partnerships in the region and internationally. This takes time, and we are sometimes challenged to find new ways to communicate the revolutionary ‘good news’ about Manahine to a world church for which the urgent issues and crises facing the Pacific are often not on the radar screen of people’s consciousness.
They should be, because the Pacific is a microcosm and often a forerunner of the world’s crises. Climate change, and especially rising ocean levels, has already reached crisis proportions in parts of the Pacific, with some entire cultures facing forced removals from their low-lying island groups. (A Manahine study guide will focus on the churches’ response to global warming, as island women move to the forefront in trying to save their communities.) Despite the peaceful connotations of the word ‘Pacific,’ this region is also plagued by violence – politically, socially and relationally, with persistent coups, nearly-failed states, civil wars, and some of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. (Another Manahine study guide will focus on these realities of violence, and on the ways in which women are increasingly the peacemakers in their communities.)
Manahine is committed to finding a way to bring together its members early next year for a ‘training for transformation’ event, to equip them to return to their countries and train women at the grassroots level to make the most effective use of our study guides, in ways that will transform reflection into collective action. In less than a year, Manahine’s membership has grown from a core group of four to more than 35 women. All of them have degree-level theological training, a good number have Masters Degrees, and several have doctorates. They are finding a new solidarity, a new support network, in Manahine. They are naming reality and they are finding their voice. And we are all praying that our way forward will be sustained, as we build this network of women together. Manahine’s members are so deeply grateful for those Disciples of Christ and UCC individuals and churches which have begun to help us enflesh our vision, through ‘special project’ giving. We are now more than halfway there toward our goal of being able to bring our members together early in 2008 for our ‘training for transformation’ event. On behalf of all Manhine’s members, I ask for your prayers for this and our other initiatives, and send you our prayers as well.
In Christ’s Service,
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.