Four months after hearing the term “egalitarian” for the first time, I found myself preaching on gender-equality in the DRC.
I was visiting the Democratic Republic of the Congo because my youngest sister, Joella, was adopted from there. I had come to work in her orphanage and I had been asked to preach instead. So there I was, only a few days in the country, preaching for the very first time. If I hadn’t already been sweating from the sun that poured in through the overhead covering made of palm fronts, the women that were dancing and singing in front of me would have made me break out into a full body sweat. My translator said that these women had come from all different villages to celebrate church together. She said that there were 1,000 people, mostly women, gathered today to hear the woman from America talk.
I was only 21 at the time–no pressure.
I explained to these women that in his lifetime, Jesus continually broke down socio-cultural boundaries regarding women and that his actions revealed that women were to be equal partners of the gospel. As women who follow Christ, this understanding of equality and equal responsibility to the gospel changes everything. This was a new message in this area of the DRC. Its implications were as simple as a new understanding of personal worth and dignity as a woman, and as challenging as reexamining the common practice of keeping girls home from school.
Later on during my stay, I was the speaker at a two-day conference for around 300 women about freedom and male-female partnerships in the church. I spoke for a little over four hours in total – take a minute and think about how long that is—actually filling that time was a sign of God’s provision in and of itself!
During that conference, for the very first time, I experienced a woman standing up and publicly articulating in front of other women and men that they, the women of the village of Gemena, had thought about what they had heard that day and they had come to the conclusion, for the first time, that they were important, valuable, and equal to God.
Just thinking of it now sends shivers down my spine.
Undeniably, the DRC has many beautiful qualities, but based on rape statistics, the UN has also named it one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. Many girls are not allowed to go to school, but rather become second wives to older men at a young age. This traditional thinking of women as second class citizens is deeply embedded in the Congolese culture, and, in my experience, even perpetuated by many churches that may have never been taught differently.
Being an egalitarian is a choice that I have proudly made. It did not involve much risk for me.
Comparatively, these women at the conference clashed with their very culture to make the simple, courageous declaration that they believed themselves to be made equal to men in the eyes of God. It was much like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus. She went against her culture to sit in the place of a disciple because she knew that Jesus was worth it. The life that he offers her was worth the risk.
For the next two months, I was invited to travel with the President of the Covenant Denomination in the Congo.
I spoke to groups of 30 to 1,000 women, men, and pastors on the biblical basis for equality and the value and need for education for women.
I had come to work in an orphanage, but I became an accidental advocate.
Please do not get me wrong. I am not a hero here. I was just a woman whose privilege of education God used for God’s own purposes. To date, this was one of the most distinct and humbling privileges of my life.
As I spent time getting to know the women in Gemena, I also was given the privilege of hearing and recording the stories of these women who are too often portrayed in light of their poverty rather than their strength.
I spent time with Nagede who sold everything and traveled through many villages with her husband to find someone who would train her, a woman, in biblical studies.
I listened to Mama Kanda tell me about the all girls school that she oversaw. She spoke about her fight for cultural legitimacy and funding in a village where, the all boys school easily found the funding for books, but many families would rather gain a bride price from marriage than pay $5 per month in school fees for their daughter’s education.
I sat at the feet of my host mother, Sabuli, while she told me stories of taking her children and running to the jungle when rebels ravaged her village and home. After the war was over, she came home and, seeing a need, started the orphanage that would one day give me my youngest sister, Joella.
As I look towards my future vocation, hopes and dreams, I am reminded of the freedom Christ offers to me as well as to my sisters in the Congo. Because of my social location, I have the privilege of being able to speak up for equality without relatively risking much.
I was able to advocate for the Congolese women, on behalf of Christ, to a culture that often treats women with little respect. And now, I would like to use this space to advocate for them again, to you.
I want to present to you an idea: We might not all get the opportunity to travel to developing countries, but as women, our fight for equality must include the way that we speak about our sisters both in our own backyard and around the world.
Perhaps we need to stop telling the stories of victims and start telling the stories of survivors, because how we tell the story changes everything.
When it came to the way that Jesus spoke to and of others, they were not defined by their weaknesses, but by their potential for greatness and change in the Kingdom
If I continue to tell the stories of women around the world as one-dimensional characters, hopeless and in need of a foreign rescuer, than I am no better than the men who talk of women in the same way; one-dimensional characters, hopeless in our femininity and in need of male headship.
Every time we tell the narratives of our sisters, whether it’s our neighbor who supports her family on food stamps or the women we encounter in developing countries who sell roasted peanuts to support their families, we have an opportunity. The way we tell her story can either give her dignity or make her dependent.