The Centre for World Christianity co-hosted a one-day conference on ‘Women in the World Church’ to explore the historical and contemporary role of women in global Christianity on 16 September 2017. The title address came from guest scholar Professor Kwok Pui-Lan, an Asian feminist theologian, who focused her remarks on both the women who helped to build the growing Christian communities in the Global South and those of the women missionaries who served them.
As one of a panel of respondents from the field of Arab Christianity, I focused my remarks on a portion of Professor Kwok’s thesis:
The study of the agency of local Christian women must take into consideration the wider social, historical, and political environment in which these women lived.
As I consider the field of the world’s Christianity in which I aim to specialize – contemporary Christianity of the Arab world and of Jordan in particular – I would consider the effects of such environments on local Christian women as well. They have not always affected them, or myself, as I first expected.
My work in Arab Christianity
As I prepared for my first visit to Jordan, I was told to prepare both logistically and mentally for limitations I would face as a woman. Because of this preparation, I was not shocked to arrive and learn of functional limitations in several areas. These included where I could go and when, who I could speak with, what I could wear, and even whether I should shake hands with a new acquaintance.
Even at the churches where I conducted fieldwork and worshiped personally, I experienced what I saw as limitations that forced my church life into new patterns. I observed local women – even those far older and more capable in church service than me – who were similarly limited.
However, as I began to explore the experience of local women more cross-culturally, my view shifted. The ministry that my Arab sisters conducted for their families, their friends, and their churches manifested a rich vibrancy that continues to inspire my academic pursuits and spiritual life. As students, teachers, and professionals, they engaged very naturally in what scholars might label ‘grassroots Christian-Muslim dialogue’, and what they called ‘choir practice’.
I could access this dialogue only as a woman. It was as a woman that I received access to a women’s world. This women’s world, however, constituted much of Jordan’s private social sphere, and I experienced it to the envy of my male colleagues.
But in this context, I also faced a different set of limitations, for although as a woman I could enter the homes of friends I met in Jordan, I faced barriers in our relationship. I entered these homes on the grounds of female commonality. This was in spite of the fact that I had traveled across the world on my own, an act that could have alienated me from the Jordanian women who followed more traditional lifestyles.
Rev. Rola Sleiman of Lebanon
Rev. Rola Sleiman, the first Arab woman ordained in the Middle East, responded with some of her own experiences. She described her spiritual journey from resenting being born as a woman, a Christian, and an Evangelical – all identities that made her life more difficult in the Middle East – to a theologian who ‘fell in love with the man from Galilee’.
Through studies in the scriptures – not only the Gospels, but the Quran and the Torah as well – she found the strength to meet her challenges. No longer resenting her identity as an Evangelical Christian Arab woman, she now sees them as part of God’s plan for her.
From these experiences I seek illustrate two conclusions. First, we must indeed explore the world’s Christian communities cross-culturally and seek to understand their historical and geographical contexts. I argue that this may reveal what we did not expect. Out of one woman’s limitations, we often discover another woman’s opportunities for unique but abundant ministry.
I suspect that as we continue to study the work of women missionaries and women in the global church, discoveries like those I made in Jordan will continue. What the official record may label a limitation of ‘women’s work’ in mission may, in many cases, hide the important aspects of church life that only a woman can access.
Second, as women we may face expectations about a ‘women’s work’ that leave us feeling limited or even incompetent. Such limitations can become opportunities when they force us to seek competency in each other, and in the boundless competence of an unlimited God who we share across our many cultures.
For more about the ‘Women and World Church’ conference, you can see the keynote Alexander Duff lecture given by Professor Kwok Pui-lan, entitled ‘Women, Mission, and World Christianity‘, or read about the first response panel authored by Centre student Nuam Hatzaw.