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A letter from Ruth Brown in Congo

March 14, 2012

Muoyo wenu (Life to you!)! 

Walking into the dark interior of two widows’ homes this month, I found each of the women sitting in silence and alone on a straw mat in the corner of a room.  After a husband’s death, tradition here dictates that a widow sit on the floor for 40 days because of her assumed association with causing the death.  During this time the husband’s family may claim all her property and, causing further humiliation, the women in the deceased husband’s family often force the widow to drink a mixture of ashes and water.

Enraged against women treating their sisters in this manner, my friend and Tshiluba teacher,  Pastor Charlotte Keba, based her thesis for seminary on Galatians 3:27–28:  “…all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  In her writing, Pastor Keba pleads with her sisters to show honor to each other because women are equal with men in Christ.

Charlotte Keba is a wife, mother, ordained minister, and community leader.  She explains that she “grew up in the church.”  The daughter of rice farmers, she remembers her family praying together every morning and evening and attending church on Sundays.  When asked about the most important thing her family taught her as a child, she quickly responds, “My mother taught me to love everyone.”

At age 12, Charlotte became active with her church youth group.  At 13, she became president of the JPV [Youth for Christ] at the presbytery level, and she remained president for two years. 

At age 20, Charlotte graduated from high school, tied with a male student for first in her class. Without funds for college, she married and, in subsequent years, had seven children. It was after her third child that Charlotte was called to the ministry and began a five-year seminary program.  With two scholarships and support from a PC(USA) missionary, Charlotte Keba graduated from seminary in 2007 and was ordained.

Appointed to assist many different organizations, Charlotte works with little or no pay.  Currently she is Christian Education Coordinator of the presbytery with responsibility for all youth programs, laity training, and choirs. Her leadership skills and devotion to serving the Lord are evident, but no CPC church has called her or any other female seminary graduates to serve as a pastor.

Charlotte reminds me of the assertive female believers in the Bible.  This Easter we will hear again the beautiful story of the first evangelists, the women returning from the empty tomb with the news of the risen Christ. What an honorable place in history for these women! 

Given Biblical examples of female priestesses and Christian leaders, why do churches in both the United States and Congo continue to deny women a role as church pastor?

An advocate for the Congolese and a historian of church history in Congo, the late Dr. William E. Phipps recognized women as worthy of having equal opportunity and rights as men.  He wrote that the Hebrew word for God, Elohim, used in the Bible at least 2,500 times to express the unified totality of the Creator,  “could have either a female or a male reference.”  [In Genesis, Elohim pronounces:]  “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.  Elohim created humanity male and female in the divine image”  (Genesis and Gender, pp 2–3).

Thinking of the meaning of these lines in Genesis and Pastor Keba’s text in Galatians, I want to scream the questions: 

What part of the “image of God” in women cannot be seen or valued?

What quality of being “one with Christ” cannot be understood?

What are all the reasons that women are not serving as church pastors?

What are all the reasons here in Congo that so many thousands fewer girls than boys attend school? 

The great disparity between the number of girls and the number of boys attending school is a health concern for Congo.  So closely is women’s education linked with the health of any country that two of the World Health Organization’s eight Millennium Development Objectives call for promoting education for girls.

In 2008 the U.S. State Department gave the following estimate of literacy in Congo (in French or a local language): 55 percent (women), 76 percent (men).  Based simply on enrollment figures from CPC schools in the 2010–2011 school year (see figures below), fewer girls than boys enroll in school and, of those who enroll, fewer girls than boys continue all the way to their 12th year.  Drop-out figures are staggering.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

For the development of better health and education in Congo, one has to cling to hope, and one hopeful Bible verse is: “I am still confident of this:  I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living”  (Psalm 27:13).

Christ calls us to facilitate change, to work for justice.  In partnership with the PC(USA), the CPC’s Development Program is promoting gender equality and women’s economic empowerment as integral components of sustainable development.  Through your prayers and gifts to the Development Program of the CPC (CPC Development—EO52114 “general use”—see the link below), you help efforts to meet one of World Mission’s primary objectives:  to identify and address the root causes of poverty, particularly as it impacts women and children.

Another Extra Commitment Opportunity program also addresses poverty and inequality: the “Phipps Scholarships for High School Girls.”  Set up in memory of Dr. William E. Phipps, these scholarships provide $50 per year for the full six years of high school ($300/girl/6-year high school career) to needy girls who have demonstrated aptitude during their elementary school years and who maintain acceptable grades during high school. The scholarship pays for school fees plus uniforms, shoes, and basic school supplies.

Please email me (roots4health@yahoo.com and send copy to: ruth.brown@pcusa.org) if you have a special interest in supporting or learning more about either of these Extra Commitment Opportunities. 

Thank you for the support you give through your prayers and through your donations to mission co-workers and to the programs of the churches where we serve. Together, we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!

Ruth Brown

 

The 2012 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 102

 

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