These shoes are traveling in my suitcase. They’re for a bride in Kinshasa, DR Congo, and her mom, and good luck to them tottering up the aisle! They’re sent by the bride’s older and younger sisters who are in the US.
I am going to Congo again. This is an unfolding story with a plotline that I would never have predicted when I went back to the Democratic Republic of Congo in May 2012 for the first time in 40 years. It is about women and their aspirations.
In the Mennonite Church of Congo, the big feminist issue of the day–of the decade, even–has been the ordination of women. Although women have been studying theology in growing numbers and even serving in unofficial pastoral roles, the church governing body had refused time and again to approve ordination of women to the ministry, though the votes had grown closer each time. This issue became the rallying point for a movement within the church to raise the status of women in all aspects of life.
Meanwhile, another branch of the church, the Mennonite Brethren, had been ordaining women since 2001, even before their North American counterparts had done so. And yet another branch, the Evangelical Mennonites, had approved ordaining women but had not yet done so.
When I met with a group of “women theologians” on the first day of my visit in May 2012, I not only witnessed the frustration of those who were being refused ordination; I also saw how their ordained sisters supported them. And I learned that an Evangelical Mennonite woman, whom I knew from editing her story, was going to be ordained two months later, on the occasion of her church’s Jubilee celebration and the Centennial celebration of the Mennonite Church of Congo.
I decided later to attend these events and so I went back in July 2012, primarily for the Centennial but also to witness Mimi’s ordination. It was a moving and spectacular event.
But before that took place, I was in a guesthouse in Kinshasa when I learned that the Mennonite Church of Congo had also, after 12 years of petitioning, agreed to ordain women. I heard the news in the company of one of the leaders of the movement, Sidonie Swana, and I saw the “I’ll believe it when I see it” expression on her face. Rumors like this had flown before. But this time it was true.
Just over a year later, in September 2013, I traveled to Congo on an assignment to write about the first ordinations of women in the Mennonite Church of Congo. I witnessed the ordination of Sidonie Swana and two other women.
Early this year I began talking with the three American ordained women who had been with me on that trip, and other people in Mennonite agencies, about how we might support the ordained and newly empowered women of the Mennonite communities in Congo. As we began these discussions among ourselves, a message came from Sidonie Swana proposing a three-point (short-, medium-, and long-term) vision for a ministry by ordained women in Congo. She asked for partnership and counsel from the Mennonite women of the USA. The timing of her letter was uncanny.
It was the kind of message that required further elaboration face to face, because of the difficulties of communication with Congo and even within Congo. One thing led to another, and here I am on the verge of another three-week trip, this one to three locations in Congo, for a series of consultations with women from all three branches of the church about their vision for women’s ministry and leadership in the church. I will be accompanied by Sandy Miller, who is sponsored by Mennonite Mission Network. Sandy caught the Congo-love bug on her first trip, last fall, to the ordinations. I have the support of Mennonite Women USA and Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. We will be ambassadors, listeners, encouragers, discerners. It is a thrilling assignment.
Other storylines continue. My friend in suburban Chicago is still slowly fading from life. I had to leave her bedside 10 days ago. I may miss her memorial service. I will miss my granddaughter’s 4th birthday and the 70th birthday of a dear friend. But my trusty travelin’ Chacos and Congo flag–inspired Toms are ready to go.