Musings From the Road
by Rev. Lana Robyne, FPM Board Member
In the warm, tightly packed United Methodist conference center in Kamina, official reports had been going on all afternoon. Some eyelids drooped and a few heads nodded in the post-lunch slump. At least I’ll admit mine were. Other people were sitting up as straight as they could on the long wooden benches and fanning themselves with papers from that day – a bulletin from morning worship or the conference agenda with the stapled pages folded over to reveal how far behind on the schedule we’d fallen. Some were undoubtedly fanning themselves with their tightly clutched revised copy of Amendment 1. We were all anxious about the outcome of our lengthy debate over the issue of gender equality. Delegates were already predicting the three-day conference would probably be extended another day. That is not uncommon, but the prospect especially worried those hoping to travel to Mulongo for the memorial service of the Rev. Dr. Bob Walters. It also worried the eight clergywomen who were scheduled to fly to Lubumbashi as soon as the plane returned from Mulongo so they could make it to Africa University in time for the African Clergywomen’s Leadership Conference.
Then an announcement was made.
Suddenly, elated ululating broke forth among the tense crowd and a voice called out singing with great confidence. Euphoric United Methodist women in their green print uniforms with yellow scarves practically jumped up from their seats and joined in singing. Clergy wives and female lay representatives harmonized as they excitedly excused their way down the crowded rows toward the aisles. Clergywomen clapped and sang along with the joyous song as they danced toward their sisters in the center of the church. A few shy female youth delegates at the back and some visiting choir members soon joined in. A good number of men were grinning and clapping with the women. The excitement was infectious! The only thing is, not having a translator at the time, I was quite confused. When someone came out of the ecstatic crowd and pulled me to join the dance. “What happened?” I practically had to shout. “It passed!” the person yelled back into my ear. Amendment 1 had passed! Now my heart soared with all these women and this conference.
I admit it took a moment to sink in. I have visited many of my Methodist brothers and sisters in the DRC as well as Zambia and Zimbabwe since being a visiting chaplain at Africa University for a semester in 2006. I have also been blessed to spend time with amazing church leaders who value and empower women clergy. I have been impressed by the creative, determined, and effective female clergy I have met. At the same time, I have heard personal testimonies of intense resistance to girls and women’s education, pressure for girls to marry and start a family too young, challenges for widows and women abandoned by husbands trying to provide for families, gender discrimination for women in ministry and other jobs, and sexual misconduct girls and women face. I have read many reports about systemic rape and sexual abuse in Congo, not just in war zones but in homes, schools, orphanages, and even churches by trusted adults. Thus, I had not dared to get up much hope in Amendment 1 (theologically affirming gender equality).
Nor was it obvious which way the vote would go since another version of Amendment 1 had been unanimously defeated here the year before. Each conference had to debate and vote again on the corrected version that focused only on gender discrimination for girls and women, not the gender of God.
After an explanation of all this by Bishop Mande, a government dignitary confirmed that this amendment did not break any Congolese laws, and there was opportunity for three speeches for and against. Speeches against the amendment included one man’s argument that Eve was created secondarily from Adam’s rib. Another clergywoman argued both men and women are created equally in God’s image. From the tension in the room, I am not sure anyone had a clear prediction about the results.
So, it was all the more exciting and affirming for women that this version of Amendment 1 had not only successfully passed this time, but passed overwhelmingly by the North Katanga Annual Conference, male and female, clergy and lay, young and old.