Musings From the Road
by Rev. Lana Robyne, FPM Board Member
I felt incredibly blessed to join the delegation of eight clergywomen from North Katanga and Tanganyika to the African Methodist Clergywomen Leadership Development Conference* at Africa University in Zimbabwe. These clergy-sisters made sure I didn’t get lost, hungry, left behind, or separated from them at borders or bus transfers. We spent two nights on busses sharing food we’d brought and bought along the way. They helped make sure I didn’t leave behind any of my bags that I kept forgetting or misplacing. They took charge and insisted I get medical treatment when I twisted my ankle and scratched it on the bus door stepping off a bus in Lusaka, Zambia. They helped me hobble to the apothecary for medicine and made sure I kept it wrapped and elevated. One dear sister generously loaned me her pairs of sandals to replace my shoes as my ankle swelled. They made me think of all the sermons we had just heard from on abundant giving. This team of clergywomen never hesitated to freely share with each other from what few resources they had.
When we arrived at AU after several days and nights, my sisters fully claimed me and counted me as one of their delegation. They continued to include me in everything they did. I claimed them too. Even though I had many old friends to catch up with from other conferences and students at AU, I was here first as a member of this delegation.
It was quite a thrill to join in singing in several languages with over 300 clergywomen from all over the continent of Africa. On several occasions, clergy of our five Congolese episcopal areas spontaneously joined together in dancing and singing praise as people gathered in the chapel. We joined together with South Congo/Zambia to lead music for worship one day, and they insisted I join even though I was afraid I would not know the songs. I was glad they did, because I did know a couple of the songs, and enjoyed harmonizing even when I didn’t know the words. We also enjoyed joining with clergywomen from other Congolese conferences for a special banquet and dancing put on for us by the united Congolese students at AU. One special evening, each of the conference delegations processed together as they presented gifts and blessings to honor our first African woman bishop, the association’s outgoing president, Bishop Nhanala Joaquina from Mozambique.
This conference was intensively informative with much to re-translate, digest and process. We heard powerful messages by Bishop Sharma D. Lewis from Virginia Conference. After one presentation by the COSROW representative, Dawn Wiggins Hare, we debriefed the COSROW report, confirming that the survey she asked everyone to fill out was about the sexual misconduct, discrimination, and abuse of women and girls, not about homosexuality. We tried to set aside time at the end of the evenings just for “us” North Katangans in one of our rooms to process Bible studies, talks, devotions, and key-note sermons, but a few nights we simply had to get some sleep. Poor Rev. Umba was kept up even later meeting with the other presidents of each conference. As we met and listened to other women’s life stories and prayers, it was clear many clergywomen around Africa have faced many similar struggles to North Katangans, and some have survived much worse discrimination and abuses. It was emotionally exhausting, but also affirming to be united in Christ.
While the most complicated and confusing part of the conference was voting for the next quadrennium’s executive leaders for the African Clergywomen Association, it was also an important opportunity to come together to review and approve the group’s expectations of their conference and executive leaders. Some of the arguments and votes revealed how much colonialism continues to divide African women by languages, nations, and ethnic groups today, challenging the whole point of bringing African together to bond and support one another as sisters.
Communications and translation certainly was a daunting challenge between clergywomen and between language groups. It also showed us how some clergywomen also seek to gain power over others, pushing down or disparaging others, blocking the advance of other clergywomen, and controlling access to information, travel opportunities, and financial resources for conferences like this. Women are unfortunately also equal to men in being tempted to misuse their position and power just as self-serving, corrupt clergymen do. Neither are all men corrupt and self-serving.
I think the world of my North Katangan clergy-sisters. We bonded together as family. Several took turns translating for me. We grew close staying together in the residence halls, eating meals, sitting in worship together at AU. I appreciated how they fully included me as a member of our group while others regarded me as an outsider and visitor. During voting I had to step away from my group, and then I was asked to help count votes as an objective visitor.
We did not sing or dance as we dragged ourselves out of bed very early the last morning. People were ushered onto busses as soon as they came out, so we did not even get to hug each other farewell. I stayed behind for a few days at AU before flying home from Harare. It was surreal to watch them leave without me, and I wonder if they felt like they had lost one member all the way home. We had become the nine women from North Katanga, not just eight and a guest. I myself went through the next few days feeling like I had misplaced eight sisters.
My biggest regret is that we did not have more opportunity on the busses or more free time during the conference to share our stories and reflections. However, I have faith I will be back to North Katanga and Tanganyika to meet them again. In the meantime, I pray that they have plenty of opportunities to share their insights and learnings from the conference with everyone, male as well as female, young as well as old, poor as well as rich.
Even though sexual misconduct, domestic violence, and rape still plague women and girls in the United States, Americans can hardly imagine what women here face just to survive and provide for their families. I have also met many good, secure men who are proud and supportive of the accomplishments, education, spiritual gifts, and talents of their wives, daughters, and mothers.
* held July 10-14 organized and sponsored by the Association of African Clergywomen, the General Board of Higher Education, Central Conference Theological Education Fund, and COSROW.