My internship at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women comes amid a series of major transitions in my life, including my relinquishing a career in law to attend Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the deaths of both parents in the last year and a half, and moving from a rural home in another state to an urban apartment. One of my first assignments at the Commission was to read a few particular magazines and books in order to get a feel for the work of the agency. One article, from the September 2014 issue of response, the publication of the United Methodist Women, caught my eye.
The article is “Rebuilding Liberia: Women Continue to Lead Struggle Against Violence and Poverty in Liberia.” What does Liberia have to do with Chicago or Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary or life transition? There was a coup in Liberia in 1980 that resulted in the country being immersed in war for well over two decades. The country continues to deal with the aftermath of war: financial and emotional poverty, physical wounds of people and property, and the lingering resentments that follow any travesty of unequal control imposed on a minority.
We in America have not experienced open war on our own soil for quite some time. However, some members of our communities suffer the results of inequality of control to this day. Some might read this to mean racial inequality, fiscal inequality, gender inequality, or any other type of inequality. At the Commission, the focus is on women. Even with the best efforts of The United Methodist Church, of which 58 percent of the membership is women, opportunities for women in church leadership continue to lag the opportunities afforded to men.
I’ll leave it to you to search the Commission’s website for more information on that topic. However, I would point out that, in relation to the story about Liberia, we face a similar opportunity for growth. The United Nations has been active in Liberia to help restore the country. This has included a process of disarmament. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, as stated on its website, is active within The United Methodist Church to advocate for the “full inclusion of women at all levels of church life.” This involves challenging the church to “address institutional sexism and sexual harassment/misconduct.”
The process, for both the United Nations and the Commission, involves confronting behaviors and language that is sometimes deeply ingrained. I have heard it said that, “if you want to learn about the culture of a fish, don’t ask the fish.” We are often unaware of the culture in which we spend our time.
Similarly, one aspect of the work needed to effect change on the issue of gender inequality within the church is to follow the advice of one of the individuals identified in the article. Mr. Kinkolenge went to Liberia to supervise a rural school, but his efforts were impeded by the fighting in the country, and he spent some time in the capital, Monrovia. His comments on disarmament are instructive. He said,
“We haven’t truly ended war until we’ve disarmed the minds of the people who fought it. You can give children weapons, but if their mind is disarmed they won’t use those weapons. So even though they’ve today put down the machetes and assault rifles, their mind still has to be disarmed. Otherwise their thoughts become words, their words become actions, and their actions become a habit. They will solve every daily problem with violence. And the war will never really end.”
When we talk about the status and role of women, within the Church and outside the Church, we are faced with a similar opportunity as the people in Liberia face. In order to get to a place where we can realize gender equality, we will need to disarm the minds of the people who have created the inequalities, profited from the inequalities, been harmed by the inequalities, and who are blind to the inequalities. Perhaps then we can hear the dreams of all people and move toward the life offered by Christ.
Pat Trask, a second-year student at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, is the seminary intern for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.