Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Glory Dharmaraj: Gender, Intersectionality, and Being Home in Mission - A Reflection Under the Shadow of COVID-19 Crisis (Part 2)

Today's post is by Dr. Glory Dharmaraj. Dr. Dharmaraj is President of the World Association for Christian Communication, North America and Retired Director of Mission Theology for United Methodist Women. This post is the second of a two-part series.

As explained in my previous post, the COVID-19 crisis has shown the need for ground-up community-level solutions for survival. It is time for niche advocacy in specific localities with a focus on the most vulnerable people, with an intersectional perspective, while interrogating why certain groups of people have been less protected and allowed to die. It is time to align ourselves in a mutually respectful dialogue and joint action with those who are at the margins of survival, and work with those who build coalitions for human flourishing from ground up. It is also time to include the voices of those at the margins in building such coalitions. In this way, we can build a new concept of home as hearthhold of hope.

Sisterhood and Neighborhood
These new practices must be rooted in concepts of sisterhood and neighborhood. Sisterhood and neighborhood existed long before women organized themselves for mission. Sisterhood is as old as neighborhood.

For instance, in the story of Naomi and Ruth, it is the sisterhood of Bethlehem that visit Naomi often, bless her in her journey of survival, and rejoice when she takes over the child care of Ruth’s new-born baby. It is the neighborhood women who even come up with a name for the new-born child (Ruth 4: 14-17). Something unprecedented!

A sisterhood of lament is found in the story of Jephtha, who makes a hasty decision that if he wins his fight over the enemies of Israel, he will sacrifice anyone who comes to meet him first on his return home. It is his virgin daughter who comes to greet him first with music and dance! A group of women immediately accompany this unquestioning daughter in order to bemoan her “unfulfilled” life. A sisterhood of lament, the women perpetuate the memory of this nameless victim whose life is cut short, in an annual ritual of remembrance (Judges 11: 29-40).

In the not-too-distant past, sisterhoods have played many roles for survival, running soup-kitchens, offering child-care, sewing clothes, and making it possible for families to function. Instances of sisterhood and neighborhood coming through in the best and worst of times are not rare occurrences. Emerging in the communal spaces during crises where inequality persists due to class, race, and other categories of oppressions, sisterhoods have strengthened women, children, and men, and the community as a whole, and have sought to address systemic gaps, by community organizing projects and neighborhood unions.

Home and True Womanhood in Mission History
As a base, home has been pivotal in women’s mission. So is the notion of the “cleansing” influence of home on the neighborhood and community, that home offer a moral and spiritual framework to shape the latter.

A key thread in the history of women in Christian mission is a story of how the female leaders negotiated the ideology of separate spheres along gender lines in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In a binarily divided cultural framework, the domestic sphere defined “true womanhood,” characterized by piety, submissiveness, and domesticity; public sphere fostered men’s roles in hard core activities.

While the definitions of home and household labor have gone through sweeping changes over time, there have been gaps and cracks in the concept of women sanctifying the private sphere from its inception. African American and poor immigrant women had toiled along with their men side by side, be it in farms, fields, or crowded urban settings. The ideal of true womanhood failed to include the so called “heathen” within the U.S., such as the “blacks, mountaineers, rural people, and immigrants.”[1] Gaps of inequity, be it class-specific or race-related, tend to become “systemic gaps.”

The rallying cry for women’s mission was centered around the notion of the private sphere in the slogan, “Women’s work for women.” Single female missionaries, both home and foreign missionaries, and the deaconesses put to use the notion of separate spheres as a strategy around this catch phrase, while playing a key role in women’s move from the private sphere into the public world. These women used concepts of home to propel their mission but refused to be limited by the home.

This circumvention of patriarchy is an interesting thread of this story and an important lesson to take with us as we re-examine home in this COVID-19 reality, though a full accounting of this history is beyond the scope of this article.

Local Solutions and Community Organizing
Localized solutions to the problems revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic have sprung from home and extended neighborhood spaces. Garages, driveways, and porches have become communal spaces where groceries, masks, and essentials are distributed to neighbors. Some clergy make “driveway” visits in place of home visits in the New York area, and pray aloud to the parishioners who keep social distance in their garages and in their front yards!

In the midst of it, practices of togetherness, however fragmented it be, take on many shapes. In my immediate neighborhood in Westchester County, New York, a father of a nine-year-old suggested that we have a backyard barbeque and that we celebrate togetherness in groups of two or three households. The idea is well mapped out by this dad that the “fired-up” barbeque grill be common and each bring their own meat or vegetable and grill from an assigned area on the grill plate. A common fire and a shared grill!

Hearthholds of Hope
This localizes the age-old concept of hearthhold, alluded to by Felicia Ekejuiba, and developed into a theological idea by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, a Methodist minister and a former leader in the World Council of Churches: a fireplace set inside or outside the home. It is a concept familiar across many places in Africa and Asia, and migrant camps including the one in Brownsville, Texas.

Some years ago, a group of women in Angola, Africa interpreted what hearthhold meant to them in a Bible Women training in Luanda which was sponsored by the Angola Council of Christian Churches and the United Methodist Women. Surviving the Civil War in Angola, these women were rebuilding their communities. To them, the fireplace meant “warmth,” “food,” “solidarity,” “protection,” and “presence of the life of the household.” Women created heartholds in the fields where they spent long hours of work, and they created these heartholds in places of survival. Men create a central fire place in communities called “Njango” and “Kibanga.” One of the women leaders urged the others in a Bible Study to nurture the fire of hope, “Nutrir da palavra de Esper.”

Thanks be to all those who tend the heartholds, be it homes, neighborhoods, migrant camps, and returnee routes. Though we are not together in Covid-19 crisis due to pre-existing and current deep systemic gaps, we are called to be in mission, “together towards life.” Lest this remain a mere aspiration, may we continue to imagine durable mission practices from the ground up, for and as resilient communities locally, regionally, and inter-regionally taking seriously into consideration the interstices and the systemic gaps that persist and resist human flourishing, healing, and wholeness.

[1] Mary E. Frederickson, “Shaping a New Society” in Women and New Worlds, vol. 1, Hilah Thomas and Rosemary Skinner Keller (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1981), 349.

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