Director of Empower International Ministries | http://empowerinternational.org/
I have a doctorate in social and organizational psychology and I married a fellow who’s a professor of economics. This was when I finished my degree in ’82, so that’s 35 years ago, and it was really hard to get two academic positions. He was offered a job at Santa Clara University up in the Bay Area and I taught part-time for a while at Santa Clara. But that’s sort of a good way to starve to death! I’m an organizational psychologist anyway so I went into corporate training and then from there I went into management consulting. I had a very active career; I mean we were up in Silicon Valley and all these nice dysfunctional engineers who were trying to run companies, so there’s a lot of business for management consultants up there! Then my husband was offered a job in Virginia at George Mason, so I let my practice here go and we moved to George Mason. While we were there, I had been trying to write a book for quite a while, about women and gender, essentially, in the Bible.
About mid-90s a friend of mine asked me to work with her to start a chapter of an organization called Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE). I was the study leader and we met once a month and I wrote these studies. Then we moved to a new church and I said something in a Sunday School class and the associate pastor was very interested in the gender equality so he asked me to teach a class there as well. Between the two groups, I was writing the studies and I ended up with this little study guide which was distributed through CBE. You really can’t publish a study guide unless you’re Bill Hybels or some big name; nobody buys them and most churches generate their own Sunday School material. So CBE was distributing it and I got an e-mail one day from a Finnish woman; she asked me for permission to translate the study guide into Finnish. I gave her permission, and then a few years later she introduced me online to this Ugandan Anglican priest named Medad Birungi, and he started inviting me to come to Africa.
Between my scholarly interest in religion and the Bible and my training background, I was sort of a natural for what I ended up creating, which is called Empower International Industries. I look at the economic reasons for the traditional gender division of labor and patriarchy, essentially. It was really hard to get Medad to understand what I was trying to do. Because they have missionaries coming over all the time, and they mostly just preach at them. That’s what he’s expecting me to do, but I’m a corporate trainer. You don’t just talk at people in corporate training. What I wanted to do was have a training session where I had them work through the study guide. It was train-the-trainer focused; now they will take this material and take it forward, teach it themselves. I said, “If I come back, I’m going to have my own program.” So we started Empower.
We have 13 Bible studies. We start with creation, and we look at Jesus and we look at Paul, and what they’re saying. We try to get an even number of men and women, 30 to 40. We break them into small groups and each group will do a different study, and they work through the study guides and they read what the Bible’s saying and they answer questions and they discuss it. Then they come back together and they teach each other what they learned and they make their own cultural applications, and that’s really critical. I can’t come over and change their culture because I have no idea. So they work through these studies, they make their own cultural applications, and then they go and they put it in sermons, they lead seminars themselves.
As we developed the study guide, and I was always customizing it, you see that children, labor, and sex… Jesus explicitly addresses all those when you decode what Jesus is saying. There’s an incident in Luke where Jesus is out preaching ad this woman sees him and she wants to compliment him, so she said, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you.” Because his mother must be really lucky to have a son like that, so she’s complimenting him by praising his mother, saying how lucky his mother is, but it’s all in terms of her biological function. Jesus says “No, rather, blessed is one who hears the word of God and obeys it.” He’s redefining anyone’s worth, not by how well they fulfill their childbearing function, but by their relationship with God. There are all these incidences with prostitutes who come to Jesus, and a Jewish rabbi wasn’t even supposed to speak to a strange woman let alone a prostitute, and Jesus always forgives them, makes the men responsible for their own sexual behavior, and lifts the women up. Because once a woman in those cultures lost her sexual honor, she could never get it back. Jesus restores it because what’s important with Jesus is the relationship with God. So we’re able to relate these things that drive a woman’s life to what the Bible is teaching and say, “No, you’re more than that.”
The patriarchal thing that we look to as the traditional family or the biblical, is a misinterpretation of the Bible. The Bible is not patriarchal and Jesus is all about gender equality. But when you go back and read Paul, through these eyes of what Jesus is teaching and dropping out the assumptions that we have with patriarchy, Paul isn’t saying what people have always assumed he was saying, either.
Genesis 3 is Adam and Eve and the apple… it wasn’t really an apple, but that’s the story, right? After the man and the woman sin, because they don’t have names at that point, God says to them, “Because you have done this,” he says to the man, “cursed is the ground for your sake and will bring forth thorns and thistles for you.” They’re driven out of paradise, out of this garden. To the woman, he says, “You will have a lot of children,” although it gets misinterpreted as pain in childbearing, but actually it doesn’t say that you’ll have pain in childbearing. It says, “You’ll have a lot of sorrow, hard work. You’ll have a lot of children and your husband will rule over you.” Most people consider that to be the curse; they call Genesis 3 the curse and they’ll name all these different things they say are cursed. But God only uses the word “cursed” twice: once on the serpent who tempts them, and once on the ground. Everything else He describes are consequences of living in an agrarian economy.
We were doing more lectures because we didn’t have the study guide in Burundi, and so we talk about creation and how both man and woman are made in God’s image. I’m talking about Genesis 3 and the curse on the ground. I’m being translated because I don’t speak Kirundi or French, and this group’s pretty quiet. They’re products of the Belgian school system where you do not ask questions and the teachers didn’t ask you questions, so they’ve been very quiet. The men are on this side and the women are on the other, because they don’t sit next to each other. I’m talking about how the curse is only on the serpent and on the ground, and there’s all this muttering, so I ask my translator, “What are they saying?” And he said, “You mean the woman wasn’t cursed?” And I said, no, no, so I go back and explain that if you look carefully you’ll see that the curse is on the serpent and on the ground. I go on, and they’re muttering even louder, and I say to my translator, “What are they saying?” and he said, “You mean woman isn’t cursed?” It turns out they were taught this by European missionaries, the early days there, that God cursed the woman. There are still churches in the U.S. that believe that God cursed the woman, but we don’t practice witchcraft and we don’t know what a curse is. They’re still practicing witchcraft, and they go to their local gods and they put a curse… the idea that God cursed the woman is just devastating. In Genesis 1, woman is blessed equally with the man and now we see in Genesis 3 that the woman in cursed and this is transformative in Africa, it’s a huge deal. Can you imagine growing up believing that you had been cursed by God? And the men believe it! So any mistreatment of her is justified.
We only go where we are invited. But we get a lot of invitations. So we don’t encounter any resistance, actually. We’ve also been working a lot with Anglicans, independent churches. The Anglican church does ordain women. We did one of our early programs with women clergy because they might be ordained but… they’re still women, so they’re still viewed as cursed. The Bible is written to an economy much more like Africa than it is in modern contemporary developed cultures. They understand the Bible in ways that we don’t. But they’re reading it through not only the eyes of their culture, but the eyes of the early missionaries who came in.
What you do in the first 15 minutes of a program sets the tone for what you’re going to be doing, so if you start out talking, then they realize “This is a lecture, I’m just going to sit back and try to stay awake.” We do our seminars, we start out with them in small groups. It’s all them talking and they love it because no one’s ever given them that opportunity before. That’s all you get in Sunday schools now… it’s hard to get them to come back from their group studies and I used to walk around to the different groups and make sure everything was going well and they won’t look up at me, they won’t give me eye contact because they don’t want to be interrupted! Somebody else who’s worked in Kenya a lot said they’ll be speaking English until she comes up and then they’ll switch to their local language. They love it.
We have people working all over east Africa. My goal for this is to be an African movement in Africa, African-led by 2020, and we’re pretty far along that way. I want our role to be supporting them with materials and raising money and supporting the leaders and so forth. I want to be a more of a strategic role. We have a lot of diocese in Uganda who are running with it on their own. We’ve worked in Burundi from the beginning, working with the bishop. He had it running in his diocese for several years to find out what the impact was and then he decided in 2015 to take it to the whole province and so we went there and we met with the bishops. That’s more of the strategic role that I want to have.
We want to start a podcast and start addressing American issues because I think with all of this cultural change — you have all these single mothers out there who, really, the churches aren’t addressing their needs. The fastest-growing family unit, type of family, all over the world, is a woman and her children (maybe she has children, maybe she doesn’t have children) and the men who are in her life temporarily. And what we’re teaching is that gender does not have spiritual meaning. It’s not important; it’s just how you function in the world. I think the market has taken control over sexuality. Women have definitely lost control of sexuality. We’ve got all these people trying to sell us things, telling us what it means to be a woman or a man or a sexual being and I think a lot of people are lost in that. I think the Bible has a lot to say to the modern world, too.
Part of our problem is that with all the social change I was talking about, you have this cultural bifurcation where you’re either on this side or that side. When we first moved here, a friend of mine took me to her church and we were just working in Africa at the time, so I’m talking about that, and they had me back another time, they were very nice but they never followed up with anything. I asked her about it and she said that I’m just too Christian for them! It’s a very liberal church and I’m talking about helping women in Africa – they liked that. That’s on “this” side. But I’m using the Bible to do that… that puts me on “that” side, right? And if I go to a conservative church, I’m using the Bible, they like that. But I’m talking about gender equality, they don’t like that. So we’re in the middle, and most people want to be in the middle, but there’s no middle any more. There’s no support for the middle. You really have to say inflammatory things in order to get any attention these days. I haven’t said inflammatory things… although I think I’m going to start.