Photo: (from l to r) Carolyn Heggen, Hogla Tabitha, Rani Benhur, Yesupriya Joel, and Rhoda Keener at Nagpur, India. Photo provided.
It was “Meena’s story” that most intensely touched the hearts of the 325 women at the All India Mennonite Women conference in 2012. Although it used a fictitious name, “Meena”* was the real-life story of a pastor’s wife whose husband became verbally and physically abusive to her, especially on weekends when he started to worry about the Sunday service.
Many women responded to the story, saying with tears, “I am Meena.” Indian women leaders advised Sister Care teachers, Carolyn Heggen, psychotherapist specializing in trauma healing, and Rhoda Keener, Sister Care director for Mennonite Women USA, to teach that violence against women is a sin and that it is not a Christian wife’s duty to submit to her husband’s violence. Participants said they had never before heard this.
Five years later, in October 2017, Keener and Heggen returned to India**, this time to Nagpur, to train 25 members of the Theologically Trained Anabaptist Women of India (TTAWI) to become Sister Care teachers. To further empower these women as future teachers, Elisabeth Kunjam, TTAWI leader, organized the translation of the Sister Care manual into five languages (Hindi, Telegu, Tamil, Bangla, and Nepali), and printed 2,300 manuals for participants to share in their communities.
In Nagpur, the story of Meena was again read. Women were asked the same question that was asked 5 years earlier, “How can women help Meena?” but this time the question included, “How can violence against women be stopped in Christian homes?” In small groups the women discussed the problem and this time the answer came with overwhelming clarity: “With teamwork.” Women need to band together and work with leaders in the church to stop violence against women.
The group was asked to list some of the problems faced by women in India. Answers included: “The pressure to have sons, women’s gifts are not recognized, the selling of girl children, having money she earns deposited into her husband’s account, restrictions from in-laws, women are not allowed to preach except one time a year on ‘women’s Sunday’ and that is often skipped, wife beating, childhood sexual abuse, unreasonable dowry expectations and the economic difficulties of widows.” These realities of women’s lives stand in sharp contrast to God’s vision presented in Sister Care’s first unit, which emphasizes, “I am God’s beloved daughter.”
Rechal Bagh, one of the event coordinators and president of TTAWI, said, “I trust that women will be helped in their struggles and pain and will be able to help others with this knowledge of God’s way of helping and healing for women.”
A few days later, Heggen and Keener spoke to students at Union Biblical Seminary in Pune, India, on the
theme: “How pastors can care for the spiritual and psychological needs of women.” They addressed ways the Bible can be used either to hurt women or to help them heal. Afterward, a student, Montosh Giri, approached carrying a worn copy of Heggen’s book, Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, from the UBS library. He said that as a pastor he and his wife have a deep concern for the needs of women in their community. Keener offered to ask her husband, Pastor Bob Keener, to be an encouraging pen pal.
Montosh and Bob have begun corresponding. Montosh sent a research paper he wrote on “The Women of Odisha” where he said, “In this world women suffer more than other living beings …I am raising my voice for every woman….”
Men like Montosh bring hope. The Theologically Trained Women of India bring hope. After a Sister Care workshop in Kathmandu, Nepal, a woman wrote on an unsigned paper, “This is the first day I am glad that I was born a girl. I have always dreamed of being a boy.” Having women see how precious they are to God brings hope!
*Indian women oversaw the writing of Meena’s story in 2012, working with Twila Miller who spent many years in India with MCC.
**Funding for these seminars and manuals came from the Schowalter Foundation and many individuals.