Pamela Obonde has worked with children’s and women’s rights organizations in Kenya for 17 years. Three years ago she switched her focus to women in the church when she realized the issues in the world remained the same for women in the church.
Obonde started missional training sessions in her home for women in the church after she attended a Sister Care training workshop in Kenya in 2016. Sister Care is a mission wing of Mennonite Women USA that equips women for caring ministry and empowers women to recognize and celebrate God’s grace in their lives.
She also helped found Anabaptist Peace Mission International, which trains and equips women in missional leadership.
Obonde spoke on April 24 in Winnipeg, Man., where she has studied peacebuilding and development at Canadian Mennonite University for the past year. She will return to Kenya with her husband and two children when she finishes her studies.
What are the main issues faced by women in the church in Kenya?
There’s a lot of domestic violence that is never spoken about. Young girls become pregnant and then quit their education. Women cannot access finances. There are issues that come out in the African way of patriarchal relationships, issues of women not allowed into ordination and leadership. The leadership of the church is male and does not bring these issues to the fore.
What does your missional training look like?
It demystifies the word “mission.” In Kenya when you talk about mission, you imply white people coming from North America or Europe. I say that mission is your calling, where you are. I want these women to realize the first calling they have is within their family. If we can take our families as our mission field and work around the family, then we can go out. That is what we teach them in the first three months at the leadership-training center. Then they are given some capital to start small businesses. They expand their mission work from their family to the community through their business.
What is the goal?
If we experience the peace of Christ within our homes, then that peace is experienced and expressed within the church. The church is hurting. Nobody is talking about these issues.
As women become empowered, they shape the direction of the church. We hope it will be so and pray and trust God. The patriarchal community within the church is deep.
If we open up spaces for women to participate within the family then collectively our voices will be heard in church, and then our voices will be heard in the community.
Can you give examples of this empowerment?
Three women are now graduates of our mission training. We approached Eastern Mennonite Missions to help them get more knowledge. They are now studying counseling and Bible foundation. They are now leaders learning how to equip the church.
The second impact is the women who run their own small businesses learn how to make their own financial decisions. This is significant because the domestic violence stems from finances in the home. When you keep on asking your husband about food, those small queries multiply and cause violence within the home.
Two women have openly said to us that because of their businesses, their husbands listen to them.
What are the biggest challenges in this work?
The first is money. Right now we restrict the number of women who go through the training because we cannot afford to have many of them.
The second challenge is being looked at by the leadership of the church as challenging the status quo and being asked, “You women, what is your agenda? Why are you bringing women’s rights in the church?”
It’s also a challenge to incorporate young people into our training. We need a vision open and wide enough to capture their aspirations and their hopes.
It must be a challenge to empower women to speak up but not challenge male leadership.
I’m careful to not be the feminist in church but to use a biblical lens. Women played a central role within the Bible. Pastors will point out there were no female disciples. I respond that the great message for us is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Who was chosen to give that message to the world? It was women.
In the secular world, I would talk about women’s rights. But in the church you have to be careful even with the women you speak with because we’ve been socialized to believe that leadership belongs to the men. When you tell them even they can preach, some say, no, you are coming from the world. It means bringing awareness among women that it’s not about competition with the men, it’s about building our capacity as women.
Where will you go from here?
I would love to push the peace agenda within my church. The Mennonite church is known as a peace church, but in Kenya we do not talk about peace either in the church itself or even as a country, even though we face electoral violence every five years. The Mennonite church is not incorporated where they are talking about peace in the national agenda. It is my hope that it will be.
I’m coming to realize we should do church differently. The Mennonite Church in Kenya is a very silent church. It is in a Muslim-dominated area. Muslims live their faith every day. We Christians only manage to live our faith on Sundays. If we can acknowledge that church is not separate from our everyday and our everyday is not separate from church, then we will preach the good news even to nonbelievers.