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November 2011 Issue

Rooted in Justice

Demonstrators for Immigration reform hold signs reading 'Jesus was a migrant.'

General Conference 2012

By Shanta Bryant Gyan

United Methodist Women’s work for peace and justice has 140-year-old roots.

From the early missionary societies of the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren traditions to the present day, United Methodist Women has been a moral and prophetic voice in speaking out about human rights and social justice issues in the world and taking on the controversial issues of their generations, even when the issue was a difficult one for the denomination to accept.

Dating back to when United Methodist Women’s predecessors such as the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church and the United Brethren’s Woman’s Missionary Association were founded in 1869 and 1875, women missionaries have worked to eradicate injustice home and abroad.

And like their predecessors, United Methodist Women members today are committed to ministry with women, children and youth and a range of justice issues that includes racial justice and immigrant rights, children’s education and health care access, peace, and economic and environmental justice.

Early women missionaries sent by United Methodist Women predecessor organizations returned home sharing eye-opening experiences about the impoverished circumstances in the countries where they served, which helped to deepen their denomination’s mission work and advocacy. Yet the very fact that women foreign missionary societies and the deaconess movement in the United States were sending out women, especially single women, for mission work stirred up controversy within their denominations.

“From the beginning of the organized work there were questions about the proper role of women, the sending of single women missionaries, the fear that deaconesses might preach instead of keeping to their proper sphere, and the overall assertion that women should not be exercising decision-making roles regarding finances and property maintenance,” said Harriet Jane Olson, deputy general secretary of the Women’s Division, United Methodist Women’s policymaking body. “I suppose that means that it is in our organizational DNA.”

Despite the denial of basic rights — like the right to vote — in their own lives, the foremothers of United Methodist Women dared to confront the failing systems imposed on them and others marginalized by society. “It was clear to our predecessors that churchwomen could not continue to ‘enable’ these failing systems. . . . We needed to work on the systems,” Ms. Olson said.

Indeed, since churchwomen in the early missionary society years experienced firsthand the effects of inequality that may have given impetus to their compassionate response to challenge the social structures of their generation and improve the lives of persons in need from women in India to educating newly freed African Americans, Native American and Mexican Spanish-speaking children in the Southwest, and children in urban and rural America.

Drawing on their Christian faith, the women of predecessor denominations were outspoken advocates for the full participation of all people in society, and many became leading figures in the women’s suffrage movement and temperance movement after seeing the devastating impact of alcoholism on families.

United Methodist Women and its foremothers have pushed their denominations to take strong stands on justice issues “not only because it was socially, politically and economically compelling, but because they heard the call of Jesus Christ to take up this prophetic ministry with the ‘least of these,’” said Sung-ok Lee, Women’s Division’s assistant general secretary for Christian Social Action. “We were called to be moral first and political second.”

Speaking truth to power is a part of United Methodist Women’s Christian call to advocate for the needs of women, children, youth and disenfranchised communities. Consequently, over the years United Methodist Women has pressed the denomination to address controversial, and often “uncomfortable,” social and political issues.

Maggie Jackson, Ph.D., vice president of the Women’s Division’s board of directors and chair of its Christian Social Action section, urged United Methodist Women members to “read the signs of the current times to do the prophetic task of the work for social justice.”

“We have to move out of the places that we feel comfortable,” Ms. Jackson said. “If you are always feeling comfortable, you cease to be effective. It’s when we have that anxiety that we push to the next level. That’s a tall order, but that’s what we’re called to do. . . . We have a God who is always present with us. We are never alone.”

The national and international policy positions taken by United Methodist Women are never split-second decisions but instead are crafted by members from around the country who are elected to serve as directors of the Women’s Division after deeply exploring justice issues through the lenses of mission, spiritual growth, and study and action.

“We find ourselves taking controversial positions because we are engaged in a discipline of study that includes intentional focus at the grassroots level, and the women, children and youth at the grassroots are like the canary in the coal mine — they are affected by the poison in the system before others who may be better protected against it are even aware of it,” Ms. Olson said. “That means we are always educating, always engaging new voices and often critiquing the status quo. This leads to controversy — especially among those of us who may be comfortable in the status quo.”

Moving beyond the “comfort zone” on justice issues to create just and lasting change is something United Methodist Women and Women’s Division have never shied away from. 

War and peacemaking

Peace, militarism and national security have always been major areas of concern for United Methodist Women and predecessor organizations since the Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1870 when women came together to promote peace during the U.S. Civil War. Nearly three decades later, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s Peace Department launched a world peace study during the Spanish-American War of 1898.

Peace with justice is at the core of United Methodist Women’s advocacy on peacemaking. With clear facts on war’s destructive impact on women, children and youth, churchwomen set out to advocate for an end to violence and war. They simultaneously work to eliminate injustices in the world and transforming the way nations and individuals resolve ongoing conflicts.

The Woman’s Foreign and the Woman’s Home Missionary Societies were both instrumental in convincing the Methodist Episcopal Church’s 1924 General Conference to create the Commission on World Peace between World War I and World War II to help coordinate efforts to prevent future wars.

Prior to the start of World War II, the then Woman’s Division endorsed the Methodist Church’s General Conference statements opposing U.S. military action and the draft and supporting youth camps for conscientious objectors.

In 1943, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when anti-Japanese sentiment was at its height the division was one of the first national church agencies to speak out against the U.S. government’s forced removal and internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans to camps throughout the Western states.

During the Vietnam War, Women’s Division vehemently opposed the war, and was the first agency of the United Methodist Church to call for “an immediate end to an unjustified war.”

Women’s Division was harshly criticized for its position on the Vietnam War by some in the denomination but forged ahead. The resolution acknowledged the difficulty in opposing government policy but plainly stated that when the government’s policies serve “death over life” and calls for a policy change are ignored, the Church must move toward active opposition.

As bombs rained down on Bagdad first in 1991 and then 2001, United Methodist Women expressed opposition to both wars. In 1991 nearly 100,000 people responded to a call from Women’s Division to protest military action during the Gulf War through letter writing to Congress, signing a petition and praying for peace. Women’s Division directors have not relented in their call for complete withdrawal of U.S. troops and U.S.-funded mercenaries from Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It has been clear to us that violence threatens the most vulnerable the most,” Ms. Olson said. “The fact that the death tolls of women and children in Iraq and Afghanistan are so much higher than the death toll among soldiers is not new information for United Methodist Women.”
United Methodist Women voiced opposition to the Patriot Act, a law severely curtailing the civil liberties of Americans after the September 11 attacks, by writing letters to editors and to U.S. lawmakers against such measures.

At the 2006 Assembly, United Methodist Women, recognizing that a substantial portion of the U.S. federal budget was devoted to military expenditures, called for a “money transfer” of the federal budget from military expenses to money for education and other needed funds for children and youth. 

Racial justice

Racial justice is an ongoing Women’s Division and United Methodist Women’s mission work. Women’s Division has remained steadfast in its commitment to eradicating all forms of racism and has led the Church in addressing the issue of institutional racism through the organization’s persistence to become a fully antiracist and multicultural organization and denomination.

“Our efforts to build a community of women without racial barriers have led us to expand existing programs and assist United Methodist Women in implementing General Conference resolutions that address racial justice, build covenant groups and self-monitoring processes within the Women’s Division,” Ms. Lee said. “The current emphasis looks at becoming a ‘radically welcoming’ church as a path toward becoming fully antiracist and multicultural.”

In a segregated America, Women’s Division confronted Jim Crow laws while planning the 1942 United Meth-odist Women’s Assembly, which was scheduled to take place in St. Louis, Mo., a city with separate accommodations for races. While on a site visit, black members of the planning team were told by hotel staff that they had to use the freight elevator to get to the meeting room. The entire committee used the freight elevator to get to the meeting room, but this led to the decision to move the Assembly’s location to Cincinnati, Ohio, where the participants could be accommodated in the same facilities.

Out of this experience and entrenched racism in the United States, Women’s Division adopted the first Charter for Racial Policies in 1952, which became the foundation of its racial justice advocacy. The charter was later adopted by the Methodist Church’s General Conference in 1964. A Charter for Racial Justice Policies in an Interdependent Global Community, which addresses racism within the denomination, the United States and global community, was adopted by the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in 1978, and has consecutively been readopted, most recently ?in 2008.

“The charter continues to be an urgent call for study and action on the principles and goals of its vision,” Ms. Lee said.

Things that make for peace

On an international level, Women’s Division and Methodist churchwomen were leaders in calling for the establishment of an international organization for peace — the United Nations. In the 1960s, the Church Center for the United Nations (CCUN), a building across the street from the United Nations headquarters in New York City, was inspired in part by local churchwomen and Women’s Division as a place to further the denomination’s advocacy efforts on peace and global justice issues. Financed initially through a non-interest-bearing loan, Women’s Division eventually purchased the CCUN building in 1983, which maintained the denomination’s strong presence at the United Nations.

The facility continues to be a vibrant center of global activism where Women’s Division staff have offered space to activists working for liberation and decolonization in Africa and other areas in the 1960s, ending apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s-1990s and ongoing struggle of indigenous peoples. Seminars on justice issues converge at the center and it is also host to the U.N. offices of other denominations and nongovernmental organizations.

United Methodist Women has also advocated for U.S. legislation to support Korean and other “comfort women” who were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during World War II. Women’s Division put forth a resolution to General Conference urging the Japanese government to apologize to and compensate “comfort women.” The resolution was adopted in 2004 and revised and readopted in 2008.

Immigration and global migration, domestic violence, human trafficking and climate change are current priority justice issues for Women’s Division and United Methodist Women. These issues address human rights for women, environmental destruction through climate change, and the migration of countless women and families worldwide in search of economic survival.

“Our ongoing mission and ministry in this changing time within the church and world speak to the continuing history of the struggles of women engaged in mission for social justice,” Ms. Lee said. “This new history will inspire those who will take the baton to continue the legacy that our foremothers, and presently we as the current peacemakers are forging ahead to leave behind for our future generations of women.”

Ms. Lee said the Women’s Division will introduce a new resolution to the 2012 General Conference that calls on the Church to speak out in the public space for compassion and against hate amid today’s growing racist and anti-immigrant sentiments. 

Women’s Division’s board of directors felt compelled to address the growing incivility and vitriolic atmosphere around the issue of immigration, Ms. Lee said. “At a time of rising vitriol, racism, hate and violence in the world born of deep economic crisis and global shifts, the directors of the Women’s Division say that it is time for the Church to speak out,” she said.

“If we do not, God will be ‘appalled,’” Ms. Lee said, referring to Isaiah 59:14-16. In that Scripture, the prophet Isaiah spoke of “justice that has stumbled in the streets” and “truth that is nowhere to be found,” and then concluded, “God was appalled.”

In a rapidly changing world, United Methodist Women will raise its voice to stand for justice and respond to the continuing challenges faced by women, children and youth.

“At the core, however, we see intersecting and overlapping issues of race, class and gender that place undue burdens on women, children and youth. These intersections and overlaps will be the core of our work, while the issues will change with history,” Ms. Olson said.

Shanta Bryant Gyan is a freelance writer based in the New York City metropolitan area.

Last Updated: 03/19/2014
 
 

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