First Sunday of Lent: Fasting

By Bonnie Sestito

(With apologies from the blog editor–due to a technological glitch this post did not go live on the First Sunday of Lent as scheduled.)

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted[a] by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. 14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” -Mark 1:9-15 (NIV)

Long, John St. John. The Temptation in the Wilderness, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://bit.ly/1B8YKhN  [retrieved February 24, 2015].

Long, John St. John. The Temptation in the Wilderness, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://bit.ly/1B8YKhN [retrieved February 24, 2015].

According to Wikipedia Lent is a solemn religious observance in the liturgical calendar of many Christian denominations that begins on Ash Wednesday and covers a period of approximately six weeks before Easter Sunday. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through prayer, penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. During Lent, many of the faithful commit to fasting or giving up certain types of luxuries as a form of penitence. It is a season for reflection and taking stock. By observing the forty days of Lent, the individual Christian imitates Jesus’ withdrawal into the wilderness for forty days.

I remember when I was growing up, my Catholic friends would give up candy for Lent. As an adult I worked with a man who was Greek Orthodox and he would do a fast giving up dairy and meat. I never gave up anything until last year when my pastor challenged the congregation to give up something during the Lenten season. It didn’t take me long to decide what I wanted to give up. My doctor had been encouraging me to stop drinking Coca-Cola for some time, so I decided I would stop drinking it for the Lenten season. I like Coke, and I especially crave it when I’m stressed. It wasn’t an easy task. I faced temptation on a couple of occasions but I reminded myself of the purpose, which was to give up or deny myself of something to help me remember daily the need for repentance and to fix my eyes on God. I needed to stay focused and I needed to be strong in will. At the end of the Lenten season I was happy that I was able to accomplish this task. I couldn’t stop drinking Coke for my own health, but I could for God at least for forty days.

As women and girls of God, think about what things come between you and God as we enter the Lenten season. How many times have you made excuses, or tried to justify a wrong choice, or just simply caved into temptation? Reflect on the determination that Jesus had when constantly faced with temptation in the wilderness. Prepare yourselves in prayer. Challenge yourselves by fasting or denying yourselves of something. There are lessons to be learned about yourselves and about your relationships with God.

Bonnie SestitoBonnie Sestito serves as coordinator of Mission with Women and Girls, American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

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Be the Difference that Women Are

By Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray

Shiphrah, Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, Pharoah's Daughter, and the infant Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55961 [retrieved January 28, 2015]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dura_Europos_fresco_Moses_from_river.jpg.

Shiphrah, Puah, Jocheved, Miriam, Pharoah’s Daughter, and the infant Moses, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55961 [retrieved January 28, 2015]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dura_Europos_fresco_Moses_from_river.jpg.

One of the most powerful biblical stories about women’s relationships with other women comes in the beginning of the Old Testament: Exodus 1:15-21, the story of Shiphrah and Puah and the Hebrew women. For me, this story is a testament to how women can be bridges of understanding that can transform our collective experiences and the world. Much like in the times of this story, we live among contextual realities which are intertwined with beliefs about culture, spirituality, society, family, and ourselves. Many of us may see ourselves, at times, walking in the shoes of these women. We, too, can be bridges of understanding, as they were, and be the difference that can transform our collective experiences and our world.

What can draw women together? Are we created to have shared and mutual woman dispositions toward one another just because God made us women? Is that a part of God’s design? If I can conjecture that this is, then are we as women (and men too, for that matter) living beneath our highest potential with each other when we fail to do so? More questions than answers, yes. But that is what we are to do: Ask ourselves questions about how God might have wanted things to be; questions that honor God by our engaging in a holy inquiry. Inquiry is one of those internal dialogues that goes on when we are faced with choices that seem untenable, just like when Shiphrah and Puah were recruited by the power of their day, Pharoah, to do a terrible thing that would deeply injure and, indeed, even socially and economically handicap the Hebrew women. This is what would have happened if these two women were to do as power had demanded of them and betray the trust of the birthing woman when she sits on her birthing stool, a very vulnerable position for her to be in.

It seems to me that some content of Shiphrah and Puah’s inner inquiry would have been going deeply within to the place of their own hopes, their own needs, their own fears and, yes, their own pain. It was through such a holy inquiry that they reached the center of their souls and, when they did, there was God. They may not have personally known or been close enough to these Hebrew women to call them friend or sister, but they did recognize God in the choices that faced them. They chose God: they chose good, for they feared God and they did not do what Pharoah asked of them (Exodus 1:17).

The everyday roles of women are met with the realities of societal and political pressures that ask us to participate in the undoing of other women—Women not like us culturally; not like us coming from where we are from; not like us talking like we talk, wearing what we wear, worshipping how we worship. They’re just not like us. God is amazing, yes. God bridges all divides between us just as with Shiphrah, Puah, and the women giving birth. Although it’s not in the text, it is suggested that these two women may have been barren, not able themselves to bear children. This means that, even more, they might be willing to be co-opted to have the undoing of other women in their hands. Pharoah’s pay-off, after all, could be tremendous. Society does dangle its rewards for our co-optation. But these women had a heart for God and God’s purposes. They demonstrated that there is another power: Their own power—their own power given to them by God to tie their future, their hopes, their own lives to the welfare of these other women. They understood a common pain that women share. They were captured by the common hope of bringing forth all that is in us to give. They accepted a common call to live to the glory of God in all we do. There is power in that. Pharoah lost power the day these women owned their power to be the difference that they were created to be.

We could call this a multicultural story, given that many scholars think that Shiprah and Puah were something other than Egyptian since their names are Semitic. Some think they were, in fact, Hebrew.

If women are even somewhat dispositioned in this way, then where are we invited by God to seize the every-day opportunities for us to bring the, yea, be the difference? The result can be wellness and wholeness. God gave Shiphrah and Puah families of their own and for the Hebrew mother, Moses was born.

010809RevDrTrinetteMcCrayWRev. Dr. Trinette McCray serves as Alignment Manager with SchellingPoint, engaged by American Baptist Women’s Ministries to work with the organization in a three year initiative, “Living Out Our Cultural Reality into God’s Intentional Desire.” American Baptist Women’s Ministries is designing the initiative to empower American Baptist Women’s Ministries to fully embrace God’s intent to live and work amongst our diversity: the beloved community.

LISAC-CAMEROON Dares to Speak on Female Genital Mutilations

By Joan Mbuh, LISAC-Cameroon

Friday, February 6th is the International Day of Zero Tolerance for Female Genital Mutilation. This post is in recognition of the harm that FGM does to girls and women around the world. Please use this opportunity to pray about FGM and educate yourself further on the issue.

heading for Joan blog LISAC-Cameroon, an inter-faith based organization in Cameroon, launched a community campaign against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), an act of violence against the girl child. LISAC’s most recently published report stressed with evidence the reality of its practice in many regions in Cameroon. LISAC’s report condemned the practice in strong terms as a gross human rights violation for young girls who suffer mental trauma and lose of stability in their adulthood due to the practice. LISAC calls on civil society organizations and the government to take urgent action to provide education to the people of Cameroon about this cultural and religious practice and the harm it inflicts on our girls and children—the girls and children who are the leaders of tomorrow. Through genital mutilation, some girls have also been inflicted with HIV/AIDS and other life-threatening diseases.

It should be noted that thousands of girls in Cameroon are in danger of genital mutilation while the government has nothing to say about this practice. These girls are being failed by the health and justice systems, and LISAC recommends aggressive steps to eradicate the practice in Cameroon while at the same time giving both social support and economic support, such as micro-economic business ventures, to HIV/AIDS victims. LISAC-Cameroon takes the stand that Female Genital Mutilation should be treated the same as any other kind of child abuse and evidence of it should be reported to the police.

joanblog2Without appropriate document on FGM in the country, and the fact that it is neglected by governmental ministries is shocking. Many Cameroonians are not aware of its continued practice. So many of our young girls, victims of FGM, are living in agony every day of their lives, unable to find those with whom to share about their experiences and receive support to put their lives back in order. It is clear that laws about sexual harassment, rape, and other violent crimes affecting females should include FGM as a law of equal importance.

The LISAC report highlights several points based on the WHO (World Health Organization) report that every year, millions of women and girls in Africa and around the world are subjected to the brutal practice of FGM, and many more are at risk. February 6th marks the International Day of Zero Tolerance of Female Genital Mutilation, “a day when we raise global awareness about this issue and reaffirm our strong commitment to eradicating this extremely harmful practice that violates the rights of girls and women to physical and mental integrity. Female genital mutilation violates human rights and the rights of women and girls. Our top priority should be prevention – helping to ensure that no girl will ever again have to experience this traumatic breach of their rights,” (from “Joint EU Statement on International Day against Female Genital Mutilation, http://eu-un.europa.eu/articles/fr/article_13123_fr.htm, accessed February 4, 2015).

We as human rights activists need to complement existing national legislation prohibiting the practice by raising awareness about the detrimental effects of female genital mutilation on the psychological and physical health of women and girls, and by providing support services for victims.

The LISAC-Cameroon report’s nine recommendations include:

  1. Treat it as child abuse: FGM is a severe form of violence against women and girls. It is child abuse and must be integrated into all national child safeguarding procedures in a systematic way.
  2. Document and collect information: The ministry of women affairs and the family should document and collect information on FGM and its associated complications in a consistent and rigorous way.
  3. Share that information systematically: The ministries should develop protocols for sharing information about girls at risk of – or girls who have already undergone – FGM with other health and social care agencies, the Department for Education, and the police.
  4. Empower frontline professionals: Develop the competence, knowledge and awareness of frontline health professionals to ensure prevention and protection of girls at risk of FGM.
  5. Identify girls at risk and refer them as part of child safeguarding obligation: Within such communities volunteers and human rights organizations and Health professionals should identify girls at risk of FGM as early as possible. All suspected cases should be referred the appropriate headquarters as part of existing child safeguarding obligations. Sustained information and support should be given to families to protect girls at risk.
  6. Report cases of FGM: All girls and women presenting with FGM within the documentation of the government ministries must be considered as potential victims of crime, and should be referred to the police and support services.
  7. Hold frontline professionals accountable: The government ministries and local authorities should systematically measure the performance of frontline health professionals against agreed standards for addressing FGM and publish outcomes to monitor the progress of implementing these recommendations.
  8. Empower and support affected girls and young women (both those at risk and survivors): This should be a priority public health consideration. Health and education professionals should work together to integrate FGM into prevention messages, especially those focused on avoiding harm.
  9. Implement awareness campaign: The government should implement a national public health and legal awareness publicity campaign on FGM, similar to previous campaigns on domestic abuse and HIV/AIDS.

“Through working together closely with the police, health and social care professionals and the third sector, we can do much better to have a successful prosecution against those who perpetrate this practice. . . . It is only a matter of time before this happens and this will send a very powerful message that FGM is a crime that will not be tolerated in a modern multicultural society,” states the LISAC-Cameroon report. Violence toward women and girls is not cultural. It is criminal.

BreakingTheChains--STP RGB(Photos provided by contributor.) LISAC-Cameroon received a grant from American Baptist Women’s Ministries for their project, “Rescue Our Girls and Stop Genital Mutilation.” LISAC-Cameroon, Leadership Improvement and Social Advocacy Centre Cameroon, is a community-based project to educate and advocate among traditional councils to ban traditional practices of violence against girls, including genital mutilations, rape, and school gender abuse. The grant was through Break the Chains and Stop the Pain, a former national mission focus of AB Women’s Ministries. Break the Chains was transformed in 2011 to the Women and Girls Mission Fund, a permanent fund that supports missions and ministries in the U.S. and around the world that focus on bringing healing and hope to women and girls. Your generous support of the Women and Girls Mission Fund will help grow AB Women’s Ministries ability to partner with critical mission and ministries.

To See, to Touch, to Change

By Mercy Gonzales-Barnes

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. Ephesians 2: 14-16 (NIV)

Prayer Vigil a the Border. Photo courtesy Church World Service, Aug 29 2014I was so excited! We had been planning a prayer vigil at the border fence that divides Tijuana and San Diego. The Sunday before the vigil we drove down to Friendship Park to see the place where the vigil would be taking place. I walked up to the fence and was immediately disappointed. I could not see who was on the other side. I heard a female voice and recognized it as my colleague and friend Adalia Gutierrez. If she had not spoken, I would not have known she was there. We touched the tips of our fingers together and immediately I felt a sense of overwhelming grief.

In the year 2000 we were commissioned as American Baptist missionaries. We had been invited to serve in Baja California, Mexico, and to live in close proximity to the border. I had my reservations and questions: would my children receive a quality education? Would there be more crime? How would we adjust to life in the desert in a border community? One of the reasons for my fears was coming to grip with my own preconceived ideas, my own prejudice.

The early Church also dealt with this discomfort, with prejudice and preconceived ideas of who they were called to be as the community of faith. Was the Kingdom of God only for the Jews? The answer to this question came in steps: The Good News was preached first to Aramaic Jews in Palestine, then to Hellenistic Jews, then to Samaritans, and finally to the Gentiles. There was so much division and prejudice between these groups, yet Paul, as he writes to the Church in Ephesus, states that God has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, and has created one new humanity.

This new community brings with it discomfort, teachable moments, and opportunities to learn how to be the body of Christ in all of its wonderful diversity.

“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one.”

This unity sounds wonderful but any married couple can tell you that the union of two persons, let alone two cultures, is never easy. It takes a lot of work and love to make this union be what God intended it to be. Paul says in Ephesians 3:17-19, “And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (NIV).

My fears and discomfort were real; there were moments in which I shed tears of frustration but also tears of joy. I learned to live love in all its dimensions. I can write a laundry list of all the challenges my Mexican friends live with and those challenges are real, but they have also taught me about faith by how willing they are to learn and serve their communities. Am I willing to do all that they do?

“…And has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

So when I started to hear about the unaccompanied minors, my heart broke. These children have crossed our fence and have turned themselves in to the authorities asking for help. My prayer is that they be given due process and that, as the Church, we can be a solace to them in their time of need. I pray that we can identify the barriers and replace hostility with compassion. I pray that our governments can work together to help these families who feel desperate enough to send their children on this lonely and dangerous journey. I pray that our church communities in each country can also reach out to these families.

At the vigil we could only see in part, understand in part, and not have a clear picture of the other side. As I touched the tip of Adalia’s finger with the tip of my finger, I knew that we need to have the ability to reach out and physically touch our neighbor.

Jesus touched those who were considered unclean and received them into the community. I encourage you to take the risk to learn, discover and touch those in need. Then we will see as we are seen.

barnes_family_shot1_2007Mercy Gonzales-Barnes serves as a missionary in Baja California, Mexico, through International Ministries (ABCUSA). Her ministry in Baja includes leadership development for new church planting, serving on faculty at the Dios con Nosotros Seminary (Mexicali), and work with short term mission groups from the United States.

American Baptist Women’s Ministries has a national mission focus for 2014-2015, “Crisis at the Border: What Could We Do?” Visit www.abwministries.org/crisisattheborder for more information and resources.