Becoming Beloved Community–Attending to Diversity from the Inside Out

By Virginia Holmstrom

I met Edna 32 years ago at a national ABW committee meeting and conference. She was the one who invited me to see her African-American sisters as my sisters, too. Edna wisely and quite accurately assessed my limited exposure to African-American persons when she prescribed a step-by-step journey for me to personally know and nurture friendship with black women.

Ten years later, I transferred my church membership to a Black congregation of American Baptists, largely comprised of Caribbean-born individuals and extended families once rooted in Georgia and Virginia and the Carolinas. I reveled in the spirited music that invited me to clap along on the up-beats. I learned to sing at half tempo the gospel hymns of the black church. One Sunday I brought my violin to church and began to play with the instrumental group, knowing all the while that I had no clue how to improvise for the rhythms I heard and felt.

Church services, worship styles, church-led activities, church dinners, and even women’s ministries take on the distinct traditions within a congregation; these contribute to the blessings of being an American Baptist. However, from the vantage point of our familiar church pew, we may rarely see or experience the beautiful cultures and traditions happening in American Baptist churches across the U.S. and Puerto Rico.

When your church’s AB Women’s Ministries group or circle meets, you might be surprised to learn that ABWM groups in other cities or states aren’t just like yours. The ABWM group in the next city may be praying in their first language brought with them as immigrants or refugees to this country. There’s an ABWM over in the next state that may accommodate as many toddlers as women because their congregation has plenty of young adults but is sparse on the grandparent ages. The Euro-American church across town may have monthly ABWM meetings in the church parlor, and the African-American church women in the next region are organizing their next supper fundraiser to support the church’s wider ministry.

Our American Baptist denomination is among the most diverse Protestant denominations in the U.S. in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, class, and theology. That’s a gift from God, and the stewardship of that good gift is entrusted to each of us and all of us. American Baptist Women’s Ministries, just like our wider denominational family, is greater when we can learn to appreciate and respect every individual for her spiritual gifts, her perspectives, and her service to God. Offering one another the space and encouragement to serve God according to her spiritual gifts and in her own way is a beautiful thing.

Diversity indeed resides in your church’s women’s ministry group, whether or not it’s visible at first glance. In order to lead amidst our diversity, we can learn how to navigate through our differences. Developing cultural competency is a skill that can be taught and learned and practiced. Every group can learn how to make good decisions together amid differences, similarities, and related tensions. It begins from the inside out.

Becoming Beloved Community is God’s intentional desire. God created the differences within us as a faith community. American Baptist Women’s Ministries invites you to lead and share and learn how to be Beloved Community. Practical information, how-to’s, and resources for learning will be ready for you to access in July 2017 at www.abwministries.org.

Virginia Holmstrom is executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

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Becoming Beloved Community–Walking Together toward Relevant Goals

By Deborah Malavé Díaz

American Baptist Women’s Ministries as a national organization has been engaged in an initiative named “Becoming Beloved Community.” This initiative was developed to help us explore God’s vision for our ministries in the midst of today’s realities. This is the third of a series of four blog posts on “Becoming Beloved Community” that will address those four themes. For all the posts, click on “beloved community” in the tag cloud on the right.

C2R4: AB Women’s Ministries retreat for young adult women, 2012

Before becoming the national coordinator of Events (2015-18) for American Baptist Women’s Ministries, I was the coordinator for Young Women for the Puerto Rico Region, when the position was included for the first time as part of the region American Baptist Women’s Ministries (Mujeres Bautistas Americanas) board. It was exciting, as there was no previous path to follow, and, at the same time, challenging. I had to both reach out and make space for young women at our beloved (but also very “established”) community. To make it more challenging, when it came to demographics, part of the board said the young women must be between 25 and 35 years of age, and other half said between 30 and 45. That difference of opinion went on for my three-year term. I was approaching my 46th birthday during the first year of my term year and found myself outside the demographic “box” I was elected to represent. Fast-forward to 2015 when I became coordinator of Events. I told myself, “Deb, you got this! This first year, follow The Guide, follow the way AB Women’s Ministries has done things in the past, add your perspective, and you be fine.” I quickly discovered, however, that AB Women’s Ministries was breaking new ground, and the events planning process was the platform to do it. I was, again, in a very exciting and challenging time in which new paradigms were leading the way.

I invite you consider the common thread between these two leadership experiences with the beloved community. In the first one, there was a need to bridge a gap; on the second, an emphasis on meaningfulness. In both, the common thread is the urgency to be relevant. Is the AB Women’s Ministries beloved community relevant to you? Are you relevant to the AB Women’s Ministries beloved community?

How can we walk together toward relevant goals? This is what I have learned: First, I cannot do it alone. I know what is important to me, but I must learn from you what is important to you. We must build relationships among ourselves. In my role as coordinator of Events, I frequently lead one-hour long conference calls. There can be between five to eight women on these calls, and half of them I have never met in person! But from the start I think of them as my sisters. We have a purpose: we make sure everyone expresses themselves in our conversations, and we are respectful of time set aside for AB Women’s Ministries. You, too, can build relationships for relevant goals using this model in your formal or informal AB Women’s Ministries meetings: Define your purpose; listen and talk to one another; and respect everyone’s time. The second thing I learned is that leadership is a shared responsibility, and inclusiveness is the glue holding it all together. To achieve relevance in a group is like holding a kaleidoscope where each woman is one of the facets. Like a kaleidoscope, relevance is ever-changing; therefore, you must be inclusive in your endeavor.

One last thought: What has God taught me about leadership with the AB Women’s Ministries?  “You know better than to put new wine into old wineskins. They would burst. The wine would be spilled out and the wineskins ruined. New wine needs fresh wineskins,” Mark 2:22 (TLB).

Deborah Malavé Díaz serves as coordinator of Events for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Becoming Beloved Community–Inclusive Leadership

By Rev. Angel L. Sullivan

American Baptist Women’s Ministries as a national organization has been engaged in an initiative named “Becoming Beloved Community.” This initiative was developed to help us explore God’s vision for our ministries in the midst of today’s realities. This is the second of a series of four blog posts on “Becoming Beloved Community” that will address those four themes. For all the posts, click on “beloved community” in the tag cloud on the right.

Gardens at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, UK. Photo by ukgardenphotos on Flickr. Used by permission, Creativecommons.org.

Take a moment and imagine yourself standing in a flower garden. Take a deep breath. Breathe in the smells; notice the honeysuckle and roses. In your mind’s eye, look around and ponder the bright colors. Imagine yourself bending down, running your hands across the blades of grass, noticing how it feels under your fingertips. Finally, picture yourself sitting against the trunk of a giant oak tree, allowing the leaves from the branches overhead to provide you with cooling shade from the warm sun. How do you feel? Good, right? Now, imagine standing in the same place, but this time there are no trees, flowers, grass, or sweet smells. It is just you in the midst of dirt. Now, how do you feel? Perhaps you feel a little lonely, empty.

You see, God designs everything to have a purpose and place in the world. At our best, we all work together. Nothing competes but, rather, everything complements and builds on everything else. This is a model for inclusive leadership.

Growing up, I viewed leadership as a hierarchical model, where one person was in charge of, or over, others. The person in charge had to have all the answers and could not, and should not, ask for help. To do so would be a sign of weakness and ignorance. Over the years, however, I have come to learn that leadership, especially inclusive leadership, is not about managing. Rather, it is about engaging people of diverse ethnicities, age, and life experience in such a way that you bring out their gifts and skills for the purpose of sharing within the greater community. I personally seek out the stories and wisdom of people who have different lived experiences from mine in order to gain a broader perspective.

When I served as the coordinator for Mission and Events on the national leadership team of AB GIRLS, I was engaged in a model of inclusive leadership. I was an adult leader amongst teenage girls. While, in theory, I could have been the main leader, in reality I was just as much a learner. I would often listen to the girls’ stories about school, relationships, technology, and life in general. They provided me with wisdom and insight, and empowered me to work with youth in my community. I don’t think I would have felt comfortable doing so had I not had their experience to teach me.

I could not imagine a world where everyone thought the same, and where I would be the only one in the midst of dirt. We are all meant to be unique pieces in God’s garden of human diversity. We are much stronger, wiser, and powerful in our togetherness and diversity than we are apart.

Rev. Angel L. Sullivan serves as national president of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Becoming Beloved Community–Building Relationships

by Sandra Hasenauer

American Baptist Women’s Ministries as a national organization has been engaged in an initiative named “Becoming Beloved Community.” This initiative, an outcome of previous work done through the Transformed by the Spirit work of American Baptist Churches USA, was developed to help us explore God’s vision for our ministries in the midst of today’s realities. In the early stages of the initiative, there was a comprehensive series of interviews, surveys, and follow-up surveys with hundreds of American Baptist women (and a few men too!) led by the Rev. Dr. Trinette McCray of McCray Consulting, to discern key themes, concerns, and celebrations about the organization. The result was four strategic themes that undergird the ongoing work of the national board of AB Women’s Ministries. This is the first of a series of four blog posts on “Becoming Beloved Community” that will address those four themes.

Relationships are critical.

As my dad used to joke, “Who’d-a thunk it?”

As we’ve explored God’s calling to American Baptist Women’s Ministries over these last several years, prayerfully seeking guidance for where we should focus our efforts to be most effective in God’s ministry, we kept hearing the words “building relationships” over and over again. At first, to be candid, I thought, “aren’t we already doing that?” And I suppose, at some level, we can certainly say we are. I feel privileged to be working in an organization in which I actually really look forward to board and team meetings because we have so much fun in the midst of all the work we’re doing!

And yet, I am also reminded of conversations I had with Rev. Valerie Andrews, when she was serving as our national events coordinator. She made the point during one discussion that we American Baptist women are very good at coming together around tasks, but maybe not so much about coming together just for relationship. Yes, I felt convicted. How often did I call someone only because I had a work-related issue or question for them, rather than just calling to check in on how they were doing, or simply to say hello? (And, as I often joke, I know I’m a unique child of God, but I’m not that unique. If I’m experiencing something, it’s quite likely a lot of you reading this could be nodding your heads in agreement!) Valerie went on to emphasize that our ministries need to be about “People, not Programs,” and I wrote that in caps because it became a rallying cry. During event planning team meetings, eventually someone on the team would remind the rest of us, “People, not Programs!” and we’d re-focus on the need to emphasize opportunities for relationship-building throughout our event.

At one level, building relationships in our ministry is critical to helping our ministries stay relevant to the women and girls God wants us to reach. If we don’t actually know the woman or the girl, we don’t know what needs they have or how God wants us to walk alongside them. Having effective ministry means ministering with who that person really is, not what we assume about that person based on their age, educational level, family relationships, job, and so forth. We’ve been trained to think of successful ministry in terms of volume–the more people you have showing up at your events, the more successful your ministry is. And yet Jesus’ own ministry showed that the one-on-one is just as important, if not more so, in terms of transforming someone’s life for Christ. Therefore, we’re being called to stop and ask ourselves: Are we focusing on reaching out and getting to know individual women and girls as the primary way we’re in ministry, or are we focusing on programs and meetings and hoping women and girls show up so we can be in ministry with them once they walk through the door?

At another level, many of the difficulties we’re seeing in our society right now could be alleviated if there were more relationship-building going on in our neighborhoods. As human beings, it’s easier and faster to build metaphorical walls than bridges. This has been true of humans since humanity began, really. Our natural tendency is to “stick to our own kind,” people we think we know already and, more importantly, people whose behavior we think we can predict because they think and act pretty much like we do. However, that tendency is also what gives rise to fear. When you don’t know someone, it’s easy to imagine the worst about them. We paint the stranger with the same brush as the person we saw on TV that looked an awful lot like them. We dismiss someone as “ignorant,” “clueless,” “stupid,” or worse, because we disagree with their politics rather than trying to understand why they may believe what they believe–what hurts and fears have they experienced that led them to the decisions they make? As American Baptist women, we’re part of one of the most diverse Protestant denominations in the United States. How can we take what we experience in our faith communities and allow it to teach us how to help others learn to build relationships?

And so, becoming beloved community all begins with building relationships. Relationships are critical. It’s that simple.

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Rev. Sandra DeMott Hasenauer is associate executive director of American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

White Supremacy and Me

By Rev. LeDayne McLeese Polaski

iStockphoto

As a child, I witnessed a rally of the Ku Klux Klan. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was young enough to have been very confused by my mother’s fierce anger when the hand-made KKK signs started appearing in our neighborhood.

I don’t remember how she explained the group to me, but I vividly recall seeing the event itself as it was held early one evening in an empty corner lot alongside the state road which was the regular route into our neighborhood. Riding home in the family station wagon as the sun was setting, I saw hooded figures in bright white robes standing listening as someone with a ragged voice shouted over a loudspeaker.  I had a glimpse of flames rising high as we sped past. The fire was likely contained in a barrel, but in my mind it was a conflagration.  My vision could have lasted only the few seconds it took to drive by – but the scene has been seared in my memory ever since.

I recently asked my parents if they could confirm this happening. I hadn’t imagined it, had I? They indeed remembered the rally, and my dad was prompted (as he often is) to tell a story of how he recalled the event. A black friend of one of my older brothers had shown up at our house.  He’d been on our side of town, and the only route he knew home went along the same state road we’d just traveled past the rally. He wanted to be home, but he was too afraid to go the way he knew. My dad, who as a city police officer seemed to know every back road ever paved (or not), took the young man into his truck and together they returned to his home by a different route.

For years, whenever I have heard the phrase “white supremacy,” I have returned in my mind to that scene of flames, hoods, robes, and angry voices. Yet, in the past few years, I have begun to see white supremacy located not in an abandoned lot a few blocks from my childhood home but in a place far closer and more frightening – in my own heart and mind.

For most of my life, fighting racism was something I imagined I could do by focusing outside of myself. Only recently have I begun to grapple with the fact that my struggle is at least as much an internal one. As my eyes have been opened, I have begun to see how deeply white supremacy is a part of me.  I do not consciously think of myself or people who look like me as superior, but the vast majority of my friends are white – as are most of my co-workers and my closest ministerial colleagues,  most of the people at my church and in my neighborhood, and every member of my family. Even my Facebook page was a mostly white enclave until a friend posted the challenge “Do all of your Facebook friends look like you?” and I took steps to widen my circle of social media connections. There are exceptions, of course, but my life tilts in a particular direction, and I know I am not the only one.

This reality is not a coincidence. This is the result of my conscious and unconscious decisions within a society in which separation is often the path of least resistance. And this reality is not without consequences – it affects the way I understand the world — the stories I hear and do not hear, the things I know and do not know, and what I think of as normal, natural, and best.

I have unknowingly but regularly lived out of a supremacist framework in the groups I have joined (or not) and in how I have conducted myself within them, in the priorities I’ve set for my work and how I’ve gone about it, in how I have planned agendas and run meetings and taken minutes, in the decisions I have made and the ways in which I’ve made them, in the silences I have chosen to ignore or did not notice, in the way I have written job descriptions and conducted interviews, in the areas of my personal life in which I have focused, in the relationships that have received most of my energy – I could go on.

The same reality impacts the institutions that matter most to me. In the past few years, courageous people within BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz have raised their voices to name specific ways in which people of color have regularly experienced harm within our organization, an organization committed to peace rooted in justice, an organization with explicit commitments to welcome and inclusion. We didn’t see it. We didn’t mean it. Our intentions were beyond good. And yet, it happened and is happening.

Guilt and shame serve no one and cripple rather than motivate efforts for change. So how shall we move forward? The least that we can do is to recognize the depth of the work that is to be done and the flames of fear we’ll have to face to do it. No matter what path we choose, the road to Beloved Community runs through dangerous and difficult places, some of them closer than we’ve ever imagined.

Perhaps a different route will take us home for the first time.

LeDayne McLeese Polaski is the Executive Director of BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz (Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America). www.bpfna.org

One Day in Myanmar (Kachin IDP Camps)

By Gail Aita

This is the second of two posts by Gail about her sojourn in Myanmar (Burma) in early 2017. Click here for the first post.

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After spending four weeks at Myanmar Institute of Theology teaching, my husband Paul and I traveled to Kachin State and then to the Chin Hills. Both were adventures in and of themselves. We were greeted at the airport in Myitkyina by both Ja Ing and Ja Nu, two wonderful Kachin women who came to the American Baptist Women’s Ministries’ Conference in Washington, D.C. in 2016. We were then treated to a very fine dinner out with the women representing the Women’s Development Department of Kachin Baptist Convention.

The day started out with a visit to an IDP camp in Myitkyina, Kachin State. It was heart-breaking and uplifting at the same time: Heart-breaking to see the faces of the men, women, and children who have lost all worldly belongings: yet, uplifting because their spirits are filled with God’s love and His grace. Just look at those faces……and remember to pray for their safety, their health and their welfare.

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We listened to their stories, sang with them and prayed with them.

We visited three IDP (IDP = internally displaced persons) camps that Saturday.

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This was the smallest camp we visited. Their electric bill was 70,000 kyats/month (roughly $50 US at the current exchange rate) and they had to collect 2,000 kyats ($1.50) from each family which was, more often than not, difficult to do.

At the last camp, Waing Maw, which is the largest in the greater Myitkyina area, we were told to sit in the back of the van because we had to cross a bridge with a border check and westerners were not supposed to be going to that camp. While we were there, workers were putting up tents donated by the UN because they had just received 350 new refugees, many of whom were “double displaced persons” because the camps they had been in were also destroyed by the Burmese military in the fighting. There were well over 3,000 people at this camp.

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One of the ministries that I have been involved with at home has been teaching some of the Kachin women in the greater Seattle area how to sew, in particular “pillowcase dresses” and “self-binding baby blankets”. I have had help from a number of other American Baptist women in the area.  For two months prior to our leaving for Myanmar, the Kachin women have come to my home and have made 40+ dresses and 15 baby blankets. I also had some dresses made by women from other churches in the area. I had the privilege of being able to deliver those dresses and blankets to the folks in the camps. It was a gift of love from the Kachin women in Kent to those in the camps, and I was blessed to be the delivery person!

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Saturday was a long day filled with mixed feelings: despair and hope, tears of pain and tears of joy, but always an awareness of God’s love and God’s grace. Please continue to pray for the plight Kachin people and for peace in Myanmar.

Gail Aita serves as coordinator of the Western Section for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

For earlier posts about the Kachin IDP camps, click here and here.

The Journey Begins Again

By Gail Aita

January-March, 2017

One of the reasons Paul and I wanted so much to return to Myanmar this year was to have some sense of closure. We have been going to Myanmar as voluntary missionaries and serving as Special Assistants to Southeast Asia and Japan since 2000. This was our ninth time going to serve and for eight of those trips we have taught at Myanmar Institute of Theology (M.I.T.) as well as the Pwo Karen Seminary in Yangon. We have both turned 70 this past year and have begun to slow down a little. In 2015-2016 Paul had five hospital visits dealing with kidney stones and complications from the surgeries. Needless to say, we spent a lot of time praying that we would be able to once again return to Myanmar, but knew from the outset that it may be our last long-term stay. (However, after having been there, we found ourselves often being asked to come back to teach and saying “If God wants us to return, He will give us the strength to do so!”)

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At M.I.T., the classes included not only English Literature and Poetry, as well as grammar, but also classes at the seminary concerning Ministry with Youth, Partnering Young Adults and the Elderly, Christian Education, and a class on Teaching Those with Special Needs and American Sign Language.  At the Pwo Karen Seminary, the students were most interested in learning English so we did a lot of role playing and singing.

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Unlike previous years, this year Paul and I had the opportunity to visit schools in the Kachin State and in the Chin Hills. We spent a little more than two weeks visiting and teaching at the Kachin Theological College and Seminary (KTCS) in Myitkyina and at the Chin Christian University (CCU) in Hakha.

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At each school, Paul and I both became reacquainted with those who were our former students. What a blessing it is to meet those former students who have gone on to become servants using their God given gifts to teach others.

And as a last note for now, I would like to share about a young teacher at KTCS by the name of Naw Din. Naw Din and his wife have three children of their own including a newborn baby just three weeks old. He and his wife have taken in twenty (yes, 20!) orphan children from the IDP camps. He does not run an orphanage. He and his wife have actually taken them into their home. They feed them, clothe them, send them to school, pray with them and, most of all, love them. They depend solely on the gifts from generous friends.  They are amazing.  I had the joy of spending a day with them, teaching them some English, some sign language, and some songs. We had such fun. I was truly blessed.

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Please pray for all the seminaries and colleges in Myanmar, that they will continue to teach God’s word and produce Christian leaders. Also pray for Naw Din and his loving wife and family as they share God’s love in the Kachin State.

**I would also like to mention that the opportunity to volunteer to teach at seminaries and colleges in Myanmar is a real possibility for anyone who is interested. You can contact International Ministries for more information.

Gail Aita serves as coordinator of the Western Section for American Baptist Women’s Ministries.