At the height of the Aids scourge – when contracting it meant death - a group of church women were moved by the suffering of the children left behind. Infected and orphaned, the children were immersed in suffering for no fault of their own. With no cure for the disease, it was just a matter of time before they too joined their parents – in the grave.
This group of women approached the church leadership for consent to take in these Aids orphans, and give them a home and care. With stigma at its peak, some felt that hospitals were best placed to take care of sickly children.
The medics in the conversation enlightened the women that the children would die within no time. The priests bowed down their heads at the thought of multiplied trips to the graveyard.
The women were trending on dying ground and were now pulling the church along with them. But they could not be dissuaded. When asked if they knew the bleakness of the ministry package they were proposing, their response was firm – that very scary hopelessness was actually the core of their drive.
The children had a very short time live and they felt moved to, in their words, “Give the children a little heaven down here.” The conversation was difficult. But compassion won. Such is the spirit of the Woman’s Guild – the women’s movement of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa.
With a logo whose characteristic feature is a towel around the cross, the movement is an army of women armed with compassion. They have been at it for 100 years – since 1922. This movement has etched its place in Kenya’s church history, especially the chapter on dignifying women by rejecting female circumcision.
Older women of faith – including missionaries – shielded girls from the cut. Rejected and shamed by their communities, the girls found a new anchor in bible-based spirituality. The Christ-centred identity was revolutionary in that it provided a new path of wholeness that did not include genital mutilation.
There emerged a new community of “uncut” women who still asserted themselves as a whole. Rev Dr Timothy Njoya’s The Divinity of the Clitoris, locates its philosophy in this history and imports it into contemporary times.
Women's religious movements such as the Catholic Women Association, Mother’s Union and even recent church women formations in newer churches draw from biblical spirituality to inspire freedom from man-made limitations. With a history of boldly affirming the value and dignity of women, such movements have a critical role to play in resolving the crises around womanhood today.
Girls are at a crossroads with so many dictionaries presenting different definitions of femaleness. While this fluidity is hailed by some, it overwhelms others with identity experiments that amount to a crisis. Women's religious movements need to work their way up on the list of preferred dictionaries on womanhood, especially in the subject of sexuality.
Movements like the Woman’s Guild must be on the frontline with theological responses. One critical question to engage would be: How does compassion look like in the conversation on sexual orientation?
The country is seeing a surge in single mothers. They remain a constituency that the church is yet to embrace with open arms.
A hesitant church has a place for them only on the margins. But the equations of single motherhood are often complicated. To tell them with one narrative is simplistic and uniform. Younger denominations respond to this phenomenon by expounding an identity of independence.
Older churches too - with their history of shielding broken women – would do well to articulate a path of wholeness where singleness finds wholesomeness.
The zones of Compassion in 1922 are not the same in 2022 and a different story will be told in 2122. Biblical truths will remain the same but assignments and strategies must change, sometimes radically.
With women empowerment now mainstreamed, religious movements should be all the more emboldened to chart new frontiers. For the longest time, spirituality was supported by accepted traditions. But the world has shifted now. Innovation is the new tradition.
The past is important but the future should not be limited by it. The church should flee from the awkward position of playing catch up for the reason that it may never catch up. In a world where secularism and religious plurality cannot be avoided, these movements must brace themselves for inevitable theological turbulence. In the recent appointment of Martha Karua as running mate, she was described as a “Joshua.”
This was a notable departure from the likening of female personalities to female characters in the Bible.
Joshuaism transcends gender to gravitate towards the intricacy of an assignment and the character required to achieve it. Such progressive conceptualisations should not escape the religious women movements.
Trends of women around the world arrive in Kenya way faster than in 1922 and swiftly land even in the most rural parishes. With the numerous real-time communication channels available today, stories of rural women will increasingly bypass urban gatekeepers and make their way to the global audience.
There is space for women religious movements to grow into significant lobby groups on policy matters. This calls for building an internal legal and advocacy capacity. Religious groups have a unique input on policies and their silence or absence makes policies poorer.
The Guild’s philosophy of compassion can find its way into any sector. Increased policy literacy would make the voice of religious women better heard in such national debates as the two-third gender rule, abortion, sex education and domestic violence.
Women are best placed to articulate the positions of their denomination on such issues. But the voice should not be limited to women issues. Women should make a strategic participation in all areas of development. Women do not only speak for women. Their voice is a voice of the community.