Church in our everyday, everyday as church

An interview with Pamela Obonde on empowering Kenyan church women and demystifying "mission"

Pamela Obonde has worked with children’s and women’s rights organizations in Kenya for the past 17 years. Three years ago she switched her focus to women in the church when she realized the same issues “out in the world” remained the same issues 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, whose mission is to train and equip women in missional leadership. APMI has three leadership-training centres in Kajiado, Machakos and Siaya counties.

Obonde spoke with Katie Doke Sawatzky on April 24, 2020, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, where she has studied peacebuilding and collaborative development at Canadian Mennonite University for the past year. Obonde will return to Kenya with her husband and two children when she finishes her studies.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Katie Doke Sawatzky: What is the situation like in Kenya right now, with COVID-19?

Pamela Obonde: So far there are around 384 positive cases, out of which 15 have died. The capacity for mass testing is what we are lacking and the fact that the economy is dependent on the daily wages of labourers who go out to do daily work is a main concern. These people need to go out to work to get food and so COVID-19 is a secondary issue. We pray that the virus doesn't reach the Kibera slum in Nairobi because it will not be good. It will be a sad affair but it's just trusting God. God will take us through this.

KDS: What are the main issues faced by women in the church in Kenya?

PO: 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 cases of, how do I call it, it comes out in the African way of patriarchal relationships that are carried forward from the family into the church: issues of women not allowed into ordination and church leadership. The leadership of the church is male and therefore does not bring these issues to the fore.

KDS: How and why did you get involved with Sister Care?

PO: In 2016 Mennonite Women USA came to Kenya to train women leaders through the Sister Care program. I was fortunate to attend and loved it. I thought, this is a good way of reaching the women because it is a church program. I contacted the director of Sister Care about forming an East Africa chapter. We teamed up with Sister Esther Muhagachi of Tanzania and Sister Patience Tumuramye of Uganda to form the Sister Care East Africa Team. We have since held training sessions in Tanzania and twice in Uganda. We were hoping to go to Rwanda but then the pandemic happened.

KDS: What does your missional training look like?

PO: It demystifies the word "mission." In Kenya when you talk about mission, you imply white people coming from North America or Europe. For me, 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 centre. Then they are given some capital to start small businesses. They expand their mission work from their family to the community through their business.

KDS: Why is it so important to start within the family?

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. We nurture the children who become church members, and who propagate the same vices they see at home: their ideas of women, girls dropping out of the school because of pregnancy, etc. We want mothers to become strong enough to talk about these things, to face them and bring them to the fore within the family, because families constitute the church and families articulate issues in the church.

KDS: What is the goal?

PO: It’s all about shalom. 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. Nobody brings them to the fore. We attend church, we sit down, we are preached to, then we go back home and the cycle begins again.

It's a roundabout way of going advocating for women’s well-being. As women become empowered they shape the direction of these issues in the church. We hope it will be so and pray and trust God. The patriarchal community within the church, whether we like it or not, 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.

KDS: Can you give examples of how this empowerment has a positive affect in the church community or greater community these women live in?

There are three women who are now graduates of our mission training. We approached Eastern Mennonite Mission to help them get more knowledge. They are now studying counselling 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. They realize something is happening because the women do not ask for food.

We are small, we are young and this is a new approach within the Mennonite Church in Kenya, but we trust God that it will multiply and benefit more women. That they will know they have the gift of the calling upon their lives and they can also do something for the Body of Christ.

KDS: What are the biggest challenges in this work?

PO: The first challenge is money. If we had more resources we could reach more women. 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: being asked questions like, "You women, what are you doing?" “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 because they are more vibrant than older women. We need a vision open and wide enough to capture their aspirations and their hopes because the church belongs to young people.

KDS: Can you say more about how this work is a “roundabout way” of advocating for women’s voices in the church? It must be a challenge to empower women to speak up but not to challenge male leadership.

PO: It's a tricky path to take, but if you can't be a trailblazer then you're not a leader. I'm very careful to not become the feminist in church but to use a biblical lens. Women played a very 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. We have a special place to advocate for the good news.

But it’s not easy. If I was out in the secular world going on to talk about women's rights, I would talk about women's rights, you know? But when you come to 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, no, no you are coming from the world. It means sensitizing and bringing awareness amongst women that it's not about competition, it's not about challenging the men, it's about building our capacity as women.

We are small, we are young and this is a new approach within the Mennonite Church in Kenya, but we trust God that it will multiply and benefit more women. That they will know they have the gift of the calling upon their lives and they can also do something for the Body of Christ.

KDS: What have you learned through your studies at CMU?

I have learned about faith-based advocacy. It gives me hope that, yes, I can do a Mennonite-based advocacy within the church and not appear to be a feminist so that the men do not feel their positions are challenged. I do not want a head-on collision, I do not want to divide the church, I just want the whole church to realize that we are all together, we are all chosen and have different gifts to bring to the table for the glory of God.

KDS: Where will you go from here?

PO: 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 sincere hope that it will be.

KDS: Anything else?

I'm coming to the realization that we should do church differently. Church should be our everyday and our everyday should be church. I’m excited to tell this to the women I work with so that church becomes an everyday affair, so that we don't separate church from the family, from our everyday businesses. That's a dream that I hope God will actualize.

KDS: Why is that important to you?

The Mennonite Church in Kenya is a very silent church. It is in a Muslim-dominated area. Muslims live their faith everyday. Whereas we who are 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 non-believers. During this pandemic, it is not possible for my church back home to use Zoom, so what does church look like now and when the virus is over? Doing church in our everyday is what is going to help the church even in such times as these.