Freeing the Church, Decolonizing the Bible for West Papuan Women
By Rode Wanimbo (@rodwan986), Jayapura, Papua Province of Indonesia
“Lord, we are unworthy. We are the ones who committed sin for Eve ate the fruit in Eden. We are just women who grow sweet potatoes, look after pigs and give birth to children. We believe you died on the cross to set us free. Thank you, In Jesus’s name Amen.”
This is a typical prayer of women I have heard during my visits to ministries in several villages. Even I said the same prayer for many years.
I was born and grew up in Agamua, the Central Highlands of West Papua. My father belongs to the Lani tribe and my mother comes from Walak.
In Lani and Walak languages - languages spoken in the Central Highlands - tiru means a pillar. There are four tiru (pillars) standing firmly in the middle of the Lani roundhouse (honai), around wun’awe or a furnace. Tiru is always made of the strongest type of wood called a’pe (ironwood tree). The longer the wood gets heated and smoked from the fire in the honai, the stronger it becomes. Without tiru, the honai cannot stand firm. West Papuan women are these tiru.
West Papua is located in the western part of the New Guinea island, containing some of the world’s highest mountains, densest jungle, and richest mineral resources. It is home to over 250 groups and has an incredible biodiversity. Due to its natural wealth, West Papua has, over the centuries, been targeted by foreign occupiers. Until 1963, we were colonized by the Dutch. However in 1969, after a manipulative political act, we were transferred from the Dutch to Indonesia.
The first German missionaries arrived in Mansinam Island, Manokwari, in 1855. Then, in the 1950s, Christianity was brought to the Central Highlands of West Papua by Protestant missionaries of European descent from America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
According to Scripture in Genesis 1: 26-27, Man and Woman are created in the image of God. It means all humanity is made with the call and capacity to exercise dominion. Radah, the Hebrew word for dominion, means stewardship. Radah is not a call to exercise imperial power as declared by Pope Nicolas V, granting Catholic nations the right to “discover” and claim dominion over non-Christian lands. To diminish the capacity of humans to exercise dominion, is to diminish the image of God on earth (Lisa Sharon Harper, The Very Good Gospel).
The Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GIDI) was established as an institution in 1963. In the Sunday Service liturgy of GIDI, Women are considered unworthy to take any responsibility except collecting offerings. In 2003, after 40 years, the Department of Women was introduced within the structure of the Synod leadership.
In November 2013, I was entrusted to be a chairperson of the Women’s Department of the GIDI Synod.
Together with several other women leaders, we started a cell group that is committed to “decolonizing the Bible.” We learn together how to reconstruct the interpretation of biblical texts to champion women.
A feminist theologian named Elisabeth S Florenza calls it a feminist hermeneutic theory (Josina Wospakrik, Biblical Interpretation and Marginalization of Woman in the Churches of West Papua).
Besides the cell group, we interview our elderly women to collect our ancestors’ wisdom and values. As Bernard Narakobi in his book The Melanesian Way said: “Our history did not begin with contact with the Western explorers. Our civilization did not start with the coming of the Christian missionaries. Because we have an ancient civilization. It is important for us to give proper dignity and place to our history”.
Yum is a knotted net or woven bag handmade from wood fiber or leaves. Yum is highly valued for it symbolizes life and hope. When women of Lani and Walak get married, our maternal aunts put yum on our heads. It means we bear the responsibility for giving life and for providing food. Yum is used to carry garden produce as well as being used as a container to put a baby to sleep in as it gives warmth and a sense of security.
“West Papuan Women are Yum and Tiru” became the prime references as we contextualized women in the eyes of Jesus Christ in seminar and focus group discussions. From 2013 to 2018, we focused on reconstructing the view of women in GIDI and in gaining a healthy self-image. We are still in the process of understanding who we are to Jesus, rather than who we have been told we are by theologians and the fathers of the early Churches. Josina Wospakrik, a West Papuan Theologian said “The Gospel is incredibly rich but it was impoverished due to human ambitions and agendas.”
Since 2018, the GIDI Women Leadership team and I have formulated four priority programs: Decolonizing the Bible, Storytelling in a circle, Training of trainers for Literacy and Gender. The fourth, supported simple bookkeeping and savings groups workshops facilitated by Yapelin and Yasumat, which are faith based organizations established by GIDI leaders to reach the economic, social and health needs of women in the communities.
Storytelling in a Circle
In this programme we create a safe space for women to talk - each woman has a story. We all sit together and learn how to be good listeners.
“I became Christian and was taught that the government is God’s representative. Why did the government do nothing when the army burnt down my village and killed my relatives?” asked one woman in the storytelling circle. “My aunt was raped.” She stopped for a while. Could not talk. She cried. We all did.
The process of storytelling has driven us into deep conversation. We began to contextualize Biblical texts within our daily realities.
We started asking questions amongst ourselves: Where is God in our toughest times? Does the state government truly represent God on earth? Why does the Creator allow privileged people to destroy His own image in the name of Christianity and Development? During the process, I realized that I have been reading the Bible using somebody else’s glasses.
The church has to be a safe place to share stories and be a place of comfort to be still and rest. As we reflect on the testimonies, those who tell their stories begin the process of recovering from wounds and trauma.
Financial Literacy for Women
Culturally, West Papuans invest in relationships. The concept of saving is understood as an investment in relations, not in a bank account. And while the Indonesian central government has granted special autonomy to respond to West Papuans’ demand for self-determination, many government policies harm the quality of family life and they do not account for women’s lives. High illiteracy rates amongst women mean most women do not have access to a bank account. With no money saved, access to medical services becomes a struggle.
Through the priority programmes, Yapelin, with the active involvement and support of women, created saving groups in Bokondini and Jayapura. The saving groups are chaired by women who have access to a bank.
In coordination with Yayasan Bethany Indonesia (YBI) and Yayasan Suluh, a faith-based organization (FBO) based in Jayapura, we facilitated four literacy workshops. The literacy team facilitated the training of trainers in three different dioceses: Merauke, Sentani, and Benawa. We now have 30 facilitators in different congregations who run literacy programs.
Lack of financial support for our programs will not stop us. Being stigmatized as rebels will not stop us from standing up and speaking in church evaluation meetings and conferences. It is stressful but I am committed together with several women leaders to calling on the power-holders within to free the church.
The Gospel known as Good News should become news that liberates women from a very patriarchal circle of power, liberates women from social stigma and returns women to the original purpose of The Creator.
The Gospel must be a mirror to reflect who we are collectively. As Lisa Sharon Harper, in her book The Very Good Gospel said “The Gospel is not only about an individual’s reconciliation with God, self and communities. But also speaks on systemic justice, peace between people groups and freedom for the oppressed”.
Rode Wanimbo is the chairperson of the Women’s Department of Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GIDI).
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