SISTERS in the Struggle to Eliminate Racism and Sexism
This section is dedicated to news from the SISTERS network. This network enables women to link up and exchange their experiences, generating solidarity, supporting one another through concrete actions. Its members come from churches as well as from groups and movements in civil society committed to eliminate racism and sexism.

News from the USA

By Sammy Toineeta

The New York City branch of SISTERS has had two highly successful meetings. The first one took place on Wednesday, October 6, 1999 and the second was Wednesday, March 22, 2000. We have also made plans for the third gathering to take place on Friday, June 9, 2000. The group decided at the March meeting that they would like to meet quarterly, at least for the upcoming year.

We were all quite pleased with the diversity of the women who met, both organisationally and racially. Representatives from the National Council of Churches, Church Women United, United Methodist Church and United Church of Christ attended both gatherings. We also had women who were African American, Latina, Asian and American Indian (Indigenous). We are looking to expand the network and enlarge the numbers at each gathering.

Even though the group enjoys such diversity, we have found that we are of one mind where racism in concerned. Concerns of the women were centred on institutionalised racism and classism particularly. Another great concern, which also reflects institutionalised racism, was that of public education for their children. Women were worried about the quality of education if they lived in predominately people of colour school districts; the kind of teachers those schools attracted; how lower quality education would impact higher education opportunities for their children as well as guns and violence within the schools. Guns and violence are one of the major problems in the United States today.

The women who met felt very comfortable that they were in a safe place. They have also decided that for now, they would like to have the meetings as unstructured as possible, meaning that we would continue with open general discussion. Both the organisers of the meetings and those attending were pleased with forward motion and we look forward to an even larger gathering next time.

Sammy Toineeta, is an Indigenous woman, working in the National Council of Churches USA, Racial Justice programme.

For more information on the SISTERS network, you can contact Marilia Schüller, Programme Executive of the Justice, Peace and Creation team for Combating Racism, email: WCC Contact.

Displaced mother and child, el Chocó, Colombia - Photo: Paul Smith, Panos Pictures

Ecumenism and daily life:
a story from the gospel
By Silvia Regina

A challenge that faces us for the new millennium lies in recognising, appreciating and making the most of the diversities of gender, race, generation, nationality, religion and other that are part of our everyday experience. Diversity is not just to be tolerated but shared, enjoyed, celebrated. But the encounter with someone who is different, who is not part of our group, is always provocative and surprising and, especially when the difference is religious, it can mark us profoundly. This was so for Jesus, too, as we find in this story in Mark’s gospel 7:24-30.

Mark tells us that Jesus was going to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. But then a foreign woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit came and bowed down at Jesus’ feet, begging him to cast the demon out of her daughter. But Jesus said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs." The woman answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs." Then Jesus said to her, "For saying that, you may go - the demon has left your daughter." So she went home and found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

The region of Tyre mentioned in the text was a border zone inhabited by Jews and non-Jews, possibly a region of strong ethnic, religious, political and economic conflicts. Tyre was a large city and an influential trading centre. However, Jesus’ meeting with the woman took place outside the city, in the countryside. The most surprising thing in the account is Jesus’ attitude. Some commentators seek to justify it by singling out the woman as a member of the dominant class. Others suggest that Jesus wanted to test her faith. But for myself, as a woman, a mother and a member of a people subjected to racial and religious discrimination, I feel indignant at the harshness of Jesus’ words and attitude. If we analyse the story we find that these two foreign women, a mother and her daughter, occupy the lowest place in the physical space presented in the text. They are not part of the children’s table, mentioned by Jesus. Like dogs - a pejorative way of referring to Gentiles - they were to be under the table eating the crumbs that fell to them. The table of which Jesus speaks is not like the table of the poor, the Black communities, where there is always food in abundance. Nor does this seem like the same Jesus who multiplied the loaves and fishes. So what message can this text have for us?

The woman is not discouraged by Jesus’ words. Like a watchful dog she does not let this opportunity pass. She seizes the morsel that falls to her, takes Jesus’ very words between her teeth and turns them into a right for herself and her daughter. Jesus is surprised at her attitude and her words win him over. This is the only case in the gospels where Jesus does not have the last word in a conversation or a discussion. Instead, Jesus learns from the woman. He listens to her attentively, takes her words seriously and finally senses her pain and has a change of heart. Jesus changes his mind. A foreign woman challenges him and teaches him a lesson. He discovers a new opportunity to serve, which is, to serve these women who are not part of what he originally thought of as his people. The woman returned home and the girl was healed. The text tells us nothing more. Did the woman continue to follow her own religious tradition? Did she become a follower of Jesus? We do not know and it is not important. The important thing is faith, religious experience placed in the service of life. The important thing is that girls can be saved and enabled to grow and enjoy life.

This encounter at the frontier challenges the frontiers of Christianity today, calling it to service and dialogue with other religions. It also challenges us at the frontier between genders, inviting women and men to seek ways to reconstruct our identity in dialogue and reciprocity. Like Jesus, the men can also learn. Like the Syrophoenician woman, women can also discuss, provoke, challenge.

Jesus learned from a woman; let us learn with the woman and with Jesus to be open to the new, the liberating message brought by those who are not part of "our group". Let us learn that life, the commitment to living is the great force that breaks down barriers, that asserts itself and speaks louder than the doctrinal principles and denominational and institutional limitations that prevent the expression of solidarity and commitment to life itself.

Silvia Regina de Lima Silvia is Brazilian, Roman Catholic, a teacher at the Latin American Biblical University (Costa Rica) and a researcher in the Ecumenical Studies Department (DEI), Costa Rica. She plays an active role in the SISTERS network of the JPC team.

Women’s Lives
An experience of working in Cali, Colombia
By Betty Ruth Lozana Lerma

Colombia is considered one of the most violent countries in the world. Expert reports analysing the phenomenon rarely take account of racism and discrimination as factors that generate violence. The Asociación Espacio de Mujeres (ASEMUS - women’s space) has more than ten years’ experience of working with the Black population in poor areas of the city of Cali, Colombia, and in particular with women in the district of Aguablanca, where 400,000 people now live, many of them in extreme poverty. In the shantytowns which make up the district of Aguablanca, a high proportion of the population is Black or Afro-Colombian, in some cases as much as 90%. They have come, and keep coming, from the Pacific Coast and the northern River Cauca area. The latter are people who have been obliged to abandon or sell their land under pressure from sugar cane producers, while those from the Pacific Coast are being expropriated as a result of free market policies which see the region as a strategic place and are aiming to turn it into the gateway which will make the country part of the famous Pacific rim, with its centres in Japan and the United States. This region is classed as backward and is therefore the focus of development. Its inhabitants are either ignored or treated as obstacles to change. In either case, they become the victims of progress. For more than ten years the neoliberal economy has been turning the country’s Black population into a new category of displaced persons. Fleeing the violence and death their only resort is to migrate to the city, where they live uprooted from the land and their traditional ways of life.

Migration to the city erodes the traditional cultural values which ensured peaceful coexistence in their communities of origin, thanks to more horizontal social relations and the strengthening of ties through various cultural practices. In the city such things disappear - for instance, the festivals and events celebrating life and death, where the women organised and controlled both the secular and the religious phases. The men’s part was generally confined to playing instruments. The religious aspect of these festivals is an amalgam of different elements of the Catholic tradition and others of African origin, converging in the mass, but without this being the central element. In the secular part, the community strengthens its social ties through the involvement of villages and localities, the formation of new relationships, courtship and love, communal amusement. In the city, the celebration is confined to the religious aspect, and this in turn is confined to the mass. Even the colours have disappeared in the dressing of the altars. Women have been deprived of the power they had in the religious life of their communities.

There are various forms of solidarity and mutual aid in Black communities, such as the exchange of a helping hand, or communal working (minga). The latter is the only form we found in the city and it is extended to women on their own in charge of a household, especially for tasks like building a house. If the woman has a husband the community does not help her, even though the husband is often like "another child to look after". The other forms of solidarity disappear because of growing individualism, even within the family.

It is "easier" for Black women to enter the labour market than Black men, because in the minds of the dominant White population they are less dangerous. Black women are forced to fit in with a cultural attitude that imagines them to be more directly and specifically suited for work in the city than men. Domestic service in the city is defined as Black women’s work, although not all Black women are engaged in it. This attitude makes it difficult for them to find any other kind of job. For many Black women, contact with the upper and middle classes as domestic servants has meant they have quickly had to abandon many of their traditional customs and adopt the cultural patterns of their employers, as well as a series of behavioural codes required of them in carrying out their duties. Those who live in have to accept conditions of employment that allow them to go out only once a week or fortnight. The social recognition and respect the women had in their own communities is lost in the changed living condition in the city. The same happens with the symbolic representations of what it means to be a man or a woman.

When women speak about the problems that affect them most, they mention two things in particular: gang violence and domestic difficulties, among which a recurring theme is the husband’s unfaithfulness, often involving a close relation (sister, cousin), and physical abuse. Violence of this kind becomes cruder in the cities, where the men let themselves go in "their vices of drinking and womanizing", as they say. If the women stand up for themselves they are left alone, because the men say they’re "not going to live with another bloke". Many women come to the city with their children to get away from a violent husband. Women are responsible for their children’s livelihood, because the children are their responsibility, not the men’s. Women have gone from being the mainstay round their communities revolve to being heads of families, with all the burden of poverty this signifies in the city, where they have no kitchen garden, no means of production, no networks of solidarity. Moreover, the saying "one child is no child" still holds. To obtain social recognition in their milieu, Black women must have a numerous offspring, at a young age. With no other options in life, no chance of education or employment, motherhood is the only way for a woman to become a person of worth, capable of living up to the dignified and respectable woman-mother image prevailing in her culture. In the dominant imagination "Black women are in heat from the time they’re girls".

Even in this desperate situation there are seeds of hope. We find groups of women trying to restore their traditional values, celebrating feast days, bundes, chugualos, alabaos 1. In the shantytowns the women are the first to start efforts to improve living conditions for themselves and their children and for the community in general. Despite their heavy burden of work many of them still find the time to get some training that will lead to better opportunities, refusing the social conditioning that allocates them to domestic service or market stalls as the only option. There is also a quest for roots, a hunger to know about the past and be able to affirm their identity in it, a renewed appreciation of black as beautiful, especially among young people. In different parts of the country new spaces and new forms of expression have opened up for Black women to tackle their problems and aspirations, dealing with aspects such as restoring their culture, strengthening identity, protection of human rights and the rights of women, social organisation and participation, production, etc. At a local women’s meeting last October we set up the urban Black women’s network, with the aim of defending our rights and joining forces to produce and market the products of our income-generating organisations. The outreach of all these organisations in the rest of the country and the world, despite the centuries of invisibility to which we have been subjected, is the only hope for our continued existence as a Black people.

Betty Ruth Lozano is a Colombian sociologist. She has worked extensively with impoverished women in Cali, Colombia, in the areas of popular education, strengthening their organisational skills and uplifting their cultural and ethnic identity . She plays an active role in the SISTERS network of the JPC team.

1. Bunde is a dance that is part of the celebration of the dead; Chugualo, the celebration of the death of a little boy or girl; alabao, a song to religious images and the dead.

Table of Contents // Editorial // Environmental racism: old wine in a new bottle by Deborah M. Robinson // Racial Violence, by Mukami McCrum // Interview with M. Deenabandhu On the subject of casteism // Redefining understandings of racism, by N. Barney Pityana // Theological deconstruction and reconstruction in the fight against racism by Maria-Cristina Ventura // Ethnicity and racism by Steve Fenton // Inter-racial church Communities, by Rev. Marjorie Lewis-Cooper // Rio de Janeiro Declaration // The WCC Special Fund to Combat Racism // Two groups who received a Special Fund grant // The UN World Conference against Racism and the WCC Ecumenical Study Process on Racism // SISTERS in the struggle to Eliminate Racism and Sexism by Sammy Toineeta, Betty Ruth Lozana Lerma, Silvia Regina // Publications

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