MCC U.S. to address women’s advocacy concerns in new ways
February 1, 2012
AKRON, Pa. – In 1971 the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Peace Section took a bold action for the time: It invited constituent women’s organizations to send representatives to its meetings at a time when few women served on decision-making boards within Mennonite circles.
Two years later, women attending the Peace Section Board meeting in Ottawa requested focused attention on women’s issues. What evolved were women’s concerns staff positions first in the U.S. and then in Canada, which together addressed issues within MCC offices, international program and constituent churches in Canada and the U.S. Most recently in MCC U.S., the position was titled director of women’s advocacy.
During the next 40 years, the various women who filled these roles listened to women and helped to strengthen their voices within their families, the church and society. They also helped to bring “silent” issues, such as domestic violence and sexual abuse, into the open for discussion within MCC and its constituency.
Addressing women’s issues continues to be part of the mission of MCC U.S. today, but the responsibility is now carried by MCC U.S.’s restorative justice and anti-oppression programs as of December 2011. The women’s advocacy position has ended. (The position in Canada ended in 2002.)
This decision evolved as MCC U.S. determined how to efficiently and effectively carry on its mission in the midst of organizational restructuring and budget constraints, said J Ron Byler, executive director of MCC U.S. “Our belief is that women’s advocacy is a strong spoke within the broader umbrellas of anti-oppression and restorative justice and that other advocacy programming will be done on behalf of women within the regions,” he said.
“The foundation for the way forward has been solidly built by the female leaders who filled the women’s advocacy position, most recently by Linda Gehman Peachey.”
During the past seven years that Gehman Peachey has been director of women’s advocacy, she addressed issues of violence in the family and abuse of women, the theological underpinnings of women’s equality as churches grappled with women’s ordination, and resourcing and outreach to Spanish-speaking congregations and women’s groups.
Gehman Peachey has worked closely with provincial MCC abuse prevention program administrators in British Columbia and Manitoba, as well as leaders in Mennonite Women USA and other constituent groups. A Women’s Concerns Committee, made up of women representing various MCC constituent groups, helped to support and guide the coordinators.
Yammilette “Yami” Rodriguez, Fresno, Calif., who served as a member of MCC’s Women’s Concerns Committee since 2005, said the support she received from Gehman Peachey and sister committee members led her to start, with four other women, Latinas United in Faith, in the Fresno area. The group trains, resources and empowers Latina leaders of varied Christian affiliations to deal with such issues as violence and abuse.
“I appreciated the opportunity to discuss issues in a safe place and value the incredible support I received from Linda to address concerns impacting Hispanic Christian leaders,” said Rodriguez, who with her husband, Jim Rodriguez, co-pastors United Faith Christian Fellowship, Fresno. Jim Rodriguez also is director of financial services for MCC U.S.
Beyond the issues tackled, MCC’s women’s desk provided a vital forum for Mennonite women across the United States and Canada to exchange experiences and viewpoints. “The Women’s Concerns Report was a huge contribution to women from other women across the church,” said Tina Mast Burnett, of Akron, Pa., who served as women’s concerns coordinator from 1991 to 1994. From 1973 to 2004, 176 issues of the newsletter were published.
Different women compiled each issue, calling upon their own networks of acquaintances, which “brought together an enormous variety of voices that wouldn’t have been heard otherwise” on issues not being discussed elsewhere in Mennonite circles, Burnett added.
Brenda Martin Hurst, a pastor at Frazer (Pa.) Mennonite Church, said she still has every one of the newsletters that she read in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when “Mennonite women were struggling to make sense of our experiences and finding our voices in the church. These newsletters connected me with the minds and hearts of other women in the church and let me know that I was not alone in my journey. The content helped me think through issues and expanded my world.”
Esther Epp-Tiessen, of Winnipeg, who is working on a history of MCC Canada, reflected on the women’s concern’s role.
“As I do my research, I am struck by how necessary and how important the work of women’s concerns has been. At the outset of MCC Canada, the culture was so profoundly male-centered. There has been major change since that time, and the women’s concerns position has played a very significant role in that.
“I also think of the groundbreaking work that women’s concerns has done in the area of family violence and sexual abuse. When this work began in the late 1980s in Canada, it was cutting edge work that met a deeply felt need. The contribution of women’s concerns has been enormous.”
“A host of work remains to be done on behalf of women, especially in the area of poverty,” said Peachey, a sentiment seconded by Burnett, who is now director of MCC U.S. administrative services. “Single women who head households remain the most impoverished demographic sector within the United States,” Burnett said. “Women still carry the brunt of caring for others in the family, both the children and the elderly.”
Other current issues to be addressed include pornography, the objectification of women and worldwide sex trafficking, Gehman Peachey said.
MCC U.S. will continue to address women’s advocacy issues through the work of Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz , restorative justice coordinator, and Valentina Satvedi, anti-oppression coordinator. Amstutz will network with groups dealing with abuse and violence issues, and Satvedi’s role will include race, gender and class oppression.
Mennonite Central Committee: Relief, development and peace in the name of Christ