Side by Side- an Update on the Conference in India

by Arbutus Sider | March 04, 2007
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The trip took me and a dozen others from the US to Bangalore, a city in South India for a conference called “SIDE by SIDE—Gender from a Christian Perspective: Men and Women Dependent on Each Other (I Corinthians 11:11).” I was one of two board members who, along with three staff members, represented one of the sponsoring organizations, “Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE).” The other sponsoring organizations were all from India: “Pilgrim Partners,” “South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies” (SAIACS) and “Union of Evangelical Students of India” (UESI). CBE has in recent years begun working with several international groups. We recognize that gender justice is a global issue, linked to other justice issues. We want to stand with and work side by side with our Christian brothers and sisters around the world.

A few stories about the trip will give you a glimpse of how inspiring an experience it was for me. A few days before the conference began we took a walking tour of some church-related ministries within a mile of the lovely, modern “Ecumenical Christian Centre” where the conference was held. One was a hospice facility for AIDS patients that also included a facility for children with HIV and AIDS. The children’s home was generally cheerful with walls brightly painted with images of children, animals and cartoon characters. The children were getting combed and dressed in their Sunday best for the evening festivities—a group from the church they attended on Sundays was coming for a regular weekly evening gathering. A warm family atmosphere prevailed. I was grateful to hear that better medications are increasing the life span of children in the home who have AIDS. It was also encouraging to see that a poster in the adult facility honestly addressed the fact that many women have contracted the AIDS virus simply by being faithful to their infected husbands. Throughout my time in India I was repeatedly encouraged to see that broader justice issues were being faced and addressed.

Faced and addressed does not always mean solved. As we walked the half mile stretch from the Center we were greeted by a smoky haze in the air that at its worst led to coughing and stinging eyes. Many in the area have developed lung and asthma problems. The pollution, we discovered, results from the use of nearby empty gravel pits and dry river basins as dumping grounds for city garbage which is then burned. Clearly it is a problem that affects many and needs to be addressed at a structural level. Our guide, Dr. Beulah Wood from SAIACS, explained that they have been working with local leaders and talking to city officials responsible for the problem with little success up to this point. Structural problems, because they are more institutionalized, are hard to change.

Two days before the beginning of the conference a dozen of us turned into more typical tourists traveling a few hours southwest to the ancient town of Mysore with its beautiful palace lit up at night with tens of thousands of lights. There we also snapped pictures, visited shops and bargained with street venders. My favorite spot was the game park where we bumped along the dusty trail on a jeep that, with top down allowed us to stand up, feel the breeze in our hair and sing at the top of our lungs. Elephants, monkeys and a wide variety of birds caught our attention as we ambled through their terrain.

An unexpected educational experience took place on our way back to Bangalore. We had been warned that water strikes might affect our driving since a particular community group was unhappy with a recent decision on how water from a local river had been divided between two affected groups. The strikers drew attention to their plight by stopping traffic on the main road that we needed to take to get “home.” The longest stop we were subjected to was one in which about one hundred school children were sitting on the divided highway, stopping traffic in both directions. These children, we were told, were probably being paid by the adult strike organizers since they no longer had enough adults to do the job. The children seemed to have a good time. Who wouldn’t prefer such an adventure to sitting in a boring classroom! They were all being fed a meal of rice by the time we got off our bus to see exactly what was happening at the front of the traffic jam. Was I afraid, someone asked? It was very helpful to have a bus driver and our guide, Dr Wood, to interpret what we were experiencing. What was also reassuring for me was that the strikes were regulated so that after about half an hour a group of police would arrive and remind the strikers that the time allotted was over and they needed to disperse. The other reassuring thing was the fact that, although the police had on helmets and wielded sticks, I did not see one gun.

Finally, to the Conference! From Thursday afternoon through Sunday noon we listened to speakers and participated in workshops led by women and men from India, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Korea, Australia, the UK and the US. When it was over I felt I had completed a seminary courses that crams a whole semester’s work into one week, except instead of listening to only one professor, I had listened to visiting professors from around the world.

Rather than trying to do the impossible of summarizing the eight plenary addresses and twelve workshops, let me simply use the example of the Keynote speaker, Richard Howell, the general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. As a respected leader of the evangelical community in India, his tone of vulnerability and courage in taking a prophetic stance on behalf of women was a breath of fresh air when compared with the frequently cautious stances taken by men in the western evangelical community. Dr. Howell was passionate about the need for change. He affirmed the women God is using all over India to plant churches. Then he proceeded to challenge male leaders in the Indian Christian community to relinquish their oppressive class, caste and status oriented styles of leadership, and to adopt instead the sacrificial, servant style modeled and taught by our Lord Jesus.

Also encouraging was the freedom allowed for debate and dissent. Divergent opinions of the biblical texts were freely offered. Nor did the conference shy away from discussion of some of the most prominent cultural evils that women still face in India—female infanticide, dowry practices, bride burning, spousal abuse and Devadasi (temple prostitute) children.

From the Philippines, Melba Maggay’s words gave me the most challenging thoughts about how to affect change. Christianity, she suggested, is not so much “revolutionary” as “subversive;” it leavens history by “softening the ground,” by creating “a new and a right spirit.” Christianity builds consensus among stakeholders in such a way that it gradually transforms prevailing norms within structures and cultures. That, I decided, was the goal of the conference.

A new way to think about the style of Jesus—the Subversive Jesus! No, Jesus did not have women disciples among the inner circle of twelve; nor did he directly challenge the practice of slavery. However, he did what he could in his social context. He softened the ground; his teachings produced a new and right spirit. His subversive style prepared the way for a new community to emerge, which soon developed the reputation of turning the world upside down.

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