“So, how do you handle dowries in the United States?”
I blinked at the young Anglican priest in surprise. It was the second day of the Ekklesia Foundation for Gender Education’s (EFOGE) training event in Bondo, Kenya, where a group of schoolteachers, clergy, and church leaders had gathered to talk about biblical equality and discuss how to implement CBE’s curriculum, Called Out!, in Kenyan schools. But the conversation never stayed strictly within the confines of the curriculum, and that morning’s impassioned debate about dowries was the talk of the lunch line.
“We don’t do dowries in the United States.” I replied. “I don’t think they’ve ever been common practice there.”
“You mean people just decide they want to get married, and get married?” I nodded, and he looked fascinated—and hopeful, I thought, noting his lack of a wedding ring.
Barriers to gender equality differ from culture to culture, which is why the work groups like EFOGE are doing is so vitally important. There is no shortage of secular groups advocating for gender equality, but many people on the receiving end of such “empowerment” get understandably fed up with Westerners telling them how to live. Religious people are especially likely to resist changing traditional values like the dowry system if they’ve been taught the suppression of women is divinely ordained.
But when people begin to realize that the Bible champions equality, and when the local body of Christ rises up in a grassroots movement against injustice and oppression, we begin to see hearts, minds, lives, and entire societies transformed on a deep level. This is no quick fix to help women “live their best lives now.” This is soul surgery, a painful process that can cause discomfort and confusion even while bringing about healing. It is not to be undertaken lightly or in ignorance.
That is why the EFOGE training was such a life-changing event, according to the participants. They embraced the curriculum not because it advocates equality, but because it embeds the issue of equality within a narrative overview of Scripture, which is relevant to everyone. Every morning a brilliant local priest talked about the day’s themes, pulling them into the Kenyan context. Every afternoon, there was large group discussion about how the information they were learning could impact everyday life in Kenya. Each day we heard testimonies about how inequality had impacted their lives, and how the message of gospel-centered gender equality was setting people free. We talked about theology, and biblical interpretation, and teaching strategies; but we also talked about dowries. And who made the tea. And what it meant that women washed men’s hands before meals, but not vice-versa. How should our relationship with Jesus impact our relationship with others, and what would that look like in a Kenyan context?
In short, it was the sort of conversation that needs to happen a million times over, in a million different communities around the globe.
At the end of the event, people had only one complaint: next time (and they insisted that there must be a next time), they wanted to bring their families. Instead of limiting the training to the people implementing the curriculum in schools, they wanted to bring their pastors and Sunday school teachers, elementary school teachers and others from their communities. They wanted everyone to hear the good news: God is for us all! Now, we just have to pray that God will raise up workers for the harvest.