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Where is Home?: Displacements and Disqualifications

“Where do I belong? – a question that is repeated in the minds of displaced people finds an echo also in the hearts of the displaced women in the Church.” (K. Abraham)

Last January 15-19, 2020, 32 women from 14 countries participated in the 9th conference of the Ecclesia of Women in Asia (EWA), an association of Catholic theologians that met at Monash University, Malaysia, to reflect and theologize on the theme “Displacement and Disqualifications: Its Shadows and Silhouettes.” Two main sub-themes emerged from the women’s narratives, presentations, and discussions: displacement from a geographical home and disqualification of women within the Church.

Focusing on the first sub-theme, the 1st keynote speaker Gemma T. Cruz (Philippines-Australia) described the various faces of Asian female migration, its theological and pastoral implications such as those posed on church teachings by the consequent change in gender roles in the family. The 2nd keynote speaker, Grace Ji-sun Kim (Korea-Canada), elaborated on “intersectionality” and how this tool can be applied in the analysis of migration particularly in Malaysia.

Adopting another theoretical lens, Erica Siu-Mui Lee (Hong Kong-Canada) employed Bernard Lonergan’s theory of history to reframe migration in Asia in terms of progress, decline, and redemption. More concretely, Mary Yuen (Hong Kong) focused on domestic migration in China from the rural to the urban areas spurred by rapid industrialization and the country’s rise to become one of the world’s largest economy. Devoid of legal standing and possessing limited rights within China’s restrictive rural-urban migration policies, nevertheless migrant young women, in particular, are not simply victims but also exercised freedom and agency in their option to migrate. From a theological perspective, Yuen sees in Mary of the Magnificat a model for them of one who has been liberated by God as well as  “an active agent in bringing out the liberative and transformative message of God.” Speaking within the same political milieu, Daniella Dung Nguyen (Vietnam) analyzed the rise in human trafficking in Vietnam – for forced marriages in China and organ harvesting – propelled by the increasing poverty brought about by the country’s shift to a [capitalist] market economy. An option for the victim to bring about God’s reign, she contends, must  “bring [these] crucified people down from their crosses.”

In keeping with the thrust of EWA to engage in dialogue with women in the grassroots and various movements, the participants listened to stories of displaced women as narrated by Annie Edwards and Mary Khin Nyo Nyo (Myanmar) and in a face-to-face conversation with a Somali  and a  Tamil refugee. Francois Bosteels (India), author of “The Dolls Speak” captured the sentiments of displaced peoples like them in poems and in her dolls, quoting Warsan Shire: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark.” Amazed by the resilience of the Somali and Tamil refugee, the participants asked how were they able to move from the violence they experienced as women to becoming advocates of migrant women’s empowerment in Malaysia. The virtue that seems to have facilitated most this transition from sheer survival to engagement in empowering/liberating practices, is solidarity: “We feel them”; “We do not want them to experience what we have gone through!”

The videoconferencing to theological institutions in the United States – another regular feature of EWA conferences since 2011 – continued with the theme of forced migration.[1] The presentation of Rasika Pieris, HFB (Sri Lanka), reread the story of  Hagar from the perspective of the experience of Tamil refugees, as a  story of survival and resistance. The paper of Diane Veloso (Philippines) focused on gender-based violence experienced by internally displaced minorities (men, women, and homosexuals) in the Zamboanga siege in southern Philippines. The theological discussion queried on “silence” as a form of resistance, and on elements and practices within the Muslim, Christian, and indigenous tradition, that reinforce as well as counter gender-based violence.

In her presentation, Focolare member Crescencia Gabijan (Philippines) sketched samples of how different religious groups respond to the problem of displacement. She foregrounded the virtue of reciprocity in these endeavors, founded on the golden rule “Do unto others what you want others to do unto you,” that is a universal ethical tenet present in Christianity and other religions.

Two papers centered on the home altar as a resource for survival of migrants and refugees.  Marinda Keng-Fan Chan (Macau-US) discussed popular piety as expressed in the home altars of Filipin@ migrants in Macau and how these become venues for the gathering not only of families but also of the wider community of migrants. Nelavala Gnana Prasuna (India), a Dalit and an ordained Lutheran theologian, explored the connection between table and altar in the bible and in tradition and argued that home altar serves as a table of inclusion for migrants where caste borders are crossed. The discussions focused on how popular piety can be made liberating and how these home altars can be transformed into a more liberating ecclesial space for women such that those who “set the table” can likewise “bless and lead the table conversation.”

This brings us to the second sub-theme of the conference that revolved around the disqualification of women in the Church herself. Fides del Castillo (Philippines) pointed out the displacement of the pre-colonial women religious leaders in the Philippines (referred to as babaylans) by the male Spanish missionaries. In the context of China, since its reopening in the late1970s, Xiaoping Guo (China) noted that it was mostly women lay missionaries and evangelizers who revived and restored the churches. And yet as Kwok Puilan underlined, “the church in China is still ruled by an older generation of male leadership that is not ready to accept women’s full participation.”

In her paper, Miriam Alejandrino, OSB raised the issue of patriarchal biblical hermeneutics and the interpretation of the second creation story (Genesis2:4b-3:24) that reinforce the relegation of women to secondary roles in the Church. Kochurani Abraham (India) critiqued women’s “deletion” within ecclesiastical spaces and the religious “anesthetizing” of majority of church women who do not sense the violence in this exclusion. The insidiousness of clericalism that is at the heart of this exclusion is illustrated in the case of Bishop Franco Mulakkal who raped a nun several times in her own convent,  and while he finally got arrested [but now out on bail], the vilification by both clergy and fellow women of the nun and the few who supported her continued.

On the need for women to be in solidarity with each other, Rachel Sanchez (Philippines) mined the biblical story of the displaced queens Vashti and Esther to argue for going beyond pitting the two queens against each other. Instead of rooting for individual women-in-power, “women leaders need to be women-in-solidarity against unjust systems.”

The new scholars section of the conference featured parts of the dissertations of new PhD graduates. These may be linked as well to women’s displacementCaroline Naibaho, KYM (Indonesia) discussed the Toba Batak indigenous group whose philosophy and family practices relegate women to the function of producing sons. Patricia Santos, RJM (India) developed the concept of “flourishing” in her paper and how a spirituality of flourishing for women can facilitate greater inclusion of women in the Church.

This EWA conference has indeed brought home the stark realization that as women in the Church, we share the same experience of other displaced peoples of our times!

[1] The institutions in the USA and CTEWC contacts include the following: Boston College (Andrea Vicini SJ), Benedictine University Mesa (Ramón Luzárraga), Catholic Theological Union (Dawn Nothwehr, OSF), Santa Clara University (Lisa Fullam) and Marquette University (Kate Ward).