Empowering Women

April 30, 2007

‘Mummy, did the world ever forgive Germany?’ asked Zsusanna’s eight-year-old son. He had been watching Discovery Channel programmes on the Second World War. ‘Yes, of course,’ his mother replied. ‘Then they’ll also forgive us Serbs, won’t they?’ he said with a relieved sigh.
Stories like this, shared at the Women in Leadership conference held near Rijeka on the Croatian coast last week, revealed some of the rugged realities of daily life for many European women today.
Such tales, long or short, shared over meals, on walks on the beach and in formal sessions, reflected Europe’s turbulent past and uncertain present. Serbians, for example, confessed the shame of their recent history. Aware of being ‘the most hated country in Europe’ (according to recent research), they were reluctant to even present their flag along with all the other country delegations.
Yet, linking hands with women from Bosnia and Croatia, Zsusanna and her fellow Serbs prayed and received prayers for reconciliation. Encircled by others from over twenty countries from Spain to Russia, Finland to Greece, this was one of the conference’s most poignant moments.
Hope for Europe women’s events were begun in the early 1990’s by Elizabeth Mittelstadt to link European women from east and west, to encourage reconciliation and international friendship and to nurture ministry networks.
European women’s gatherings, such as in Frankfurt (1999) and in Budapest as part of HOPE•21 (2002), have spawned numerous other national and local women’s events in France, Hungary, the Ukraine, Romania, Austria and Poland. Although small enough to be intimate, the conferences have disproportionate influence, occasioning public women’s rallies of up to 5000, as in Budapest two years ago, or even 10,000 in Frankfurt.
‘Safe place’
As with other Hope for Europe networks, the women’s network primarily aims to build relationally, rather than organisationally. The planning committee (Maija from Finland, Hannelore from Germany, Ildiko from Hungary, Ksenija from Serbia and my wife Romkje, from Holland) aims to create a ‘safe place’ for mutual encouragement, a place of refreshment and even refuge. Anja from France compared it to the resting places in Pilgrim’s Progress, where Christian was refreshed before continuing on his hazardous journey.
At last able to talk with other women in leadership, some found the freedom to share pains and griefs of gender injustice experienced from male leaders in the church, or of denominational barriers still strong in several countries. Widespread domestic abuse and the knock-on effect of broken families in society were deep concerns for others. A number were bold enough to talk of the havoc caused by deeply entrenched incestuous behaviour patterns in certain regions.
While grateful for the more recent political freedoms in eastern Europe, it was clear that many from the east still struggled with economic hardships, and often with the deeply-rooted opposition from state churches.
A rich curriculum of lessons for all emerged out of the diversities of the gathering: eastern-western, northern-southern, younger-older, mainstream-evangelical-pentecostal, married-single, affluent-poor.
Ilsedora, a young German woman, shared how inspired she had been by the boldness of Aleksandra, a woman doctor from Moldova who had persuaded government officials to replace harmful books on sex education in the schools with those reflecting more biblical values. “That encouraged me to realise the role we woman can play in helping to influence our governments,” said Ilsedora.
The age-range of the participants–from mid-twenties to the seventies–reflected also some of the trends addressed by Elke Werner, newly-appointed senior Lausanne Associate for women. Younger participants were clearly more post-modern in outlook than the older women, whom Elke urged to become mentors, coaches, models and encouragers. Along with Elke, Emily Voorhies, of Women of Global Action, helped link the European network to existing global networks, while international speakers, Noor van Haaften and Reona Joly, provided much appreciated Biblical inspiration and instruction.
As with earlier events, the four-day conference finished with a rally for several hundred local women–on board the OM ship, Logos II, which just ‘happened’ to be in port in Rijeka! A partnership between OM, Hope for Europe and local churches made possible the first such women’s gathering on this scale for the Croatian believers.
Drazenka, a local pastor’s wife, found it hard to believe she could organise something on this scale. Yet, encouraged by local missionaries and the conference organisers, she saw more women than she had ever hoped for streaming up the gangplank for the day-long event on board the floating book exhibition. Greek conference delegates lent a colourful Balkan flavour in their national costumes, singing traditional songs. Numbers came forward for prayer and to commit their lives to Jesus as Lord after the talks and challenge by Reona and Noor.
The strategic nature of these conferences lies in the encouraging, envisioning and empowering of a small group of key women who return home with new dreams and determination for reconciliation, renewal, evangelism and transformation… even in Serbia.
Till next week,
Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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