World Council of Churches Office of Communication
Press Release
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1 December 1998

Ecumenical Decade Festival - Press Release No. 4

Many of the eminent women who gathered at the World Council of Churches’ Festival commemorating the end of the Ecumenical Decade of Churches in Solidarity with women have long memories of the struggle for equal status in church leadership.

"The concept is that a mega-experience such as this is really the fusion of other related experiences," said Dr Thelma Adair. "When I reflect on all the WCC conferences, Church Women United workshops, United Nations' decades, I ask myself, ‘How can this flow from the past bring in new people and meld to move out into a new formation?’"

Adair is a weaver. For her, the Ecumenical Decade is part of the tapestry of this African American women’s active leadership in the ecumenical movement over the past 60 years.

Adair is weaving new people into that movement. Both she and her daughter, Dr Jeanne D. Adair, of New York City, members of the Presbyterian Church (USA), are delegates to the Decade Festival in Harare, Zimbabwe. There’s also her "newest friend Katie", a Canadian in her 20s, just joining the ecumenical movement.

"Katie comes out of the Student Christian Movement," Adair said. "I'm also out of the Student Christian Movement - 1938. We’re both part of the thread of the organisation. This is perhaps my gift - watching the weaving."

Adair, a Presbyterian Elder and retired university professor, was the second woman - and the first woman of color - to serve as moderator of the then United Presbyterian Church's General Assembly, in 1976. She is a former President and Board Member of Church Women United, and currently serves as CWU Vice President.

Adair and her daughter both plunge headlong into conversation about their priority concerns - for full participation of women, for elimination of racism, violence and economic injustice - and they weave their comments together as they talk.

"My daughter brings a new perspective," Thelma Adair said. "Her whole vocabulary weaves the future."

Jeanne Adair, Project Associate with the New York Technical Center, picked up the thread, asking, "How you can take the individual's experience, package it, distribute it, evangelise it? Otherwise it's one or two voices in the wilderness. We must begin to organize in cells, and go back to the networks that have brought us to this point.

"This experience, information, contacts and energy we have got from the Festival provide a higher octane to push those organizations into the future. The document and Festival serve as rallying points for women around the world. We need to think how we come back together and do benchmarks and checkpoints."

As Thelma Adair weaves new people and new generations into the ecumenical movement, she continues to weave new experiences and perspectives into her own life. She and her daughter made a pre-Festival woman-to-woman visit to Zambia, and were deeply moved at the devastating effect of the external debt - graphically illustrated at an orphanage for 2000 children, most of whom lost their parents to AIDS-related illnesses.

"The orphanage, in a Catholic church, is staffed by community women who scrape together resources - for example, selling bread rolls at two cents each," she said. Few government resources are available - an enormous percentage of the budget must go to external debt payments. "The people who want to help have so few resources."

"We as Christians need to help our government and the IMF to reflect on how they are asking these countries to pay their debt," she said, speaking in support of the debt cancellation campaign. "And we need a Marshall Plan of Christian sympathy that goes in to these areas to get them where they can participate. We need a new form of sharing."

For the Adairs, no one is a "charity project". Everyone is "family". "What happens in the use of resources anywhere in the world is for the good or ill of someone else," said Adair. "Reallocating money meant for one music CD can change someone's life. The Wall Street boom and explosion of wealth in America has consequences for others. Practices that demand the lifeblood of others, countries that become plantations in order for other countries to prosper - this needs to be re-examined."

The Zambia visit touched the Adairs’ hearts in another way. "We experienced the total welcome of the stranger," she being the stranger in this case. "I am physically challenged," said Thelma Adair, who walks with a cane. "Neighbors, cousins, everyone constantly asked me, ‘Grandma, are you alright?’ There was a bad storm, and the family came with candles for me and to make sure I was ok. I would have let my guests sleep through it! The best they had, they offered. When I go back home I have to re-examine the casual manner in which I take other people."

While Susan Karava Setae was chair of the Papua New Guinea Council of Churches’ Women’s Committee, she used that ecumenical platform to speak widely urging greater participation of women in leadership roles in the church.

One campaign called on denominational leaders to place more women pastors in congregations. Ordination of women already was church policy, but graduating women seminarians were being assigned teaching and other jobs outside parish leadership.

On one occasion, the audience's response was an angry one. "The men shouted us down," Mrs. Setae recalled. "They said, ‘Women, wash your mouths.’ We replied, ‘Men, wash your hearts.’"

Setae, a member of the Ecumenical Decade’s global planning committee and a delegate to the Decade Festival in Harare, has served the women of Papua New Guinea for more than three decades. A trained teacher and lecturer who moved early in life to become a community development activist, she was the United Church Women’s Coordinator until 1996, when she became President of the Papua New Guinea Council of Women.

The Council was incorporated in 1975 and mandated in 1979 by Parliament to be a watchdog on behalf of the women of the country. It has close to one million members drawn from 38 member organizations, including provincial councils of women, non-government organisations and churches.

A woman with warm brown eyes and a broad smile, Mrs Setae cited gains for Papua New Guinea's church women. "A lot of churches have responded very well," she said. "During the Decade, we have more female clergy and an increasing number of women at ecumenical decision-making meetings. More women are taking part in theological education. And now a woman is General Secretary of the Pacific Conference of Churches," with countries across the region with the exception of Australia, New Zealand and the US state of Hawaii.

Concern for women’s role and status in society also has been part of work in Papua New Guinea under the Ecumenical Decade umbrella. "Church and society aren’t separable," said Setae, who challenges the church to be concerned about social issues and not just preoccupied with its own administration.

In Papua New Guinea, domestic violence is a problem of particular concern. Many women have no property rights, the life expectancy among women is just 47, and the maternal mortality rate is high, said Mrs Setae, herself a mother of four. (Her husband, Miri Setae, is a former Secretary of Agriculture and Livestock.)

"We have a very high illiteracy rate," she continued. "Sixty percent of our rural women can't read or write. That’s a violence in itself."

In the Council of Women, "we do a lot of influencing of issues in the government," Setae said. She was cited in the latest issue of Papua New Guinea Woman as "the torchbearer of the movement to narrow the gender gap and promote women as equal partners in the development of the nation."

"Involvement in the Ecumenical Decade has built me as a person," said Mrs. Setae. "The Decade has made me become more aware of the problems we have as women. The Decade has done a lot of good but at the same time some of us have been victims because we challenged the churches.

"We are not just churchgoers singing hymns and praying. We also are involved in advocating on economic and other issues involving our countries. Women are pushing their voice much louder. The churches and the government are listening to what the women are saying, but there are still reservations to full commitment both by churches and governments to the cause of women."

The Festival, which met 27-30 November on the campus of Belvedere Technical Teachers Training College, preceded the Eighth Assembly of the WCC which meets at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare 3-14 December. More than 1000 women - and some 30 men - participated in the Festival.

Contact: John Newbury, WCC Press & Information Officer
Press and Information Office, Harare
Tel: +
E-Mail: WCC media

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 332, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the Assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.