"In our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power" Acts 2:11
By Virginia White, Week of Compassion Seminary Intern
"French translation, please?" a woman from Niger asked a room of English and Spanish speakers during a meeting at the 61st United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) Thousands of women, from every corner of the world, had gathered here to bring their perspectives to humanitarian-aid workers, policy-makers, and diplomats who have power through their offices to influence millions of lives.
Despite differences in nationality, religion, even language, among those gathered we understood one another. When one woman talked about disappearing budgets for women's health in her country, other women nodded knowingly. When another noted the popular belief in her country that teenage girls are better off staying home to help their families than going to school, more nods. Even when a speaker stumbled over words spoken in her second (or third) language, women were patient to make sure all were heard and understood.
Even though we were not making laws, policies or programs, I felt the power in the sharing of our stories. As we identified common challenges, we uncovered pathways forward; and as we listened attentively across barriers made by nationality, class, educational level, religion, and language, we were already moving in the direction of our common goal: participating in a world in which all people, of every gender, race, and class, are respected and able to live safe and dignified lives.
There is power in communication. This past Sunday was the celebration of Pentecost, when we recall the tongues of fire and gift of miraculous speech given to the Disciples at a moment when they were anxious and uncertain about the future. The Holy Spirit gifted them with the ability to be not only heard, but also understood, by all those around.
At the CSW meetings, I was often burdened by grief over the struggles that the women shared: persistent unemployment, unequal pay, violence in the workplace and at home. Considering how these challenges are only magnified by war, natural disasters and poverty made me anxious and overwhelmed. On more than one occasion, the only thing I could do was listen intently and try to understand their experiences.
Yet, as the two weeks of meetings went on, this became increasingly challenging. I became very grateful for the ecumenical worship service offered daily by an NGO known as Ecumenical Women at the Church Center across the street from the UN. Singing, prayer and praise provided needed spiritual sustenance for the intense meetings. It also connected us right back to the earliest Jesus-following communities, for whom regular times of communal singing and praying (in their many languages) were vital to nurturing strength for the gospel project ahead of them.
In addition to providing a space for daily spiritual renewal, the Church Center, and the faith community more broadly, played a prominent role across the CSW meetings. The Church Center hosted many of the sessions organized by faith-based NGOs-including Week of Compassion partners like the World Council of Churches, ACT Alliance and Church World Service. These NGOS are essential to the implementation of the UN's work, whether it be implementing on-the-ground programs to train women for jobs, providing immigration services, or making schools safe for girls. They move the agreed-upon goals from paper to action by managing the day-to-day tasks of humanitarian work.
Literally in-spired, given breath and life, by God's vision for humankind, these faith-based NGOs gave voice at these meetings to the truths known by faith. To the policymakers, academics, and diplomats they said: "We have a responsibility to care for the oppressed and to love our neighbor." "Each of us is created in God's image and share in vulnerability and possibility." "We can and must hope in something better than this current reality and will be helped along the way." Like the early Disciples on that Pentecost day, the faith community stood as witness to God's deeds of power and love. Without these reminders, the work might easily have seemed too complex, too difficult or too lofty to pursue.
But, thanks to the role of the faith-based community at the UN CSW, God's compassionate and justice-loving spirit was ever-present. Meeting after meeting, as I sat among sisters and brothers from all over the world and heard testimonies of great struggle and strife, as well as great progress, I experienced the radical hope that we can live together in a global Beloved Community. Still, much work remains to be done, which is why Week of Compassion remains committed to providing ongoing support for women and girls in Haiti, Iraq, the DRC, West Timor and more. I left the UN CSW with a newfound hope in the knowledge that we do this work alongside many others, from near and far, dedicated to the vision of equity and peace.