Incarnational mission

In 1881 Elizabeth Bielby, a nurse, Interserve Partner and founder of a small hospital for women in India, was granted an audience with Queen Victoria. She pleaded on behalf of the Maharani of Punna for more medically trained women. The Queen responded by allowing women to begin training as doctors in the UK and more hospitals for women to be opened in India. The liberation, restoration and empowering of women marginalised “overseas”, but also “at home”, had begun a new chapter. Interserve’s early history is representative of the pioneering work of women in mission.

A friend said to me recently that she could see how beginning as an all-women’s mission had shaped Interserve.¹ When the first women went to the Indian subcontinent, they had to work in partnership with, and under, other organisations because of acceptable cultural norms at that time. They pioneered the work of local women as partners in ministry. Local Bible women were an integral part of teaching and reaching out to the community. Community was a way of life because, as single women, they had to find ways of being accepted as part of society. Relationships with the local church were foundational.

Women have always done, and still do, mission as women. Friendship and hospitality that encourage trust, intimacy and community are at the heart of women at work in mission: nurturing relationships, being present, sharing stories of life and family together. This is about mutuality that helps both the missionary and those they are among to grow.

Emptiness, hiddenness and weeping characterise women’s participation. Women in many places are valued differently, and so those working among them live out self-emptying redemptively. Going to places where people feel broken, empty, hurting, unseen and unrecognised, women incarnate Christ who seeks, finds, heals, redeems and celebrates.

In ministry that is comforting and healing, women draw on the Holy Spirit. Mission is about healing the wounds, so many of which are borne by women. Women offer the good news of love, mercy and forgiveness by coming alongside to comfort those in distress. Recognising the other—women who are hidden, unrecognised and marginalised in their communities—is at the heart of women in mission. Seeing and listening are acts of love that include and empower so that the marginalised are given voice and lifted up.

With mind-sets of pragmatic strategy, it can be hard to embrace friendship and hospitality, emptiness, hiddenness and weeping, comfort and healing, and seeing and listening. The story of women’s contribution in mission is perhaps better read through these understandings. We know too little of women’s contribution to the transformation of communities and societies.

Here’s one example. We know few names of the many women who served faithfully in Pakistan at Kinnaird School and Kinnaird College (founded by Interserve), and at the Catholic schools. The Pakistani women activists who fought the injustices and abuses perpetrated under the Hudood Ordinances² had all been educated at Christian institutions. These activists were profoundly influenced by the unnamed women who walked with them through education, and they became advocates for justice in their society.

“As we engage in mission, whether that is through weeping with the broken-hearted, consoling the bereaved, bringing healing and comfort to those who are hurting or whether it is through surprising and unexpected friendships, or through parties and celebrations and feasts, or through hearing silent ones into speech, may we too rediscover the joy of the Gospel as we deepen our love for and friendship with Jesus.”³

Cathy Hine has served as an Interserve Partner for 30 years, working with women in the Muslim world. She now leads When Women Speak…

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¹ I am indebted to Cathy Ross, Young Lee Hertig, Moyra Dale and many others in shaping my thinking and understanding.

² Enacted in 1977 to bring Pakistani law in alignment with Islamic sharia law, with profound consequences for the status of women.

³ Ross, Cathy. I have called you friends: Women in Mission (2017).