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Christmas Musing

This next Sunday (the last Sunday before Christmas–yikes!) we will read about Joseph’s courage and Mary’s faithfulness.   What follows is a reflection on Matthew 1:18-25 that I wrote for our weekly ListServ, “Hunger Sermon Starters” (if you are interested in receiving in your email inbox hunger related reflections on the lectionary, click here to sign up).  Read the reflection and let me know what you think!

Through the faithful obedience of two normal people, with very real struggles and fears, God incarnate entered the world.  How might God’s presence be needed in our world today?  How is God calling us to be faithful?  When we think about hunger and poverty, what might God be calling us to be and do as the body of Christ, God’s hands and feet?

A deeper look at the Gospel reveals an excellent opportunity to think about systems and structures that keep people hungry.  After telling us that Mary miraculously conceived from the Holy Spirit, Matthew is careful to demonstrate Joseph’s piety (1:19): “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  Joseph, for reasons that are not explicit (Was he worried about how it would look for his betrothed to be pregnant? Did he question her fidelity?), wishes to leave Mary once he discovers that she is with child.  Matthew seems to suggest that Joseph’s status as a “righteous” man is protected by his willingness to put Mary away “quietly.”  It was culturally appropriate to abandon Mary, leaving her to be a young single mother on her own.

Allow for a provocative question: How is Joseph’s desire in any way “righteous”?  Matthew’s justification implies that it is acceptable (even proof of one’s righteousness) to leave a young woman to fend for herself and her child, so long as it is done privately.  In spite of Mary’s manifest vulnerability, her health, security, and status are irrelevant.  To be fair to Joseph (and Matthew), he was simply operating in the norms and mores of his society (here we see the systems and structures).  Moreover, Joseph’s faithfulness to God’s call shows his courage in standing against unjust systems when necessary.

Today, in many parts of the world (and yes, in some sectors of the Global North as well), women and children are seen as second class citizens, and can be simply discarded much like Joseph wished to do to Mary.  Women suffer disproportionately from hunger and poverty and are more likely to be abused (sexually and otherwise) and trafficked.    On the flip side, women are multipliers when it comes to effectively addressing hunger and poverty.  Women produce 60-80% of food crops in the Global South.  Yet they are far less likely to own land.  Women are also more likely than men to invest money in their family.  In short, we see a system (in this case pervasive sexism) that perpetuates and exacerbates hunger and poverty.  (For a host of relevant facts and data and some clever media presentations, see

This week’s Gospel, in my opinion, does not adequately challenge the system (but it does draw us into a discussion of the problem).  But we can challenge the system.  We can give to programs that support education and empowerment of women (ELCA Good Gifts is a good place to start—see  We can advocate for laws and policies that protect the rights of women (see  We can educate ourselves and others about the issues (the aforementioned Girl Effect Web site will give you plenty to think about).  Let’s get started!

David Creech

Moving from Oppression to Opportunity

The Book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is written by a husband and wife team who are former journalists for the New York Times, and through their travels found an issue that had been missing from the headlines- the ongoing struggle for gender equality around the world, and what this inequality means for women in the global South.

Half the Sky focuses on four issues in which gender discrimination is hurting and killing women around the world. Here is a snapshot of the issues they discuss in detail, along with some statistics from the book about the scope of these issues around the globe.

Human Trafficking: 600,000-800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year and 80% of them are women and girls. They are trafficked mainly for sexual exploitation. Millions more are trafficked within countries each year.

Rape and violence: In most countries between 30-60% of women have experienced sexual or physical violence from a partner. Many women don’t report rape for fear of being stigmatized.

Maternal Mortality: In the global South there is one maternal death per minute. The lifetime risk of maternal death is 1,000 times higher in a poorer country than in a more prosperous country.

Routine discrimination: Between 60 and 101 million women are missing from around the world today. They have died due to unequal care or feticide, and at least another 2 million die from discrimination each year.

In addition to discussing these horrific problems that come along with gender inequality, the authors also provide ways to, as their title states, turn “oppression into opportunity.” The two solutions they focus on the most are educating girls and women and providing them with microloans. By educating girls and women, the authors argue that they can receive the necessary tools to stand against injustice, and are given the opportunity to participate in the economy. By receiving microloans, the book suggests that it gives women more power in society while giving them the chance to get out of poverty.

One helpful tool that Half the Sky provides is ways in which you can get involved in the struggle for global gender equality. The book provides many inspiring success stories of how individuals have overcome oppression, and also provides specific actions anyone can take to make a difference in the lives of women worldwide.

If you are interested in obtaining a study guide for this book, check out The Table!

-Allie Stehlin

What are we fighting? Post 3.

This is the third post in a series considering the root causes of hunger. The Millennium Development Goals serve as a helpful framework, and this week, we’re looking at the rights of women.

Millennium Development Goal 3: Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women

In Malawi, Albeta Chilombo deposits income from her small business into the Kasungu Community Savings and Credit Cooperative, a bank supported by ELCA World Hunger.

The inequality women have faced throughout history is well known. What may be less well known is how much a society benefits when women share equal status and rights with men. Here are a few statistics from The Girl Effect website

  • “When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has .2 fewer children.”
  • “When girls and women can earn income, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families, as compared to only 30 to 40 percent for men.” 
  • “An extra year of primary school boosts girls’ future wages by 10 to 20 percent.”
  • “An extra year of secondary school boosts girls’ future wages by 15 to 25 percent.”

This means that as educated girls grow up to lead productive and successful lives, every one around them tends to benefit from their success. They raise healthier and better educated children, enhancing the opportunities for future generations. In addition, educated women, if given the opportunity, are better able to participate in the workforce. This means both income for themselves AND increasing a country’s capacity for economic growth and poverty reduction. Ensuring access to education for girls and women is a critical first step toward empowering them, their children, and their communities.

Traditional laws related to property and assets also create impediments for women. Despite the fact that in many countries women are responsible for the majority of agricultural labor and household management, they often own none of the land, buildings, or businesses, and may have very little to say about how household assets are used. What’s more, they often have no ability to obtain credit. As a result, should they become widowed or abandoned by their husbands, women can be left with no money, no house, no land, and no way of growing food. Worse still, they may be ostracized by their communities, leaving them with no where to go. Yet they frequently retain responsibility for feeding and caring for their children. In such cases, women and their children have little hope of escaping poverty and hunger. Until women achieve the ability and right to support themselves, hunger and poverty are likely to persist.

-Nancy Michaelis

Excerpts from my time in Sweden

Last Autumn I had the opportunity to study for a semester in Sweden. Looking to fill some requirements for my International Studies major back home I signed up for the course Global Health. At the time, it slipped my mind that Sweden is known for this kind of study and research. As I sat amongst students from Sweden, Poland, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia who were studying subjects which ranged from nursing to psychology, I realized that I was in for an eye-opening semester. As you read, please keep in mind that all of the facts are already a year old, but their significance is no less impactful. This blog is a very short snippet of all that I learned in that class; below are the concepts and figures that moved and surprised me the most.

Excerpts from my final paper:

• “I was also struck by a statement which one of the presenters recalled from one of the older Zambian women, ‘When the white men came we saw that we were poor.’ I believe that we have as much to learn from struggling peoples as they have to learn from us, they are rich in other aspects of life.”

• “I also found it fascinating when Mr. Almroth talked about how children need love, and when their parents die they are more likely to get sick as well. It’s amazing how something so simple can have such deep and compounding impact. It’s hard to realize how much that love is taken for granted in developed countries where health is expected and sickness can be treated.”

• “Additionally, the knowledge that female literacy is most directly connected to child mortality, and that fifty percent of all child deaths could be prevented through female literacy surprised me.”

• “Education empowers women, gives children more access to healthcare, encourages micro-loan systems, informs about water sanitation and improves infant survival through breast feeding.”

• “I was finally incredibly relieved to hear Mr. Almroth talk about the fear of over-population. I admit that I was one of those people who are often conflicted by compassion for people in need and scientific numbers of over-population. Hearing that increased child survival has always lead to less pregnancy was all I needed to hear for my fears to be quickly relieved and my compassion to take over!”

• “I was encouraged to think about AIDS as a result of poverty, not necessarily a lack of knowledge. This cuts at the basic human need to survive, and when people see no way to make money, they turn to dangerous practices to survive. When it is knowledge vs. necessity, necessity always wins.”

• “Standing at twice the African regional average, 150 out of 100,000 people in Zambia are infected with tuberculosis. Of those infected, over half are co-infected with HIV/AIDS. Zambia is currently working to improve lab facilities, increase community awareness, expand public-private partnerships (such as support groups who visit patients,) increase printed and circulated materials and conduct training of health workers.”

• “One very cool way of disease education that Zambia has implemented is grounded in schools. Each year on World AIDS Day and World Malaria Day formal debates are held between students in schools to increase awareness of the disease crises.”

• “Every year 7.5 million women and babies die unnecessarily due to pregnancy-related causes, NOT disease. This is 50% more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined! In poor nations around the world poverty causes death in heart-wrenching ways because the cure is both known and attainable. On one side of the problem lies a lack of funding for pregnancy care and neonatal mortality prevention and the shift of educated doctors from rural Africa to lucrative Europe. On the other side of the problem lies hope. The greatest resource that Africa needs to improve the maternal health situation is educated midwives. Additionally, the country of Mozambique is leading the way by training ‘non-physician clinicians’ to perform cesarean sections, obstetric hysterectomies, laparotomies and other life-saving emergency obstetric care. These clinicians also exist in rural Malawi and Tanzania, creating an incredible resource where doctoral care is limited or non-existent…Cures and preventative methods are known, available and common; proper funding, education and trained professionals are what the world is waiting for.”

Thanks to lecturers Almroth, Berggren, Halling and Bergström.

In Honor of Mom

Women around the world are models of strength and perserverance. In spite of the fact that they along with their children suffer disproportionately the effects of poverty and hunger, women nonetheless

+ produce an estimated half of the world’s food;
+ are responsible for about 60-80% of food crops in the developing world;
+ and are more likely to spend their income on the wellbeing of their children–buying more nutritious food, purchasing school supplies, and paying for healthcare.

For this reason, women are key players in the fight against hunger and poverty. Consider the following facts.

+ Women’s education has the greatest effect on reducing child malnutrition, accounting for 43% of the reduction in malnutrition in the developing world from 1970-1995.
+ In India’s economic transformation, the states with the highest percentage of women in the labor force grew the fastest and had the largest reductions in poverty.
+ The total value of women’s unpaid house and farm work adds one-third to the world’s gross national product.

ELCA World Hunger recognizes the importance of supporting women in our efforts to combat hunger and poverty here and abroad. Your gifts to the World Hunger Appeal can (among other things) finance a micro-credit loan to woman to start a business or buy a machine to spin wool to increase her productivity. As you celebrate your mom this weekend, consider empowering other women around the globe with a Good Gift.

David Creech

All statistics in this post were taken from the Bread for the World Institute’s 2009 Hunger Report, pp. 60-67.

Women’s rights

Women’s rights are always of concern to ELCA World Hunger. Education, land ownership, access to credit – all of these things provide the means to make a living, and all of these things are often denied to women. Unsurprisingly, women suffer a disproportionate amount of hunger and poverty compared to men.

As a white woman living in the United States, I’ve always recognized that an accident of birth has allowed me access to power structures that many women in the world don’t have. Such luck to be born here and now! But two things I’ve read in the past week have alerted me to just how much the “now” matters.
The first comes from Dreamers of the Day, an historical novel by Mary Doria Russell. She describes an unmarried schoolteacher living in Ohio in 1920:

“Well, at the end of the war, women had achieved the suffrage, but the Nineteenth Amendment didn’t carry with it the right to make a living. There were so many demobilized soldiers needing work that we ladies were often summarily dismissed from employment.”

Can you imagine the lawsuits that would occur now? Yet that was the state of the country within the lifetime of people I have known. It really was not that long ago.

The second item comes from a blurb about Women’s History Month (which is now, in March):

“1974’s Equal Credit Opportunity Act gave married women the right to have credit cards and bank loans in their own name. Prior to that, in many states, wives had to defer to their husbands for credit card use, and women had to have a male cosigner to get a loan.”

1974!! That’s within my lifetime! I had no idea that, at the time I was born, my mother could not have her own credit card! One could look at these things and despair at how long it has taken for women’s rights to get to where they are, and how far they have to go. But I take heart on the flip side. Look how deeply embedded these rights have become in our society in such a relatively short time, and what a wonderfully important difference they have made.

And the fight for women’s rights goes on! To read more about VERY current affairs and ongoing work on the topic, I encourage you to read the Ecumenical Women blog. Emily Davila, the Assistant Director at the Lutheran Office for World Community in New York, says there’s a lot of interesting posting going on right now from the Commission on the Status of Women. Learn more and lend your voice so that opportunity for women doesn’t depend on birth place and time.

-Nancy Michaelis

Education and Women’s Rights in Papua New Guinea

The following was written by Emily Davila, Assistant Director, Lutheran Office for World Community.

I spent the last week in Papua New Guinea – not something I ever expected to do! With over 800 languages, communication in PNG is fascinating. There is no internet and even phones are hard to come by, a few cell phones are here and there. Most people I met promised to write me – as in a letter. We will see how that goes.
I went to PNG as an invited guest to a Lutheran women’s conference. Colonized by Germans, more than one-fifth of the country is Lutheran. One of the key features of the conference was a bible study called “Jesus Liberates women in PNG from male dominated cultures.”

png1-761056Growing up, Pastor Michael, a seminary professor, watched his mother suffer in a polygamous marriage. His father, a “bigman” would forceably take the pigs she raised so that he could enjoy a high status in the community, beating her if necessary. When menstruating, women were (and still are in some places) secluded, and some believe that even the food they touch is contaminated so they are not allowed to cook meals. After the age of 13, Michael was discouraged from spending time with his mother. Because of a tradition called the “Bride price” -similar to a dowry- a woman cannot divorce her husband because her family is expected to pay the money back. By paying for their wives, it encourages a culture where many men consider their wives a possession. In the case of Michael’s sister, despite the fact that she was often beaten by her husband, culturally, it was impossible to divorce him and she eventually committed suicide.
All this caused Pastor Michael to read the bible searching for stories of women’s liberation. At the conference he distributed a 60-page book written in Pidgin (the national language) and English that systematically unwraps the stories of women in the bible to deliver a message of respect and encouragement for women’s leadership. It ends with a chapter: “Jesus’ approach to the Samaritan Women (and others) could be a model for PNG men to follow.” Some of the suggestions:
-PNG men should put aside their beliefs of gender-based concepts of clean and unclean…
-Women ought to be given equal invitation and opportunity for leadership roles in the church
-Women should be given equal theological education…
-Women should be ordained
Now – the format of this communication was not modern: it came in a dense booklet – footnotes – even the original greek in some cases. But he systematically made the argument for gender equality in a country where it is an urgent life or death issue with one of the highest infant and maternal death rates in the world. He took nearly 8 hours over four days to deliver his lecture to 1,000 women and some men, including high ranking pastors and the Bishop.
But this is an oral culture, so the women may not read this thesis booklet. But they will remember his new interpretations of the Samaritan woman and the woman at the well, and they will take it home to their villages and retell the stories. They asked him to address the synod meeting next year, which will be mainly men, and hopefully this will happen. In a male-dominated culture, it will help women gain credibility to have a man – and the Bible – speaking on their behalf.
I think this was a historic occasion in PNG, and it speaks to the power of education. He went to school and chose to study this subject, and is now preaching a new gospel in his own language in a country that is hungry for it. The “West” cannot export gender equality, it has to come from the grassroots within. PNG is a very religious country. They have mixed Christianity with their own beliefs and it permeates almost everything they do. I can’t think of a more credible way for a gender equality movement to gain foothold in this country.