ST. LOUIS, Senegal (Mennonite Mission Network) -- Palpable silence charged the atmosphere in the meeting room at the Center of the Way of Righteousness where brightly dressed women sat on reed mats. Normally, teaching takes place against a patter of background conversation in Senegalese-women’s gatherings where community cohesion trumps what any individual might have to say.
However, this group of more than 30 Wolof women set themselves apart on Jan. 12 as different, as risk-takers. They had gathered in St. Louis because they wanted to know more about Jesus, a dangerous desire in a culture that is 99.9 percent Muslim and where persecution often results from changing spiritual allegiance.
“This is an exciting time for me,” said Margaret De Jong, a Mennonite Mission Network associate with Friends of the Wolof. “I sense an eagerness for God’s word, and Senegalese seekers are growing in faith, while national followers of Jesus are beginning to take leadership roles. Attendance at gatherings is increasing. Seven years ago, you wouldn’t even have found four members in the local church.”
Agencies collaborating in ministry among the Wolof people helped Senegalese followers of Jesus to organize the day-long women’s seminar in Saint Louis. Friends of the Wolof and Pioneers are two of these agencies.
Joanna Beske, Pioneers worker and presenter of the day’s topic, Our Identity Before God, bound the wrists of a woman with an old rag, repeating words that these women hear with depressing frequency, “You are stupid.”
The familiar litany of belittling comments accompanied more knotted rags, “You are not pretty. You can’t do anything right…”
When the woman was immobilized by her cloth shackles symbolizing emotional disempowerment, Beske changed from the everyday language of lies and began speaking God’s personal word of love into the life of each woman present, “You are created in God’s image.
“You are precious in God’s sight.
“Jesus died for you to have eternal life.”
With each biblical truth, Beske stripped a rag away from the encumbered woman until she stood free.
Then, a woman dressed as a princess stepped forward.
“This is who we really are,” Beske said. “We are all princesses, daughters of God. We are beautiful and precious in God’s eyes.”
One woman, not identified by name for security reasons, said, “During the women’s day, I heard that God loves me and that I am very important. I am not ‘just a woman’.”
De Jong, a member of the Friends of the Wolof team since 2006, has begun dedicating most of her energies to developing women’s ministries. The next important event for Wolof women followers of Jesus is a three-day national leadership conference at the end of February.
Although any Wolof person has to brave hardships to become a follower of Jesus, women have additional challenges. Many Muslim women are taught that the door to heaven will open for them only if their husbands say something good about them when they die. Thus, a woman’s ticket to eternal bliss depends upon pleasing her husband, De Jong said.
Learning that being in communion with God doesn’t depend on someone else’s whims is good news.
A participant who traveled to St. Louis for the January seminar said, “It was a very good day. I learned that the one who walks with God will not get lost and will live forever with God.”
Some of the women attending the seminar come from villages where they are the only follower of Jesus. Gathering together with others who share their faith is a great encouragement to them as they learn from each other and pray for each other, De Jong said.
Friends of the Wolof – a group of congregations, businesses and individuals established by LifeSpring Community Church in Goshen, Ind. - has engaged in ministry in Senegal since 1996 through a partnership with Mennonite Mission Network.
De Jong, a nurse practitioner by profession, continues involvement in healthcare even as she gives leadership to the growing women’s ministry. She works at the clinic housed at the Center of the Way of Righteousness several weeks each year and is exploring the possibility of implementing a church-based community health program.
In addition to the clinic and worship facilities, the Center of the Way of Righteousness also offers cooking and sewing classes for young women.
De Jong is a member of Skyline Acres Baptist Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick and worked 11 years with Mennonite Central Committee in Haiti as a nurse and community development worker before joining the Friends of the Wolof team in Senegal.