Sarah Abendanon just bought a winter coat. “It is heavy, and I feel so big in it,” said the freshman at Augsburg College, Minneapolis. Used to the tropical weather of Suriname, she is preparing herself for January in the Midwest.
Abendanon and five other young women from Malaysia, Mexico and Madagascar are the first scholarship recipients of the ELCA International Women Leaders initiative. A partnership between the churchwide organization, global companion church bodies, and ELCA colleges and universities, the initiative seeks to open doors for women identified by their churches as promising leaders.
Abendanon’s recommendation started with the youth board of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname. Active in church social life, a frequent liturgy assistant and an excellent student, Abendanon was her peers’ top choice.
Since 1988 more than 900 leaders have completed academic degrees and other study programs with scholarship assistance from the ELCA. They have returned home to serve their churches and communities as bishops, seminary teachers, pastors, doctors and more. One-third of them are women.
“In general, women have not been afforded the same access to education by the social and political structures in their home churches and countries,” said Tammy Jackson, director for the ELCA International Leaders program.
To address this, an initiative focusing on women was introduced as part of Always Being Made New: The Campaign for the ELCA. The 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly voted to raise $4 million over the course of five years to empower 200 women leaders from the “global south” (Africa, Central and Latin America, and most of Asia) through new educational opportunities.
Forty-six women have already participated in International Women Leaders seminars in Wittenberg, Germany (The Lutheran; October, page 16). Others like Abendanon will receive scholarships to study at ELCA colleges and universities or in programs in their regions. This year, 10 women from Thailand, Tanzania, Palestine, Senegal and the Central African Republic have been approved for regional scholarships.
Leaders on campus
Working in the mornings and attending classes at night, Abendanon had completed two years of university in Suriname before applying for the ELCA scholarship. At Augsburg, she is savoring a completely different style of teaching. “My religion professor asks what we think about our readings and encourages different points of view,” she said. “In Suriname schools, what the teacher says goes.”
Abby Lai, a member of the Lutheran Church in Malaysia who attends Newberry (S.C.) College, is enjoying a freshman seminar on werewolves, vampires and zombies. She hopes to focus her studies on accounting and economics.
While Sthela Hanitrinirina, 24, is older than most of her classmates at Luther College, Decorach, Iowa, “they have been teaching me so much and giving me so much love,” she said. “In Madagascar, culture tells us that younger people are never wise enough to teach you something. But I can learn from 19-year-olds.”
Hanitrinirina’s volunteer résumé with the Malagasy Lutheran Church includes facilitating companion relationships with four ELCA synods and helping launch the ELCA Young Adults in Global Mission program in Madagascar.
After attending the 59th session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in March, she returned home for the summer to give presentations at Lutheran congregations about human rights and gender-based violence. She is majoring in social work and women/gender studies.
“The world probably needs nothing more than bright, educated women who will go into their communities and make a difference,” said Jon Lund, executive director for Luther’s Center for Global Learning. “If you want to promote peace and peace building, this is a marvelous way to do it.”
Ramping up for year two
Jackson and staff are now working with ELCA schools and global companion church bodies to identify the second group to receive International Women Leaders scholarships.
“Among our global companions, there is incredible excitement around this new initiative for women,” Jackson said. “The challenge for us is meeting their needs with adequate financial resources.”
Andrew Steele, director for ELCA Global Church Sponsorship, added, “At the end of this campaign, our hope is that the International Women Leaders initiative will fold into the larger International Leaders scholarship program, and that the overall number of women receiving scholarships will continue to increase.”
Abendanon, Lai and Hanitrinirina are also looking beyond this academic year.
After graduating, Lai hopes to continue serving her congregation’s bilingual worship team. Hanitrinirina is committed to becoming “a woman standing for human rights who makes Madagascar a better place to live.”
Abendanon is sure that when she finishes her business degree, her denomination “will be very happy to have somebody who knows how to manage and organize things for them.”
And as for winter in Minnesota? After buying the coat that the sales clerk guaranteed would keep her warm on the coldest day, Abendanon says she’s ready: “Bring it on!”
ELCA International Women Leaders scholarship recipients include:
Sarah Abendanon, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname; Augsburg College, Minneapolis.
Sthela Hanitrinirina, Malagasy Lutheran Church; Luther College, Decorah, Iowa.
Abby Lai, Lutheran Church in Malaysia; Newberry (S.C.) College.
Lynette Lee, Lutheran Church in Malaysia; Luther College.
Melissa Neo, Lutheran Church in Malaysia; Luther College.
Elisa Pérez-Trejo, Mexican Lutheran Church; Newberry College.