In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech at Riverside Church in New York City. In his address, he alluded to one of the Bible’s most well-known passages, the parable of the good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37.
In Jesus’ time, the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was notoriously dangerous—travelers were frequently robbed and beaten. And yet, when faced with a fellow human in need, the Samaritan stopped—despite the risks on this particular road and despite the religious discord between Samaritans and Jews.
“On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside,” King said, “but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway.”
How do we transform the road to Jericho for women and girls around the world? How do we, as the ELCA, empower women to be leaders everywhere, including in the church? How do we listen for the prophetic voices of women who have frequently been ignored, overlooked or silenced? And how do we stand in solidarity with women and girls who face gender-based oppression, injustice and violence?
How do we transform the road to Jericho for women and girls around the world?
These are questions that Lutherans worldwide and within the ELCA take seriously. In 2013, the Lutheran World Federation Council adopted a gender justice policy; this year, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted the social statement “Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action.” This year and in 2020, the ELCA will celebrate 50 years of ordaining women.
ELCA Lutherans affirm gender justice as a matter of faith. We celebrate the gifts and insights that women and girls bring to the church and to society. We promote theology that honors God’s desire for all people to thrive. We support women in leadership, and we strive for equality. Still, there is no shortage of work to be done to achieve gender equality and empowerment for all women and girls. As people of faith, this concerns us all.
I learned most of what I know about faith, gender justice and women’s empowerment from a special group of Maasai girls in East Africa. We met each other 20 years ago at the MaaSae Girls Lutheran Secondary School (MGLSS) in Monduli, Tanzania. I arrived at the boarding school as an enthusiastic but relatively inexperienced young teacher. The students arrived as quiet, shy girls barely past puberty yet already convinced that education would change their lives. They were right—MGLSS would change all our lives.
A clarion call
As a young woman, I had a heart for social justice and understood it as part of my Christian call in the world. I came of age in the 1980s in an ELCA congregation in Montana. I actively participated in Lutheran campus ministry and worked as a counselor at a Lutheran summer camp. As I finished college, I heard about MGLSS and its students, and the call seemed clear.
I applied for a two-year volunteer teaching post at the school through an ELCA Global Mission program. Little did I know that this two-year post would lead to relationships that would span 20 years and deepen my understanding of the gospel as a clarion call to radical love—particularly for those on the margins, where poverty, violence and oppression are all too common.
MGLSS was established by a few forward-thinking Maasai parents and pastors, as well as other Maasai political and religious leaders, Tanzanian educators and long-term ELCA missionaries. The school grew out of the knowledge that the Maasai would face tremendous challenges in the 21st century, including the loss of historical land and water rights and the increasing encroachment of globalization on traditional ways of life. These leaders saw education of all Maasai people, including girls, as a way to accompany and raise up leaders who would shape the future of the Maasai.
Still, many Maasai families face staggering poverty, which often forces parents to choose between sending their children to school (usually requiring fees) and feeding their families. In a deeply patriarchal society, fathers tend to send their firstborn sons to school and arrange marriages for their daughters, leaving women and girls with little control over issues that affect their lives and well-being. For nearly 25 years, MGLSS has been providing a pathway to education for Maasai girls, most of whom would otherwise be unable to attend school.
For nearly 25 years, MGLSS has been providing a pathway to education for Maasai girls, most of whom would otherwise be unable to attend school.
For Maasai girls who graduate from MGLSS, the results are self-evident: they are now teachers, doctors, lawyers, founders of nonprofit organizations, pastors, accountants, nurses and leaders in their communities. One alumna has spoken at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Others are working on community health, education and conservation issues that affect the Maasai.
Within a single generation, these women are transforming the conditions for their sisters and daughters—but there is still work to be done.
Lutherans in the United States support this work by providing scholarships and supporting programs that help these young women break the barriers that would otherwise prevent them from attending school. Worldwide, 132 million girls are excluded from education. In sub-Sahara Africa, nearly 1 in 4 girls is out of school—and those statistics are even higher among Maasai girls who still need support to get to, and stay in, school. Education holds the power to radically transform the lives of these girls.
My Maasai students have taught me that supporting girls’ education is vitally important to gender justice and poverty alleviation—to making the metaphorical road to Jericho safe for women and girls.
To learn more
Read the ELCA’s adopted social statement “Faith, Sexism and Justice: A Call to Action.”
Read the Lutheran World Federation’s gender justice policy document.
Learn more about how to support Maasai girls at julietcutler.com.