Cholita Narzary made history last November as the second woman ordained into ministry by the Bodo Evangelical Lutheran Church (BELC) in Assam, India. She joined the roster 22 years after the denomination ordained its first woman, the late Kunanjaw Basumatary.
“Since the first woman’s ordination there were many silent years,” said Ichahak Muchahary, BELC bishop. “The church becomes a family only with the recognition of women as equal partners in God’s vineyard.”
Muchahary credits the ELCA-organized 2019 South East Asia Conference on Gender Justice in Hyderabad, India, for pushing him and other leaders to advocate for and implement gender justice shifts within the church.
The ELCA has been engaged in an accompaniment relationship with the BELC for two years, providing funding for its programs and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Franklin Ishida, ELCA director for Asia and the Pacific, said the pathway to gender parity in the global church requires both institutional change and grassroots leadership development.
“We need change, and at the [2019 conference] many leaders were asked why changes were not being made,” he said. “We’ve also seen that the ELCA’s Wittenberg seminars for International Women Leaders empowered women like Rev. Narzary to pursue leadership in their churches.”
“The church becomes a family only with the recognition of women as equal partners in God’s vineyard.”
Narzary became a church leader in 2019 after leaving a career in banking for ministry. She attended the 2019 Hyderabad conference and was inspired by those advocating for gender justice.
“I knew the call of God from my childhood, but due to my parents and others, I could not go for further biblical studies,” she said. “It took me long years and it was really challenging for a girl like me to [acknowledge] my true [vocation].”
Prior to her ordination in 2020, Narzary served as an evangelist and Sunday school teacher within the BELC and received training at the Karnataka (India) Theological College in Mangalore. She currently works as women’s coordinator for the BELC, manages its Silk Research and Development Centre and leads a local parish.
Muchahary said Narzary’s ordination has paved the way for the BELC to ordain more women. Currently six women are pursuing theological studies in different seminaries in India. What’s more, the BELC in its 2021 General Council meeting adopted a resolution to implement 41% gender representation in all its governing bodies in compliance with the Lutheran World Federation’s gender justice policy.
With the constitutional amendments in the BELC, Narzary hopes that many qualified and ordained women will rise up and take critical leadership positions in the church. “Women have always been in the forefront of Jesus’ ministry,” she said. “I strongly believe that men and women are equal in God’s kingdom, both bearing the image of God. Now, after experiencing the work that women are also capable [of], the church will open the door for other women too.”
This article was compiled by Chandran Paul Martin, ELCA regional representative for Asia; Timothy Melvyn, ELCA special consultant for India projects and relationships; and Erin Strybis.