response: November/December 2020 Issue

Building Women Leaders

The World Student Christian Foundation Asia-Pacific Region helps young women become faith leaders.

Building Women Leaders
Sunita Suna, regional executive for the World Student Christian Federation Asia-Pacific region, at the federation’s offices in Hong Kong.

United Methodist Women is a longtime partner of the World Student Christian Federation, a global association of student Christian groups connecting young leaders around the world to promote positive change. United Methodist Women members’ Mission Giving supports WSCF programs in the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia-Pacific, whose offices in Hong Kong I visited in May 2018.

Sunita Suna is the regional executive for the Asia-Pacific region of the World Student Christian Federation. She met me at a subway exit in Hong Kong on a rainy morning and took me to the federation’s busy, packed office on the 18th floor of a nearby skyscraper. Often out marching in solidarity with women, migrants and other marginalized groups or hosting Bible studies or workshops, the office was full during some downtime.

Suna is an example of the WSCF at work. She grew up in the small town of Koraput in the state of Odisha in eastern India in a Christian family in a Christian community, which she called a "very good experience." Church was a big part of her youth. Her family and faith community were loving and supportive. What didn't occur to her until becoming part of her region's Student Christian Movement, which are local organizations of WSCF, was the lack of women in leadership in her church.

“A huge number of women attended my church service every Sunday,” she said. “Men would sit in one section, and women in another. The women’s section was always full. More women than men were members of the church. But in terms of leadership responsibility, there was not a single woman.”

Student Christian Movement helped her see a world outside her traditional patriarchal community, both theologically and physically, as it gave her the opportunity to travel and to reread the Bible from different perspectives.

“I learned how to read the Bible from a women’s perspective, from a Dalit’s perspective, from an indigenous perspective, from the perspective of different gender identities and sexual orientations and other marginalized groups,” she said. “My faith became more relevant to me when I started rereading the Bible from various perspectives.”

She calls SCM a second phase in her faith journey, especially when she was hired as the regional women’s coordinator for WSCF Asia-Pacific.

If God has created us equal, she asked, “Why we are not seeing the divinity within us?”

Being part of WSCF has helped her and other women live into their calling as faith leaders.

A new perspective

WSCF is a worldwide organization divided into six regional bodies: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Europe, Latin America and Caribbean, Middle East and North America. The regions work together to form a global interregional office with an executive committee and a general secretary. The highest decision-making body for WSCF is its General Assembly, held every four years.

Within the regions are national SCMs, and within the national movements are local SCMs that meet most often in universities and colleges to work, study and pray together. According to the WSCF website, there are 117 affiliated student groups in 94 countries, with more than 2 million members worldwide.

Kim Ling Lau grew up in Hong Kong and joined her local SCM in 2003, and from 2006 to 2014 was the executive officer of the Student Christian Movement of Hong Kong. She now organizes examinations and courses at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Continuing Education and is a nonviolent communication specialist with the Center for Nonviolent Communication in Hong Kong.

At about age 11 she attended a Baptist church with a friend, and she started calling herself Christian around the age of 16. But it was SCM that solidified her faith for her, especially after studying sociology in college and when her own heart and experiences began to conflict with Baptist teachings.

“SCM changed the way I see the world and changed the way I act in the world,” she said. “I think SCM saved my religion. It saved my prayers. I am a Christian now because of SCM.”

Lau’s parents emigrated to Hong Kong from mainland China. Her mother and father met in Hong Kong, where her father worked as a laborer and her mother stayed home to take care of their children. Lau is the eldest of five, with three sisters and one brother.

Like Suna, she felt supported by her family growing up in Hong Kong. She was encouraged to get an education and was able to go to college. She says her mother even stressed that boys and girls were equal, but she still sensed a difference in expectations.

The oldest of five, her mother continued to have children because she wanted a son, Lau said. Her and her sisters’ allowance raised only when their brother entered a new stage.

“My brother didn’t need to do any housework. He played all the time.”

A dream she discussed with a pastor with the Taiwan SCM helped her put her thumb on it.

“In my dream, my siblings and I were searching for another brother. Talking with the pastor, he suggested that the dream may symbolize my desire to work hard and prove myself,” Lau explained. “Girls are expected to be kind, clever, cooperative, do housework, offer assistance. When a boy is born, he does not need to prove that he has value; he’s born with it. Boys just play. I’m still learning how this upbringing affects me. Is this why I doubt myself? I have talent and ability and work hard, but I don’t search for high-ranking jobs or stretch myself.”

WSCF and its SCMs provide young women the space to have these types of conversations. The Asia-Pacific regional women’s program brings women together from Asian countries for dialogue and training, where women can share their traditions and joys and struggles and find support.

“This program has helped us create many spaces for young women. It has helped us bring young women together to share their own experiences and stories, to share their work, what they are doing in their SCMs,” Suna said, explaining that United Methodist Women funding goes to support the Asia-Pacific women’s program. When together, the young women listen to one another’s stories and experience the freedom to speak their truths, speak about experiences such as intimate partner violence, rape, sexuality and other topics considered taboo in many cultures. The program helps give them support and tools to take knowledge and advocacy back to their communities.

Bridging knowledge and action

Advocacy opportunities through SCM helped Lau deepen her faith. Helping expose poverty in the very rich city of Hong Kong and standing with farmers against a high-speed rail line were some actions she said strengthen her belief in the teachings of Christ.

“SCM bridges knowledge and action. SCM taught me how to protest,” she said.

A lot of her work with SCM Hong Kong focused on helping young adults survive in Hong Kong, where education and the job market is competitive and cost of living one of the most expensive in the world. Even college graduates have a hard time earning a living wage. Conversations at SCM gatherings ranged from reproductive health rights to the best time to apply for public housing to speaking out against nonviolence to tips for talking to parents.

Hong Kong’s relationship with China and threats to democracy weigh heavy on Hong Kong’s young people as well, and SCM Hong Kong with the support of WSCF spoke out against police violence during the 2019 protests, calling on the leaders of the Hong Kong government to listen to the young people and on WSCF members around the world to pray.

Carmen Yau is chairwoman of the Association of Women With Disabilities and vice chair of the Hong Kong Women’s Christian Council. The council—established to renew the church in Hong Kong and unite women of faith to build community, promote women’s rights, and walk with the marginalized—works with the WSCF on advocacy and theology. Lau is the council’s chair.

Yau leads the council’s “Love Has No Disability” initiative.

“It’s brought big changes in the Hong Kong community,” she said, “especially regarding sexuality and autonomy and independent living of people with disabilities. The work we do helps people to rethink their perceptions of people with disabilities.”

Action is an important addition to Bible studies, book studies, discussions and prayer that helps her live out her faith.

“It’s SCM and the council that make me think Christianity is still alive,” Yau said.

Building women leaders

The WSCF has six global programs, one assigned to each region. These are Advocacy and Solidarity; Bible and Theology; Ecological Justice; Identity, Diversity and Dialogue; Interfaith Dialogue; and Peacebuilding and Dialogue. As the executive officer for the Asia-Pacific region, Suna also leads the Identity, Diversity and Dialogue program for the global WSCF, whose work she describes as initiating meaningful discourse in order to bring SCMs together to create an inclusive and affirming community in WSCF and the church. They try to bring a women’s viewpoint into all discussions.

“In any kind of SCM program, not just the regional women’s program, we try to incorporate the women’s perspective, no matter what program it is,” she said. “Whether it is Bible studies or discussions of social issues, we try to see from a gender lens. We try to understand from the women’s perspective.”

The women’s program focuses on bringing women together to find solidarity and support in a safe space. As it did for Suna and Lau, WSCF helps women recognize and name inequality—some subtle, some not so subtle.

“One young woman from Sri Lanka SCM who participated in the women’s program shared that she was experiencing domestic violence, and she was not able to share this with anyone before, not even among her friends, family, church community or workplace,” said Suna. “So when she came out of that particular social location, she felt safe to talk about her experience. After she shared, other women were also inspired and shared similar stories.”

The women were able to go home and make some changes in their lives, and some were able to take their new awareness and support to advocate for other women in their communities.

“It’s because of this safe space that women feel empowered, they feel liberated, they feel transformed,” Suna said, explaining how WSCF as the oldest international student organization has been on the forefront of women’s leadership in the ecumenical movement since its founding in 1895. “Many, many young women who have had this training and experience step up to new leadership roles. They are contributing wonderfully in different parts of Asia-Pacific and the world, in churches, in their families, and in civil society. This has really helped us to build a strong network of young women.”

United Methodist Women members helped make this happen.

“On behalf of our regional women’s committee, on behalf of the whole WSCF Asia-Pacific region, I would like to convey my heartfelt thanks to United Methodist Women for the generous support and solidarity,” Suna said. “We believe in a violence-free world in which everyone feels safe, everyone lives peacefully in community. I believe a better world is possible, and it starts with me and you.”

Nile Sprague is a photojournalist based in Santa Rosa, California. Tara Barnes is editor of response.

Posted or updated: 11/3/2020 12:00:00 AM