Opening the window, inviting in the voices
Mennonite women of color share their stories in research project initiated by GC professor and alumna
By Jodi H. Beyeler
|"What are two white women doing collecting stories of women of color?Ó It's a question that Associate Professor of Communication Pat McFarlane and social worker Linda Christophel '83 have been asked on a number of occasions, and at first glance they do seem like an unlikely pair to lead an oral history project about Mennonite women of color. But their passion comes quite naturally.
McFarlane's husband, Art, is Jamaican and they have two bicultural, biracial children. Christophel and her husband have three children, two of whom were adopted from Korea.
|"We first began to seek out stories of women of color across the Mennonite Church because of our own international families and our awareness that the stories of women of color are not heard within the church,Ó McFarlane said. "Our passion comes out of our own experiences with racism and prejudice.Ó
The idea for such a project developed out of a week Christophel spent at the Creek Indian Reservation in Alabama in 1999. "I have always loved stories, especially stories of people and their lives,Ó Christophel said. "As I worked with the older women preparing food for a pow wow, we talked together. In that conversation I began to hear some of their personal stories, and I wondered about other women of color [across] the Mennonite church.Ó
A few months later, during a Sunday school retreat, Christophel and McFarlane began to consider gathering and collecting stories of Mennonite women of color.
"I have had interest in writing the perspective of a family of color in the church, but have felt that project needs to come a few years later in my life,Ó McFarlane said. "This project energized us both as we began writing to churches we knew had members of color, asking if they had women who would be willing to talk with us. So we began the adventure, not sure exactly where it would lead but hoping that we would eventually write a book which included the stories and women we found.Ó
The two women entered the project expecting that the stories they would hear would be ones of discrimination and oppression. "While the women did talk of that, what they wanted to spend more time talking about were their faith stories,Ó Christophel said.
And so the interviewers have followed the lead of the women they have spoken with. "We went looking for one story and found a different one,Ó McFarlane said, "and so we listened to the stories they chose to tell – extraordinary stories from ordinary women who made potato salad, or ugali, ministered to those with AIDS, preached the Gospel, learned to forgive their enemies, lost family members but found that their faith in Jesus Christ sustained them.Ó
In each of the interviews, McFarlane and Christophel used the same basic set of questions, but "we often ask additional questions also as a particular story emerges that we want to follow,Ó McFarlane said.
On one hand, interviewing comes naturally to both women, since Christophel, as a social worker, solicits the life histories of her clients, and McFarlane has written many feature articles, but they had never done this kind of questioning before. So, the two women met with an oral historian at Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies, who "encouraged us to follow our instincts and said that there is no wrong way to do this,Ó McFarlane said.
Using living sources for their research has been very unpredictable and has led into areas they didn't expect, but, McFarlane said, "I love that, because these are living women, so I can go back to and ask more questions and get more context. It is hard to do that with other kinds of research.Ó This uniqueness was especially helpful when she once lost a set of interview tapes and had to go back to do another interview, which ended up being much richer the second time.
"Linda and I come back from our interview trips and say, 'Let's quit our jobs and do this full time.' That's how much this energizes us. We often have the sense that a greater force is at work.Ó
What began as simply making audio recordings of the stories of women in the United States, with the hope of publishing a book, has expanded into much more as the two women have collected 41 separate interviews over three years. The project went worldwide in the summer of 2003 when McFarlane attended Mennonite World Conference in Zimbabwe and with Ed Cundiff, a GC instructor in broadcast communication, videotaped 11 stories of women from around the world.
Cundiff brings extensive experience to the project in making documentaries, as he has produced pieces for public television and interviewed several U.S. presidents. McFarlane credits Cundiff for enlarging the scope of the project. "I could never have thought about this without Ed,Ó McFarlane said.
During May term this year, McFarlane and Cundiff created a class, Mennonite Women: Voices on Video, with the objective of capturing more stories on video and then making a documentary. The class traveled to California, New Mexico, Alabama and other locations to do interviews. "Faith is the common denominator in the film,Ó said Cundiff, who is the producer. The video should be available in early fall.
Christophel said, "We continue to be surprised and delighted about all the ways this project has branched out – from gathering the oral history to sharing it with others, to videotaping some women for a documentary, to working with groups of women to help them begin to write their own stories. We refer to this as 'God's project' because from the beginning we have experienced moments that are serendipitous.Ó
That sense of the sacred has been integral to how McFarlane and Christophel approached the project. "We believed from the beginning that for a woman to share her story with us would require a great deal of trust on her part, as we are strangers and white women,Ó Christophel said. "In each setting we were warmly welcomed, fed and prayed over. Our most memorable times have been the acts of sitting with each woman and listening to her tell of the pain and triumphs of her life – it is a sacred space and we always leave feeling humbled and awed.Ó
Pat McFarlane and
Linda Christophel '83
Women interviewed for McFarlane and Christophel's project:
Seffie de Leon, Goshen, Ind., USA
Kadi Hayalome, Democratic Republic of Congo
Hellen Bradburn, Tanzania
Los Angeles, Calif., USA
Los Angeles, Calif., USA
Bertha Little Coyote, Oklahoma, USA
Christophel and McFarlane have found the women they interviewed to be very enthusiastic about the project. "When we would ask them what to do with the stories, they would tell us to write a book because they wanted to read each other's stories.Ó|
McFarlane and Christophel hope that as the women's lives are shared, the church too will recognize and newly appreciate their sacredness. "For much of our history, women's voices have been minimized or silenced. Women of color have not only been marginalized by their gender, but additionally because of their race,Ó Christophel said. "The contribution to the church will come by increasing awareness of not only who these women are, but how each of them have used their spiritual gifts – often in the midst of difficulty – to build up the church in her area. I hope this knowledge will encourage and strengthen other women who are feeling marginalized to continue to do good work. And I hope that those of Caucasian race will become more understanding and encouraging of the use of everyone's gifts.Ó
Said McFarlane, "We want the extraordinary stories of these ordinary women to be told across the church because we have discovered many stories of courage, perseverance and God's faithfulness. They overrode their anger, hate, difficulties and hardships because of the Holy Spirit.Ó