By Rev. Eunice Musa Iliya
Matthew 7:21-23—Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
It is often said that sexism is a phenomenon of the past, but it does exist even in this 21st Century, especially in the Nigerian church. The oppression of women stems largely from men’s desire for power and control, the same need that throughout history has driven men to try to conquer and subjugate women by dehumanizing them in any way possible. As a result, most women become very passive about speaking up for themselves when being oppressed, abused and intimidated by their male counterparts. Furthermore, victims of such oppression usually are left to fight such battles alone. If they are able to get through it successfully, then to God be the glory; if not, then they have to bear the consequences alone. As a clergywoman in the UMC Nigeria I have been through a lot alone in the church. I have experienced horrible and disgraceful situations that I don’t wish for any woman. I felt very lonely in my fight to liberate myself and help other women to stand up and speak out for themselves if no one does that for them. If I can do it, any woman can also. Here is my story:
Being alone is not what any human being could wish for. We are interdependent human beings created with the need to be cared for and loved by others. Therefore, being lonely in a fight for justice is a torture psychologically and spiritually. Sometimes I felt like letting go and just going with the status quo. However as a passionate struggler for women’s liberation, I had no choice but to keep proving myself strong and equal to the task.
The maltreatment of women by some claiming to be God-sent leaders makes me furious to a point that my so-called social life had deteriorated. As a result I find it difficult to fall in love and find pleasure in what I felt like was an accomplishment and fulfillment in my life.
In order to seek motivation, strength and God’s direction, I sat in an isolated place reflecting through the circumstances by asking myself lots of questions without answers. I was humiliated. I was sad… I was very, very lonely in this struggle, which needs the involvement of many women and for the church to be advocates for justice for all. Instead, the church became the instrument for discrimination against women and the lowly. What upsets me the most is that whenever such issues of oppression are mentioned, the church claims it is doing it for the goodness of the congregation, women and whoever.
I recall very well when Done Peter Dabale became bishop in 1992 and one of his priorities was to support the involvement of women in ministry. He demonstrated that by allowing the ordination and participation of women in the leadership of the church, which most men were not happy about. According to Dabale, this is the only way the church would learn and understand the need to see God’s power and image in every human being. As a result, the idea of women as inferior humans in the church was changed.
Unfortunately, after Dabale’s demise, this beautiful and godly idea crumbled and women – including clergy — were returned to being second-class citizens. Other bishops who succeeded Dabale did nothing to bring back to life his vision of total inclusion of women in the life of the church. Being a victim of such a situation, I decided to accept the challenge to confront this discrimination against women and said to myself that someone has to do something about this inhuman treatment of women. Therefore, I would not let the church intimidate, oppress and dehumanize me or any woman. I have ability, courage and wisdom like any other human being to contribute in transforming this world for Jesus Christ. Courageously I decided to face this difficult task of standing and speaking up for justice for women and all those who are being victimized unjustly by the church. Doing this has never been easy; it cost me a lot. My family, friends, ministry and respect in my community was in disarray. For eight years the church treated me as an outcast and made me felt like my ministry had no meaning and positive impact in the lives of people. It was as if my world was crumbling right in front of me. It was a nightmare. The worst of it all was that I almost left the church because it seemed I didn’t belong and there was no point fighting for the impossible. There was no sign that the church represented Jesus’ life of accepting, speaking, caring and treating humankind as created equal. What a shame!
But all hope was not lost. In 2012-2013 God answered my prayer and wiped away my tears by bringing John Wesley Yohannah to be the bishop for the Nigeria Episcopal Area. A leader with a heart for justice and equal treatment of all persons, Bishop Yohannah respects and honors the gifts and talents of women and believes that women and men are equally created in the image and likeness of God. According to him, women are mothers, shakers, mountain movers, transformers and life-givers. Therefore, with this positive spirit, the Bishop broke the glass ceiling (as Americans call it — Nigerians call it the “tick wall”) that separated some positions from others by appointing the first female Superintendent of the Southern Conference, one who oversees the administrative affairs of the conference. To God be the glory!
Eunice Musa Iliya, one of the first women ordained in The United Methodist Church Nigeria, is General Superintendent of the Southern Conference of the UMC Nigeria Episcopal Area. She serves on the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women’s governing board.