‘The church is our everything’

Photo by Lacey Johnson for Bread for the World.

By Lacey Johnson

Nearly 50 Pan-African women of faith gathered in Washington, D.C., last week to address challenges faced by Pan-African people around the world. The two-day summit tackled a host of issues that disproportionately affect women of color, including hunger, poverty, domestic and sexual abuse, HIV, and gender discrimination.  

There were speakers who traveled internationally to be there, including a Methodist pastor, Rev. Dr. Elvira Cazombo, representing the Angolan Council of Churches and the All Africa Conference of Churches.  She flew more than 20 hours from Angola, while others addressed the conference via video recording. More than a dozen women of African ancestry took the stage to share stories of hardship and progress from their respective regions.

The event was held at the African Union Mission to the United States. It was co-hosted by Bread for the World, the Pan-African Diaspora Women’s Association (PADWA), the African Union, the Pan-African Women Ecumenical Empowerment Network (PAWEEN), and the World Council of Churches.

“This is one of the most exciting things I’ve been to,” said Marjorie Lewis, a minister for the United Church in Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, who currently resides in Halifax, Canada.  “As black women, the church is our survival. The church is our everything.”

The summit began on Thursday evening with a dinner and prayer service that paid homage to Pan-African women change-makers. Attendees took turns invoking the names and calling on the presence of influential figures like Rosa Parks and Maya Angelou, followed by proclamations of “ashe!” a West African concept derived from the Yoruba people of Nigeria, which means, “be with us,” in some African cultures.

Afterward, ecumenical and African policy leaders shared messages of empowerment with the room, which was arranged to resemble a miniature meeting of the United Nations.

“This is our call to action as Pan-African women of faith, and I would say, there’s no better time,” said Emira Woods, a Liberian-American advocate with the group Africa Rising for Justice, Peace and Dignity. “We have to understand that there’s an opportunity to reflect the foreign-policy goals that we feel are rooted in our values – to have those reflected on Capitol Hill.”

The consultation not only addressed social justice issues, but also called on attendees to advocate for policies that support Pan-African communities and a united Africa. In 2016 the group held their first official gathering in Washington, D.C., which included lobbying visits with members of Congress and a walking tour of historic landmarks, including sites where enslaved people were sold.

The second day of the consultation featured a keynote address from Arikana Chihombori-Quao, who serves as ambassador for the African Union.

“How, honestly, can you put Togo in the same boxing ring with China … with India? That battle is lost before the game even begins,” said Chihombori-Quao, who spoke by video about the importance of uniting the African continent. “It’s going to take us, the children of Africa, coming together and speaking with one voice … realizing that these boundaries that were imposed on us by the Berlin Conference, they have got to go.”

Before departing on Friday, the women broke into groups to exchange ideas and consider strategies for a call to action in the future. A range of recommendations inclusive of a faith-based advocacy agenda related to ending hunger and poverty emerged.  The building of new partnerships and training the next generation of religious leaders to be more inclusive were also priorities.

These recommendations will center around the upcoming season of the 2019 Quad-Centennial of the Transatlantic Slave Trade from Angola to Jamestown, the UN International Decade in Solidarity with People of African Descent, and the Africa We Want Strategic Plan for 2063.  

The women also agreed to another Pan-African Women of Faith Education and Advocacy Summit in 2019, which will include education and mobilization campaigns before and after the summit.

“We leave here enriched by the gifts, the talents, and the realness of African women’s stories,” said Rev. Everdith Landrau, a manager of ecumenical relations for the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a central committee member for the World Council of Churches.

“I feel that these two days are energizing my own work,” she said.

Lacey Johnson is a freelance writer and photographer in Washington, D.C.

Related Resources