by Joanna Shenk
Tell me about your background and how you got connected to the Mennonite church.
I’m from Ridgewood, Queens, not far from Brooklyn and Manhattan. I grew up in the city. My mother came from Puerto Rico when I was 8 months old. I know almost every nook and cranny of New York City (NYC).
When I was in grade school, nuns would come to my school and take my classmates and me to catechism. I grew up with a sense of faith surrounding me. In catechism classes religion became more organized in my mind. Although I wanted to be close to God I felt the (Catholic) church was impersonal.
As an adult I did not attend church, expect for major holidays—Christmas and Easter. I was involved in politics as a community organizer in NYC and was getting satisfaction from work I was doing. As a little girl, I felt called to service between groups that had a hard time understanding each other. I would often be called upon to serve as a translator in my family and beyond, because I was bilingual.
While I was working as a community organizer an old friend invited me to a Mennonite church. She had grown up in a Christian family and then left the church. Later she found her way to a Mennonite church and stayed.
I was invited to a special Christian Women’s conference on a Saturday which was being held at First Mennonite Church in Brooklyn in celebration of women’s history month. I thought that so cool. As a political activist I celebrated Black History and Hispanic Heritage and also felt drawn to help women grow and provide them with resources. In my work I saw women being abused and raising children and having struggles.
The service at this Mennonite church really drew me in and I decided to become a member. The pastor of the church even knew me because of my good reputation as a community activist.
I was working for a city council man in the Bronx and at the same time the Mennonites were looking for a person to establish the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) NYC immigration program. I was drawn to that.
Growing up I often thought about my purpose in life, and when I saw the mission and vision statement of the MCC program, I felt overjoyed. It was staggering. The Spirit really hit me and I knew this was something I was called to do.
I joyfully served in this position for over 10 years and today continue as the New York Mennonite Immigration Program (NYMIP) reference committee moderator. The program is sponsored by MCC East Coast, the NY Council of Mennonite Churches and we partner with Lutheran Social services for legal oversight.
What drew you then to your current role with Atlantic Coast Conference?
I was receiving some disempowering treatment from certain men in power for many years but I continued to work alongside them, through my determination and resiliency. Very few people in the leadership were aware of my internal struggles. During this time Atlantic Coast Conference asked me to consider becoming a member of their oversight ministry team in NYC. I decided it was a good time to make that transition and have greatly appreciated working with Warren Tyson, the ACC conference minister, as well as others on the ministry team.
Recently you and others have been planning a gathering in NYC called Radical Anabaptist Women (RAW). Where did the idea for RAW come from?
Following the ordination of Addie Banks, an African American woman and the first woman to be ordained in NYC in 100 years, a few of us women leaders went into action. We spent two days at a retreat in upstate NY, reflecting and praying in silence. And then we brainstormed and the idea of RAW was formed.
We decided that as women ministers we would form a group and identify woman in ministry and mentor them, in whatever areas they would want. As we started to identify women I was just flabbergasted. There are so many women ministering in NYC and especially some women with extensive ministry experience who have never been licensed. There are also many talented women in seminary because they feel called, whether or not they could be ordained as pastors.
All this to say, I find that we are a little bit backwards over here in NYC. I haven’t heard much talk about the reality that there are very few women licensed or ordained in NYC. The reality just exists. As an oversight minister, addressing this issue is part of my vision. I want women to be encouraged and know that we’re working on this and seeking to bring about change that doesn’t take 30 years.
What are you hoping for with the RAW gathering on March 10?
[Editor’s note, Read ‘Anabaptist Women Gathering in New York City,’ also in this issue of Equipping, for a review of the event.]
I’m hoping with the women that we’re honoring and those in attendance to honor the Anabaptist women of the past who willingly gave up their lives(brings tears to my eyes). Today we stand on their shoulders in the struggle and their sacrifice was not in vain for the movement they helped start through God’s grace is alive today. There will be both women and men attending the dinner. And I hope that the women that are there will see that there are women like them who are doing similar work. In coming years I hope there will be even more women honored as they continue to show the Glory to God with the work they do.
I hope it encourages women to not give up. And much of our RAW work comes after the dinner. It’s starting to happen already because I’ve been in touch with a couple of women who are active in churches. They expressed interest in (Mennonite Women USA’s) Sister Care. We announced the conference (scheduled for 2013) and it piqued their interest.
I’m also hoping there will be a curiosity and awakening, as we see these wonderful women who are being honored and listen to their stories. All have overcome obstacles. I am in awe of the accomplishments of these women. Getting together might open up something in other women to say, “I could do that.”
And, like I said, I am very excited about what happens after this!
What strengthens you in this work?
I have wonderful support from other women in leadership. It’s such an encouragement. That is what helps me keep going all the time. If I wasn’t feeling that coming toward me, I probably would not have the courage to do what I do. I feel open and free and at peace. This cannot be wrong. It’s strengthening.
It would be wonderful if we had simultaneous RAW awakenings of women in the church!
Each month this column of Equipping features input from a woman leader in Mennonite Church USA. The column is an initiative of the Women in Leadership Taskforce. If you would like to learn more about the Taskforce or get involved, please contact Joanna Shenk at firstname.lastname@example.org