Editor’s note: Heather-Dawn Small, director, and Raquel Arrais, associate director, serve as leaders of the Women’s Ministries Department for the world church of Seventh-day Adventists, headquartered in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.
Derek Morris (DM): When did you first develop a passion for Women’s Ministries?
Heather-Dawn Small (HS): When my husband became a pastor, I realized that the women of the church faced many problems and issues. Of course, they came to the pastor for help, but he realized his limitations, so I told him, “Let me help. Let them come to me.” And so I became involved with him in pastoral counseling.
Raquel Arrais (RA): When I was 15, I went to academy, and there I was made the Women’s Club director. I felt overwhelmed because I had no experience in what was involved. But even at that point in my life, I felt that something I really liked would come my way one day. So I used those four years in Brazil to learn about relationships and women’s issues, especially depression and anxiety in the dorms, and how to pray for others. Four years later, I married a pastor. God used that time in academy to teach me a little bit about myself and the women around me, and to establish a link between the two.
Willie Hucks (WH): Are there some misconceptions about the goals and/ or aims of Women’s Ministries? What is your mission?
RA: Yes, some misconceptions tend to cloud Women’s Ministries. I remember when I started at the union conference we did not have a Women’s Ministries Department before. Nobody knew what it was. Their first thought was, Well, this has to do with some kind of women’s movement in the church; this is about women’s rights. It took five years of talking and arguing with pastors, boards, and church members to help them understand that this department was not part of a feminist movement. It is interesting that even now, years later, there are many countries where Women’s Ministries is not as successful as we would like it to be because of such misconceptions.
Another misconception is that we are somehow forming a club—a place to meet, gossip, talk about our husbands, and just have a good time. Women’s Ministries, in some parts of the world, did begin in a kind of club format where women would come together; they would have something to eat, they would talk, they would laugh. Then things began to change. Even though we may meet and talk and laugh over food and drink, the issues we deal with are serious ones. We review a woman’s spiritual quests. We look at what our needs are, the challenges we face. When you meet with sisters of like mind, you really get to discuss issues common to them and find help for some of these issues.
Since its beginning, Women’s Ministries has had a clear mission. We exist to uphold, nurture, and challenge the women in the church and around our communities. We exist to help women live and grow in Christ and their personal relationships, deal with their own issues, and help people around them. If our mission is clear, our work will be easier and better.
DM: What are some of the great opportunities you see for Women’s Ministries to really flourish as you look forward to the next five years?
HS: In Women’s Ministries, we focus on three main areas: nurture, empowerment, and outreach. That is our mission statement in three words. We seek to nurture the women of the church spiritually and in their own personal development; to empower them through training, seminars, and our leadership certification course; and then to challenge them to be involved in outreach. These three areas overlap because, while women are being nurtured, they can be nurturing their sisters in the community at the same time.
One of the greatest challenges we face right now—and I think we have just begun to scratch at the surface—is the issue of women’s mental health. In a Christian community, there is the feeling that mental health is something that is connected to one’s spiritual life, and that somehow, if one’s spiritual life were stronger, one would not have mental health issues. But that is not true, even though spiritual health is important to foster other health issues. The questions we face are many: How can we help our sisters who have mental health issues? How can we help the church at large help those with mental health issues? We are in the process right now of putting together a series of educational seminars that deals with these areas like anxiety, depression, and other areas of mental health that are crying out for help. We hope these seminars will help remove the stigma associated with mental health in the Christian community.
Another area begging for our attention is connecting with other organizations, other churches that are actually involved in community projects. When you go into a village or town and there is an organization or church that is working on a particular issue, say domestic violence, there is no need to start a new project unless there is a need for it. Domestic violence is a huge problem and if someone is already dealing with it, we need to partner with whoever is there.
RA: Six issues impact women globally both in developing and poor countries. First, illiteracy. In many parts of the world, only about 20 percent of women know how to read and write. If a woman can write her name, she can have a better life, a better future, and some dignity. Second, abuse and violence. In dealing with this problem, we have adopted the motto enditnow. For three years, we have pursued the cause of ending abuse of women both inside and outside the church. The growing part of our enditnow campaign is to develop awareness among women about their need for self-worth, dignity, and education. The third issue is linked to the second: providing leadership and educational opportunities for women. This is a big one. That’s why Women’s Ministries has a scholarship program that helps needy women all over the world with a partial scholarship that will give them a head start to education, hope, and a future. The fourth one is dealing with poverty. Of all the poor in the world, women are the poorest, amounting to almost 70 percent. Women’s Ministries, around the globe, is in the process of building partnerships to alleviate poverty in many countries and providing opportunities for women to pursue simple economic opportunities. The fifth problem is mental health, which Heather-Dawn has already mentioned. The sixth is women’s workload. Generally, women work more than men. With women, work does not end with an eight-hour workday; they have so many things to do—the children, cooking, washing, and other household chores. I have been traveling about 12 years now, and I recall meeting a woman in northern Brazil. “Raquel,” she said, “you’re talking about rest. I don’t know what rest is all about. I don’t know what it is.” Many women around the globe share similar pain. This is a huge problem: How can women find time to be with God, pray, study His Word, go to church, and train up the children in the way they should go?
WH: You mentioned an increasing focus worldwide on physical abuse in various forms that girls and women face. Can you please go into more detail as to what Women’s Ministries is doing to address these two issues?
HS: When it comes to abuse, we have the enditnow campaign (www.enditnow.org), which we launched three years ago with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) as our partner, and it is still moving forward. This is a global campaign dealing with not only physical violence, which is number one, but also emotional and mental violence. We also deal with abuse of the elderly and that of children. It is all connected to the woman in the family. Since 2002, the church has set apart the fourth Sabbath of August each year as our Abuse Prevention Emphasis Day, which we are now calling the enditnow Day. Each year we prepare a packet of information for this day that includes a sermon and seminar with handouts focused on the topic for that year. Each year the focus is different. We make the English packet available to the world church through our Web site for download, and we send it to the divisions for translation and distribution in their congregations. The result is global awareness; we’ve got to do something for our suffering sisters. We find more and more women are getting involved. We have five shelters globally right now where women go for help. Women from our churches help in those shelters, which is great, because they are getting involved in helping others.
We try to help people understand this issue in all its depth and anguish. It is not just domestic violence. We talk about early childhood marriages—at the ages of eight, nine, ten. We also talk about son preference/daughter neglect that we see happening in some countries. The United Nations has called abuse against women a pandemic, which I take to mean that there are so many women and girls suffering from abuse that it is a disease.
The church has a great responsibility. Too many women feel that the pastor is not helpful. They feel the pastor does not understand and, in some cases, tells them to go back home and be a better wife, try not to do things that upset your husband. Such attitudes reveal that many pastors do not have the training or exposure to deal with abuse. Hopefully, as we do abuse education in the churches, the pastors will also learn about this important area of women’s lives and be able to deal with it with love and compassion. I’m a pastor’s wife, and I know that my husband often did not know where to turn for help with this problem. Yes, we need to give our pastors more information so they can know where to refer people, or, when this is not possible, to do whatever they can to help in such situations.
DM: What are some things Women’s Ministries is doing with literacy projects and how is this impacting the women in their communities?
HS: We have a few hundred literacy projects in India. We have them also in Africa, South America, the South Pacific, Central America, and even one here in the United States. We have literacy centers in many countries. Knowing how to read is the key to a better life. Raquel and I have visited some of these centers. I’ll never forget one in India where women were actually sitting on the street because no building was big enough to accommodate them. I remember looking at what they were doing. We didn’t understand what they were writing, but they were eager to show us. We were putting little red check marks by their work. They were so excited that now they could read and write.
RA: The end objective of our literacy program is to enable women to read the Bible. That’s why the program says, “It’s never too late to learn.” When they do learn to read, many women say with joy, “I was blind and now I see.” The one I’m passionate about is the program in the Solomon Islands where Women’s Ministries developed a literacy program to teach the women in Pijin. Within three days, they learned how to sound out words, and they began reading the Bible. Biblical illiteracy is huge in the church, and we need to deal with it.
DM: Is there a Web site that people can go to for information on leadership training on this topic?
HS: AdventistWomensMinistries.org lists lots of resources, including how to study the Bible, how to obtain leadership certification, and how to attain personal development, and many other things.
WH: Whether the church has a membership of 20 or 2,000, what can local churches do to make a difference in their own churches and communities?
HS: The first thing a local church should do is to elect a Women’s Ministries leader. Women constitute 60 percent or more of a church. The women are a very important part of the workforce of the church, so I think the leadership should make sure they are being nurtured and empowered. If the church is going to be vibrant, we need to nurture the women.
The men in the church need to be nurtured and encouraged too. When we think of all that we’ve been doing through the years to empower our sisters, the question arises: What have we done for the men and young men in the church? Women say to me, “When I look at the church and think who will my daughter marry, I don’t see anybody. I’ve done all this work with my daughter, but nobody’s done anything with the young men.” And so, I really believe that a working church has to be a nurturing church for all its members—men, women, young people, and children.
DM: You meet thousands of people; there must be stories that say, This person would be an inspiration to the readers of Ministry. Would you like to share a story?
RA: I met a woman in the Solomon Islands. She was very poor. She could not read. But she realized that if her children were going to be different from other children in the village—not getting into trouble when they got bigger—they had to learn to read. Even though they went to school, she could not help them with their homework, read the Bible to them, nor help them with their Sabbath School lessons. She needed to know how to read. So this woman prayed. That’s all she did. She said, “Lord, I have to help my children. I don’t want my children to go the wrong way, but I cannot read. I cannot help them understand Your Word clearly. Please give me the gift. Your Bible says You give us gifts if we ask. I’m asking. I want this gift of reading.” She told me that God did give her the ability to read the Bible. With that gift, she would gather her children every evening and read the Word of God to them and explain what the Bible said. All her children are now grown, in the church, and are doing well. How amazing that this mother in a Solomon Islands village knew the importance of being able to read the Bible to her children and asked God for that gift. And He honored her request.
WH: Imagine yourself sitting in an auditorium with all the pastors in front of you. If there was only one thing you could say to them regarding Women’s Ministries, what would that be?
HS: Nurture the women of the church. From my experience with my pastor husband, I have learned that when we nurture our women, the church begins to grow. When we begin the women’s prayer meeting or organized prayer groups, whether in the church or in a home, the women of the church are willing to do more. They feel empowered and Spirit filled. Even whenI had a full-time job, I would take the time to go with my husband to visit the women in their homes—retired ones, at-home moms, discouraged ones. He would tell me that these women loved to see me and get a female perspective. As I worked with him, we saw a change in his ministry. Women felt more empowered and willing to do more in the church and their community.
My great desire is that God would open the eyes of our pastors to see the immense wealth they have in the women of the church. Our women constitute a huge resource that remains largely untapped. Give them the opportunity to get involved in service to God, to be a part of what’s happening in the church, to be a part of the leadership of their church. Make them feel that they are part of God’s family—a loved, valued, and cherished part of that great family.