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Lambeth spouses: 'Here we are' to make a difference

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[Episcopal News Service, Canterbury] They've spent weeks praying, eating, laughing, crying and singing together, sharing bible study, life stories, resources, networks, hopes and dreams -- all treasured keepsakes and strength for the journey as spouses return home after the Lambeth Conference 2008 ends Sunday, August 3.

For Benita Rumalshah of the Diocese of Peshawar in Pakistan, relationships developed at the conference cut both ways -- they help her to discover more about other Anglicans and "help to make our brothers and sisters aware of us. The Lambeth Conference gives us times of feeling the Body of Christ, the catholicity of our faith.

"We see all the different languages and people and nations coming together and worshipping. It makes us real. We profess it in our Nicene Creed but don't see it everyday in our lives."

Mathilde Nkwirikiye Ntahoturi of the Anglican Province of Burundi calls the gathering "a divine community, being a family and being supporting and supported. Meeting different people reminded me that I am just one part of the whole body, with different colors, different languages, different thinking. I just appreciate the way we think differently but still remain the same body."

Viewing life and faith through the lens of a 15-year civil war she said: "I know we are all here with my sisters because God has a purpose for us. We should have been killed a hundred times. We should have been killed, but here we are. Many people have been killed. Many families had their children killed, but here we are."

In community and communion
The Bible study groups stand out for Sandra Correia de Andrade of the Anglican Episcopal Church in Brazil. "There we can hear what others are saying, we share very deeply," she said through an interpreter. "It makes us feel closer to one another."

Elizabeth Nant San San Htay of the Diocese of Toungoo in the Anglican Church in Myanmar said she will also cherish relationships developed in Bible study and elsewhere.  "I have met many people through them, heard many wonderful stories," she said. "It has been very good to be here."

There was crying and comfort and common ground and love in those groups, says Roja Singh of Rochester, New York.

"There are two women from Sudan who … are able to sense when someone is very sad and they break out in songs and prayers in their language. That's where you really feel the Holy Spirit."

God calls bishops -- and families
Larry Harrison, who is married to Suffragan Bishop Dena Harrison of Texas, chuckles at the role reversals the couple often experiences -- even at Lambeth.

"It's sort of strange, but 99.9 percent of the stewards and staff here assume I'm the bishop," says Harrison, a certified public accountant and among a handful of male spouses attending Lambeth.

"They give me priority over any women spouses waiting in line or needing help. When Dena is with me they assume I'm the bishop and stop her, saying 'this is for bishops only'."

Roja Singh experiences another kind of identity confusion. Most people associate her with India, not the United States. "When they approach me and we start talking, it's quite a surprise to them. I don't miss an opportunity to voice the fact that yes the church in the USA is a church that is open to all."

For the professor of women's studies and comparative literature, the most exciting part has been meeting spouses from different parts of the world and from our own church. Some of them were expected to give up their professions once their husbands became bishops and work for the church.

"They tend not to think of it as a loss, but as something they have gained in terms of the richness of the experience. I'm yet to be at that point," admits Singh, whose husband, the Rt. Rev. Prince Singh, was consecrated Bishop of Rochester on May 31.

"Right now, I'm lamenting the fact that I had to let go of my job and to move. But," she adds, "there are opportunities out there and the people in the diocese have sent me notes, emails and telephone messages about possibilities. It's been really amazing but I am not even worried anymore. It's like in our Bible study -- we talked about our need to be faithful to God's call, because God doesn't' just call our husbands. God calls families."

Mission and ministry connections
Mathilde Nkwirikiye Ntahoturi of Burundi stood outside the Lambeth Conference 2008 spouses main venue on August 1, and spontaneously draped her arm around a friend and began to pray for her. A lawyer by training, she has the same immediate, gut-level compassion to advocate for widowed women "whose neighbors or even extended families come and take their land away because they are not strong" and to care for vulnerable children.

"I am passionate about children," said Ntahoturi, the mother of five and the founder of the Rainbow Center, which operates two centers for children in Burundi. Connecting and networking with other women in ministry has been vital for her at Lambeth.

"We just want to do our contribution as daughters of the Lord, to care for people, love people, pray for them and pray for the church."

She laments that "people need so few things to change a life and, as a member of the Body of Christ, I feel ashamed not to be able to change some very, very sad situations. With the experience I have got with the Rainbow Center, I know everybody may make a difference. It's a matter of love, compassion and will."

After a loving disagreement Kathyrn Broughton, the interpreter for Sandra Correia de Andrade of Brazil, shares what her friend won't: she gave up her profession as a psychologist to work tirelessly and gratis for the church, and also suffers from lupus.

Andrade brushes it aside, to describe ministries designed to "give better chances and education" to young people, as well as human rights ministries, advocacy for women, for street people and "the landless ones.

"We seek to grow inwardly in the interior of the different states," she said. Participating at Lambeth was wonderful, she added, "hearing people's stories gave me certainty that we will carry on as one body."
 
Benita Rumalshah and her husband, Bishop Mano Rumalshah, knew it would be challenging but made the decision to leave London and return to the North West Frontier Province of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 2003.

"It humbles us to be there with our people," she said. "We felt very strongly that people will come to London but nobody would like to go to Pakistan, so we offered ourselves. It's a great challenge of faith, but in a very small way we feel that God has called us to be there and to fly the flag of Christ in a majority Muslim land."

The United Church of Pakistan ministers to about 100,000 Christians among about 16 million Muslims, the majority of whom are ethnically Pashtun and conservative. There are economic as well as religious challenges. At the border of Afghanistan, both Al Qaeda and the Taliban are their neighbors.

It is not unusual for the Christian minority to suffer reprisals because of the actions of those in the West, such as the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. "My prayer is for my brothers and sisters to be aware of us. That we are here," said Rumalshah. "We are the body of Christ and Body of Christ has different parts and, hence, if one part suffers the whole body suffers and maybe we should remember that and act accordingly as is our mandate."

Elizabeth Nant San San Htay has a vision of the Anglican Church in Myanmar that provides for the needs of the people in a country "one day that is open.

"We try our best, but it is very difficult, with floods" after Cyclone Nargis decimated the country and killed thousands in May of this year. The church has also been an advocate against government repression by the military dictatorship. Despite those challenges, the church offers religious and youth education, and "our faith is very strong," she says. Lambeth was especially supportive. "Everybody prays for us very deeply that we can survive life and see reconciliation."

Singh of Rochester said her biggest realization at the conference came from hearing how women in challenging places figure out "what needs to be done and jump right in … tap into the resources they already have.

"I came with the expectation the larger church is going to give us the pointer towards making changes in the world. But, I've realized that I just need to look for the resources around me, whether I'm sitting at the dinner table or in a Bible study group or wherever I am and make that change happen and claim it and not wait for formal or official statement to be declared about what we need to be doing about poverty or children suffering and women suffering."

Rumalshah and other spouses emerge from the conference positive and hopeful about the future of the communion. "You want to come and discuss solutions to the problems of the world, like poverty, like eradicating diseases, disarmament, but what do we talk about? We have the luxury of talking about human sexuality. That is individual responses, individual matter. I don't know why we are putting so much of an emphasis on it," she said.

Singh agreed. "I am so proud of the Episcopal Church in the U.S., because everyone is welcome, no matter what color you are. And look at the number of women bishops we have here. But," she added that it has been painful "they have not been allowed to speak in a public arena, to preach or celebrate. It really hurts, especially for somebody who teaches women's studies.

"It's painful, and of course with Gene [Robinson, bishop of New Hampshire] not being here, it really breaks my heart that again, we are dealing with the 21st century and there is so much openness in the world, so much openness everywhere and we have expelled somebody. Just feeling his absence has been very hurtful."

-- The Rev. Pat McCaughan is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for the dioceses of Province VIII. She is based in Los Angeles.

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