May 21, 2003
Philadelphia women who are backbone of congregations share "book"
of their lives
by Laurie L. Oswald
This is the second of several
stories depicting a recent conference, "Philadelphia Stories:
Kingdom Building in the City, sponsored by the Mennonite Church
USA Historical Committee and Archives (a ministry of the Executive
Board) and the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches in the
PHILADELPHIA (MC USA) -- When two women in dark cape dresses
and white head coverings came to Mattie Cooper Nikiema's door
to invite her African-American family to Diamond Street Mennonite
Church, she had no idea she'd one day wear the same.
That invitation came in 1951, several years after Nikiema came
rural Georgia to Philadelphia to join her mother and younger
brothers who were living in the city. When Nikiema was 12 years
old, they began attending Diamond Street. That's where she donned
the conservative dress, got involved in youth group and taught
Sunday school, Nikiema told the audience during a conference,
"Philadelphia Stories: Kingdom Building in the City,"
held April 3-5 at the Vietnamese Mennonite Church in Philadelphia.
Diamond Street provided many happy memories, she said. Memories
of when men in the church mentored her brothers, who had no father
at home. Memories of when she absorbed biblical values that shaped
her life choices, such as serving with Mennonite Central Committee
in West Africa. Memories of how she became a Diamond Street member
at 14 years old. She is still a member there today at 65.
It also provided memories of how God heals wounds. Her mother
was asked to leave the church because some people at the church
thought she was having illicit relations with the boys' father.
He often came to the house to visit them.
"They asked her to have him meet the boys outside the home,
but my mother felt the boys were too small for that," Nikiema
said. "So rather than do that, and because she didn't want
to cause trouble, she quietly left the Mennonite church to go
to the Methodist church, while my brothers and I stayed on at
"About 10 years ago, I reopened this issue with the former
church leaders and said that I knew what was going on in my house,
and that what people thought had happened is untrue. They apologized
on behalf of the church to my mother, who wasn't a bitter or
vindictive woman. She told them that she had forgiven them long
"While struggles existed in Mennonites adapting to the city,
I know in my heart that by and large, the goal of the church
was for our welfare and our good. Love was the motivating factor."
Nikiema's storytelling about the urban church was only one chapter
of the "book" of stories women shared during the conference.
The Mennonite Church USA Historical Committee -- a ministry of
the Executive Board -- and the Mennonite and Brethren in Christ
churches in the city sponsored the conference April 3-5.
By inviting many women of color
such as Nikiema to participate in storytelling, presentations
and sharing oral history, conference planners hoped to honor
the contributions women have made to the urban Anabaptist multiracial
community in Philadelphia. It has 22 congregations representing
12 languages and ethnicities.
Many of these women -- designated by conference organizers as
"center women" because of their place in congregational
life -- weren't official leaders. But they organized behind the
scenes, taught Sunday and Bible schools, visited the sick, hosted
the potlucks and served as matriarchs in their communities, said
Beth Graybill, a conference planner and director of Women's Concerns
for Mennonite Central Committee.
She co-led a conference workshop on "center" women
with Kimberly Schmidt, director of a semester of urban experience
in Washington for Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg,
Va., and a researcher and historian in Amish and Mennonite women.
The term "center women" comes from women's history
and community-organizing literature.
"So often women's contributions are invisible and overlooked,
but if it weren't for them, these churches wouldn't have held
together," Graybill said. "So I was thrilled that they
could be so upfront and center at this conference.
"I was especially pleased with the oral history project.
Many women weren't involved in writing official correspondence
or church documents. ... So when you're sifting through the historical
records and don't come up with much, this project helps to present
a fuller picture of their involvement."
Pat McFarlane, a communication professor, and Linda Christophel,
a social worker, both of Goshen, Ind., are producing a Mennonite
Women of Color Oral History Project to highlight such involvements
of 45 women across the United States. They led a session April
5 at the conference in which five women from local congregations
in Philadelphia who are involved in the project sat in a circle
and shared parts of their life stories for the audience.
Participants were Geraldine Abraham and Hattie Minnis of Second
Mennonite Church; Dorcas Hua of Abundant Life Chinese Mennonite
Church; Barbara Miller of Diamond Street; and Barbara Moses,
principal of Philadelphia Mennonite High School.
Hua shared how she was born and raised in the northern part of
Vietnam, where her mother brought her to the Buddhist temple
to pray with her. "I remember how special it was to be alone
with my mother, since I was one of seven children," she
said. " I remember having a deep sense of being loved and
receiving a strong self-esteem and self-confidence. She was a
strong person, and my childhood was a great part of my life."
Hua later became a Christian and now helps her husband in ministry.
"I was never taught that I can't do this or that but that
I should love God with all my heart, mind and soul," she
said. "That's why I've struggled with the issues people
have over women in leadership in the Mennonite church.
"If we are saved by Jesus and are willing to serve him,
then it doesn't matter if you are a man or woman, you are called
to be a minister. And that's what I am doing -- preaching, teaching,
leading songs, doing visitation, right along with my husband."
After the oral history project, Miriam Stoltzfus, a member of
Diamond Street, and a longtime church worker with her late husband,
Luke Stoltzfus, shared about the contributions of many single
Anglo women. Lancaster Mennonite Conference sent many such women
to serve in the city -- such as those who came to invite Nikiema
Stoltzfus' storytelling led into a main presentation by Lilly
Lee, who spoke about the barriers of women to using their gifts
in the church. Lee serves on the pastoral team at the Abundant
Life church and teaches mathematics at the Community College
of Philadelphia. She spoke on "Sister Workers and Center
Women Build the Church."
She shared insights from biblical exegesis regarding women's
role. These findings are in her book, written in Chinese, Passion
for Fullness: Examining the Woman's Identity Roles from Biblical,
Historical and Sociological Perspectives. She made a case for
recognizing and using the gifts of women in all places, including
pastoral roles and places of authority.
"We don't want to stop with encouraging 'center' women,
but we also want to make space for women in pastoral roles in
the church," Lee said. "Like men, women were created
in God's image. ... They are equally blessed, gifted, called
Laurie L. Oswald is news service director for Mennonite Church
Contact: Laurie L. Oswald, (316) 283-5100, E-mail: LaurieO@MennoniteUSA.org