A Mustard Seed: Reflection on the 31st PANAAWTM Conference

Ji Jingyi

Thirty years ago, thirteen Asian and Asian North American woman gathered at the home of Professor Letty M. Russell of Yale University and discussed their common interests and explored the possibility of forming a network. None of them could have imagined its future. Today when we look back, we can say that what happened was a miracle. It was just like a small mustard seed that these women took and sowed in the theological field and it has grown and become a tree. Along with the network’s growth, its name has been changed several times. The current name is Pacific, Asian, and North American Asian Women in Theology and Ministry (PANAAWTM).

Ji Jingyi (second from left) with Indonesian participants

Ji Jingyi (second from left) with Indonesian participants

This is my first time taking part in the conference. The significance for me is that I have had an opportunity to participate in it, to learn from the others, to share with them, and to establish a network in academia.

In the opening panel, three women from different backgrounds shared their experiences, focusing on the theme “Social Transformation in the Urban Context.” Each speaker emphasized that one should move from an emphasis on one’s own efforts toward social transformation. The youngest speaker was a 25-year-old black woman. Her speech made me realize that one’s active engagement in the society does not depend on his/her social position, age, and wisdom, but on one’s social responsibility and commitment. One can imagine that one day the small mustard seed will become a tree!

The opening ritual was a very beautiful and enjoyable worship experience. Professor Haruko Nawata Ward, a Japanese scholar from Colombia Theological Seminary, lighted the first candle for “love,” and then an 80-year-old Chinese-America woman Shirley Tung lighted the second candle for “justice” after her witness on protesting against an unjust world.

And then according to the different regions, participants were divided into several groups to discuss what does “Kin-dom” mean for yourself and what would you like to overcome in your work? Each one was asked to write her answers on a paper which was made from rice, and to openly speak about their understanding and then put their pieces of paper in a basin.

I wrote nothing because I did not know what the term “Kin-dom” meant. When we discussed in the group, an Indonesian scholar explained it. However, during the discussion, I really could not understand the term and just knew that it was a term many Christian feminists have been using for several decades. When it was my turn to speak about my understanding, I said that I wrote nothing because I knew nothing about the term “Kin-dom,” and I needed to pay attention to feminist study. I was the only one in the conference who wrote nothing. Actually at that time I did not feel lonely and marginalized. In my opinion, all Christians are united in Christ and call sisters and brothers in a kin-group formed not by blood but by a common loyalty to the Lord Jesus. I also believe that God’s kingdom contains male and female voices.

Finally, Professor Boyung Lee, a Korean, lighted the third candle for “peace.” The interesting thing is that when Professor Lee tried to light the candle several times, she could not light it. And then she said that peace does not come easily. This showed her sagacity, humor, insight, and rich experiences. With simple things she explained the profound truth.

Professor Boyung Lee lighting the candle of peace

Professor Boyung Lee lighting the candle of peace

In the closing ritual, the Eucharist made a deep impression on me. These female scholars employed their own liturgical action and statement. In particular, there were three different kinds of drinks in the Eucharistic “cups”—honey, milk, and grape juice—for everyone to choose from, and after blessing the bread, the pastor did not break it. Instead, she invited everybody to share a piece of bread and break the bread by herself. This was the first time I took bread in this way and I was aware that “worship” means inviting us to think about how worship shapes us towards God in various ways.*

There were two kinds of workshops: one focused on presentations on papers, and the other focused on practices, such as Yoga, CPE, and so on. As one of the workshop presenters, I shared “Teaching Cross-Cultural Theology in our Chinese Context” with a group. Some people were interested in Chinese cultural and religious life and some paid attention to cross-cultural theology.

Ji Jingyi (left) presenting a paper

Ji Jingyi (left) presenting a paper

Many theological students have realized more and more the importance of using our cultural heritages when doing theology. But the PhD candidates thought that it would be difficult for them to find enough relevant resources for this task. This problem was visible when the PhD candidates gave presentations of their dissertation proposals. Luckily I was invited as a faculty mentor joining the PANAAWTM doctoral seminars. The main problems in their proposals were as follow:

  • The construction of the dissertation is loose.
  • It is not clear in which framework one must use the first-hand resources.
  • Some candidates write a biblical study without a basic exegesis.

Through the conference I have realized that if I want to network with these scholars, I should learn feminist theology and postcolonial theology, otherwise I will not be able to dialogue with them. For a long time, I have not paid attention to these two types of theology. Being a female theologian I also dream I can have the ability to use both intuitive thinking and logical thinking. In particular, I continually cultivate the skill of logical thinking when doing theology in academia. However, from this conference I have learned that using logical thinking when doing theology does not mean I do not need to know feminist theology. As a woman, I may express my understanding of Christianity in my own way.

My regret is that the conference lacked other Asian women’s voices, such as those from Burmese women. Also I was the only one who came from mainland China. Korean women played an important role in the conference. Anyhow the mustard seed has grown. I expect that more Asian women will join this network and build themselves into its branches!

*Stephen Burns, Worship and Ministry Shaped towards God (Preston, Vic.: Mosaic Press, 2012), 1.

Dr. Ji Jingyi is a librarian and lecturer on Contextual Theology at Yanjing Theological Seminary in Beijing, China, and is a Proctor Scholar at the Episcopal Divinity School.

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