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UMW exec likes group’s ‘fiesty women’

The executive officer of the United Methodist Women is excited by her job for many reasons, but the first one she reeled off is, “I really like feisty women!”

Harriet Jane Olson, deputy general secretary of the Women’s Division of the General Board of Global Ministries, said in Columbia recently, “I love the fact that United Methodist women raise questions, have opinions and are engaged beyond themselves.

“We get passionate which is a reason we’re open to be transformed by it. Women see that they have influence. It’s powerful.”

The second reason she loves her job, following her time as an attorney specializing in environmental and real estate law and a stint at the United Methodist Publishing House, is because it involves so many issues that are critical. Girls must succeed academically in a culture where hip-hop and the language are terribly degrading; the number of women in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and in business are low, as are the number of women serving the larger churches, she said.

{mosimage}“We don’t have basic respect. We are not in a post-sexist era, Olson said. It’s just that “women have gone under the radar.”

When interviewed at Columbia College, it was just after a Status of Women discussion at the United Nations and a discussion of a media monitoring project. The perspective is “people receiving assistance are women; people with the answers are men,” Olson said.

“There are hundreds of thousands of cases where rape of women is used as a tool of war,” she said, but it took only four men being raped to move the issue to the front page of The New York Times.

Also under discussion at the U.N. meeting was getting aid to Haiti. “If we can get aid to women, it will reach the children,” Olson said. “If all we do is funnel aid to the male hierarchy” – whether through the church or otherwise – it won’t get delivered as efficiently. “That’s why microfinance works,” she said, as opposed to male-dominated banking.

What future?

The 800,000-member UMW, Olson said, is rooted in the past (from1869 mission societies) and “poised for the future,” but what is the future for today’s women who run computers and staffs by day and flip spatulas at dusk?

“It’s not that different from the denomination as a whole,” Olson said. “Preachers say, ‘We have no grandchildren.’ I always ask members, ‘Who have you invited this month?’”

In a UMW’s group, “we’re building this circle where people really can be themselves. It’s critically important where people don’t have extended networks,” Olson said, but she warned, “Any circle has a boundary and that can be a barrier.” Any woman can be a member of the UMW – maybe not president, but a part of the group whether they are a member of the church or not. “All that is required is that she be willing to be involved in global missions through UMW and be committed to the purpose:

“The organized unit of United Methodist Women shall be a community of women whose purpose is to know God and to experience freedom as whole persons through Jesus Christ; to develop a creative, supportive fellowship; and to expand concepts of mission through participation in the global ministries of the church.”

The UMW is organized based on U.S. members since women in other countries “need self-agency” and training through their own processes.

There are two known S.C. UMWs which have opted out of the organization, one because a former pastor’s wife presented an article from the Confessing Movement’s magazine about what the allegedly Women’s Division funded, and another because they were given some false information about what they could and couldn’t do.

“We don’t fund abortion or Planned Parenthood, contrary to false information offered,” Olson said, calling its finances transparent and saying their missions are listed in its reports.

The Discipline, she said, requires a church to have a United Methodist Women’s unit, with as many circles within it as desired. The structure for action and giving is prescribed, but if there’s not a circle that suits you, you can make your own. Pastors needing information are invited to call Olson’s office in New York.

“The call to action is what resonates with our members. It is a time of great promise.”

Younger women, she said, are really interested in the global work.

Here for lecture series

Olson was visiting Columbia to speak to Columbia College students as part of the Staley Lectures. She used the biblical narrative about the feeding of the 5,000 men, not counting (“besides”) the women and children to say “women and children count.

“This is the work of the UMW,” Olson said, “ to ensure that women count, that women and children count.”

“Where did the baskets come from?” she asked. The women carried the baskets; they were the girding for the work of Jesus. We’re assigned to distribute, to go among the people and share.” The UMW provides leaders and advocates, she said.

Women produce 60 to 70 percent of the world’s food, Olson told the college’s women. “If agriculture policies don’t work for women, they don’t work. You are in a position to open people’s eyes” on such issues, she said. “Women are affected by policies that don’t serve us well.

“That’s what organizations for women’s missions are about. We can help each other.”

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