As Lyn Lusi accepted the $1 million Opus Prize on Wednesday night at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, she threw down a gauntlet. Churches must take on the challenge of changing relationships between men and women, everywhere in the world.
Two centuries ago William Wilberforce, a lifelong social activist, goaded churches in England to rethink the ancient assumptions that allowed people who saw themselves as virtuous and religious to accept slavery as "normal." They did not respond immediately, but over time norms and teachings changed. Supporting slavery today in a church setting would be unthinkable. But churches today are sometimes, but by no means always, the leaders in society's efforts to bring social justice. And there are serious gaps on today's central challenge for justice: equality between women and men. Thus churches today must look inside their communities and what they teach and preach, so that they can lead with a new understanding of what justice and equality mean. That will mean changing ancient norms that have allowed women to be treated as somehow inferior to men.
Lyn Lusi works (with her beloved husband, Dr. Kasereka Jo Lusi), in Goma, which sits at the very heart of Africa in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They co-founded HEAL Africa and it is her passion and her project: H stands for health; their hospital deals with many health problems, but far too many address the results of the violence of that region, including patching up the many women and young girls who have been raped. E stands for education, connoting the deep sense that knowledge and understanding are truly at the heart of a healthy society and justice. A stands for action; in Goma no one from outside can or will step in to act, so it is up to those on the spot to bring about change. Which comes to the L in HEAL, which stands for leadership, an ideal whose essence is to use one's gifts for good.
Lyn's is an inspirational life story. As a young teacher she came with the Baptist church to the Congo (as it was then known; today, it is the Democratic Republic of the Congo and in-between it was known as Zaire). Contrary to what she initially expected or desired, she fell in love with a Congolese doctor and moved to Africa, where she has lived ever since. Quietly, with a deep faith in God's guidance and ever conscious of the crying needs of people suffering from what must be the world's most brutal war, Lyn and her husband work together to build both a hub for action and a model and example of what a person can do. From a tiny clinic they have built a busy center that reaches out both to heal bodies and souls and to rebuild shattered communities in the region with microcredit and other support.
It was this remarkable work that earned Lyn the Opus Prize. Given annually, the Opus Prize recognizes unsung heroes from any faith tradition, anywhere in the world, who are working to solve today's most persistent social problems. The $1 million prize is awarded alongside two $100,000 awards and they represent collectively one of the world's largest faith-based, humanitarian awards for social innovation. (Full disclosure: I serve on the board of the Opus Prize Foundation).
Lyn speaks of hope and finds good in all the people she works with. If Africa is seen solely through the lens of conflict and evil, she says, healing cannot happen. And HEAL Africa has demonstrated that miracles can and do happen, even with very scant resources. But Lyn fires up in anger when she recalls the horrors that women face and how little support they receive even from those who should be their ardent defenders.
As she accepted the Opus Prize, Lyn Lusi highlighted the vital role that churches play in communities in eastern DRC. Women's and youth groups, pastors and the church communities themselves provide what amounts to the only services and social safety net available. They can be the real glue of the society. But she also told a sobering story. After a promising workshop at a church where several congregations came together for discussion and training, she received a letter from the church leaders thanking HEAL Africa for its support and endorsing the workshop's conclusions.
The church leaders, however, had one objection. They did not agree that women who were raped should NOT be excommunicated. In short, the attitude that women invite, even deserve rape extended so deeply into the church communities and leadership that they could not even see their way to compassion and support. Where women should be able to find comfort, consolation, and support instead they met rejection and blame.
The story points to the crying need for deep reflection and change within Christian communities. And Lyn Lusi is thrilled that the Opus prize resources will allow her to work for that goal. More power to her!