Last Sunday, I climbed the broad stone steps of the Evangeline Booth Temple in New York. It was impossible to miss the huge bronze plaque immortalizing the famous last public speech that William Booth, The Salvation Army’s founder, delivered from the platform of the imposing Royal Albert Hall in London, England. Later this year, the centenary of that speech, which begins with the words, “While Women Weep,” and concludes with the words, “I’ll fight to the very end,” is being celebrated with an “I’ll fight” congress in the same location.
It was something of a déjà vu experience for me since I memorized the speech when I was still a young woman, and have recited it on a variety of occasions since. But on Sunday the opening words hit me with fresh force since I was about to join with several hundred women—and some men!—who had gathered from all parts of the world for the annual two-week United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The common aim was to become better equipped to make a difference in their world. Many came from places where there is still much discrimination against women, especially in rural areas. Surely the passion with which they came would have caused the heart of God to rejoice, and the use of Salvation Army premises to facilitate their cause would have brought an “amen” from the one who had coined the phrase, “While Women Weep.”
Since the inception of The Salvation Army’s International Social Justice Commission (ISJC) almost five years ago, increasingly strong bonds have been formed. One of the outcomes has not only been the use of the Evangeline Booth complex, but also the involvement of the members of the ISJC in the planning and running of the day’s gatherings, both plenary sessions and side events, such as a group of younger women exploring the current issues around “the girl child.”
My husband and I happened to be having a few days vacation in the city, but were glad to volunteer for the day, and this afforded the opportunity to hear some of the speakers and panellists. Two, in particular, stood out for me. The first was Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia, a recent Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, because of her work in bringing to an end the violent war in that country, initially by sitting in peaceful protest by the roadside, gradually joined by hundreds of other women, a story now immortalized in the film Praying the Devil back to Hell. Now she is working for in-depth reconciliation—not by discussion in city offices but by meeting with rural women in their villages, listening to their wisdom and taking note of the fact that they already know what needs to be done, and the actions that need to be taken—if only people would take heed.
Later there was a panel discussion involving women from rural settings in such vastly different cultures as Japan and Zimbabwe, together with an ambassador from a South American country, all of whose names I am choosing to omit for their protection. The moderator was from the UN in Geneva.
Before the woman from Zimbabwe spoke on behalf of the organization she represented, she introduced herself as an uneducated woman, having left school early, married at fifteen and becoming a grandmother before she was 40. However, the moderator commented that she was, in fact, educated, because not all education is gained from books.
After all the panellists had spoken the moderator invited all the women of the panel to join in holding out a beautifully crafted table cloth, which was to be a gift for the ambassador. As they did so she explained that this was the work of the woman from Zimbabwe. To my amazement she added that she, too, had been born and raised there, explaining that her mother had been a widow with three children and that, as a small child, she had slept near the fire with the other members of the family on the one blanket that they possessed. She went on to say that her older sister had married at 15 in order to make it possible for her, as a younger sister, to receive a formal education—and that the “uneducated woman” on the panel was, in fact, that sister. The moderator closed by saying that the tablecloth symbolized her determination to work for the empowerment of rural women so that never again would one family member have to sacrifice her dreams for the sake of the education of another.
Many wept that day for a variety of reasons ranging from great pain to deep joy. And there will be much weeping during the next two weeks as the women hammer out hard questions in a variety of locations, not least of which will be the several meetings to be convened at the ISJC’s premises.
I can’t think of a more fitting way to identify with the Founder’s declaration: “While women weep as they do now—I’ll fight to the very end.”
The memory of just one day is enough to remind me that it is not enough to memorize Booth’s words, or for others to celebrate them in a huge gathering. I, for one, know I must be willing not only to say with renewed determination, but also to act with renewed determination because “While women weep as they do now, I (too) will fight to the very end.”
Colonel Gwenyth Redhead is a retired Salvation Army officer. She and her husband, Robert, have held a wide variety of appointments in the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand. However, her passion has always been to encourage others in creative responses to God through writing of scripts, stories, articles and lyrics (mostly to Robert’s music). She has two daughters, Joanne and Corinne, and rejoices that they, too, use the creativity God has given them in ministry.