Leah Wandera, the first United Women in Faith deaconess in Africa, is working to bridge The United Methodist Church and the global community through her work in social justice advocacy and public health.
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This episode posted on July 8, 2022.
Crystal Caviness, host: Like John Wesley, Leah Wandera believes the world is her parish. As the first United Women in Faith deaconess in Africa, Leah hopes her work in social justice advocacy and public health will serve as a bridge between the denomination and the global community, ministries she feels God called her to do as a lay person in The United Methodist Church.
Crystal: Leah, welcome to "Get Your Spirit in Shape."
Leah Wandera: Thank you. I'm so humbled to join you.
Crystal Caviness: Well, there's so many things I want to talk about with you today, but I want to start by congratulating you. You just graduated from Drew University with a Masters of Divinity in Social Justice Advocacy.
Leah Wandera: Yes.
Crystal Caviness: Congratulations. That's wonderful.
Leah Wandera: Thank you.
Crystal Caviness: My understanding is, you were a student speaker.
Leah Wandera: Yes.
Crystal Caviness: Tell me about that.
Leah Wandera: I don't know where to start from because it has been so interesting, but I just thank God on how everything has unfolded through. I came to the United States in January 2020. Yes. Just barely two months before COVID hit, that is the time when I came to start my Masters in Divinity at Drew. I feel like, just coming at that moment when the pandemic was ... Okay, I hope I don't get emotional with this, but it has been a moment for me to just learn. I feel like learning at that moment, when we were having a crisis, there's so much that I have learned and unlearned.
So, Master of Divinity is actually three years, but if you do the calculation, you realize that I've done it within less than three years. So, just having that time to focus and to study enabled me to just complete and finish it within less than three years.
It's so amazing. Then, I received an email requesting if I could accept to be the student speaker, and I was like, "How?" God works in a mysterious way. So yes, it was an honor just to be nominated as the student speaker for the theological school. My concentration is in Social Justice Advocacy, and I think probably we will talk so much into this and why I even chose Social Justice Advocacy and not other concentration.
So, what I say to the students is that I feel like we are graduating at a moment when our theology is on trial. We are graduating at a moment when Ukraine, the nation of Ukraine, has no peace, and other places in the world has no peace. So, to me, I feel like we are graduating at a moment when we are being challenged to think on our theology ought to bring peace to the world. We are graduating at a moment when there is economic injustice, inflation in the nation and across the world. So, how is our theology going to inform us on how to create abundancy and not scarcity?
We are graduating at a moment where human rights issues are still restrained. So then, as students or scholars of theology, how is our theology going to heal the world? All these issues we can name, and so when I was going through my studies for all these two years that I've been at Drew, those are the things that I've been rethinking. I think that just being at Drew, I've learned and learned, and transformed into a better person.
I also feel like, just being in that space and being nominated as the student speaker, I feel like it's just not my opportunity, but I look at myself, and I remember, I'm a Kenyan woman. I'm a Kenyan woman, young woman. When I took that space, what really went through my mind is, if the girls and the young women in Kenya listen to my words, how are those words going to impact them? How are my words going to help them amplify their voices, and be able to stand up and take up the places for leadership into the world? So, to me, it was a very great and humbling moment to be the student speaker. I also received an award for Excellence in Pastoral Leadership.
Crystal Caviness: Congratulations.
Leah Wandera: Thank you. I appreciate it. I must say that I'm grateful to the General Board of Global Ministries, and I'm grateful to the United Methodist Women, and I'm grateful to friends who have just come along and supported me to make sure that I'm able to pursue my Masters in Divinity. Without them, it was going to be impossible. Yes.
Crystal Caviness: Yes. We're definitely going to talk about social justice advocacy, why you chose that, but I want to go back. You said yes, you're a Kenyan woman, and you have already done some amazing work in your home nation with women, with girls, with gender equality. Let's talk a little bit about the Hope Foundation of African Women, and then Mama's Smile, the work with that. Tell us about that work.
Leah Wandera: I graduated in 2016 from Moi University in Eldoret, and my bachelors degree is in Project Planning and Management. I chose Project Planning and Management because deep down in my heart, I feel like something was just pushing me to help our communities towards developmental work.
But I'll say, my life experience, how I was born, where I've grown up, what I went through to even be able to go to school, has really inspired and motivated the work that I do with the girls today. After my graduation, because I'll say, I'll call it a gift. God has given me a gift of leadership. Each and every place I've been, I have always been a leader. So, when I was in school, in high school, I would always be the school president. Even when I went to the university, I was among the active students.
So, immediately I graduated, someone just came and just like, "Hey, Leah. So, what's your plan?" I'm like, "I don't know." "Here's my card. Come to the office in January. Let's see if you can find something to do." So, I will say, at that moment, I realized that I did not struggle to find work immediately after I finished university, which I counted as a blessing. But this work that I got to do was a project manager in one of the construction industries in Kenya.
So, one day, I'm just at home, and mediating and reflecting on the work that I'm doing, and I found myself asking myself questions. We are building a restaurant. This restaurant is a five star restaurant. Now, where this restaurant is being built, this land was purchased. I kept on asking myself, where was this land purchased from? Was it taken from a community, or was it just rightfully purchased?
At one point, I realized that sometimes, when there is development going on, not everyone gets to benefit from that development. Some people get to suffer. In my own questioning, I realized how women and children sometimes get to suffer because they're left out. Because sometimes, when we are developing, we don't really look at how everyone is equally benefiting from this development. The Leah in me was like, "No, I don't think you are doing the right thing."
So, I found myself questioning my work each and every day, and I felt like I didn't have satisfaction in the work that I was doing. I wanted something more than that. Because while I was in high school, while I was still growing up, I really engaged so much into girl child advocacy, even in high school and all that, one day, I just woke up ... It was actually on 31st, 2015. We were going to church. We have overnight prayers on 31st of December, and so I was going to church. I was like, "I really don't know what I'm supposed to be doing." I was talking to my district superintendent, and they're like, "Why? You are getting paid so well. Why are you complaining?" I felt like, "No." He was like, "You didn't even struggle to get this job. Why are you complaining? Everything is going on well." I said, "I just don't feel, deep down in my heart, that I'm doing the right thing."
Then, he was like, "Okay. Do you know that, in the United Methodist Church, we have the Global Mission Fellows program?" I was like, "What's that?" He said, "Here's the link. Go and look it up." So, I went home. I looked up on the link. I read about the Global Mission Fellows program that is under the General Board of Global Ministries, and it was the deadline for application. So, I sat there. I'm like, "This is something that is really speaking to my heart, but today is the deadline, midnight. How do I do it? How do I do it?"
Then, I told my young sister. I looked at the application. There was a long essays to write. But you know, I said, "God, if this is where you are leading me to, today I'm not going for the overnight prayers. I'm just going to stay home and work on this application." I worked on that application, and I submitted it five minutes to the deadline. There we go. So, that's how I quitted my job and became a young missionary, and I was sent to work in Zimbabwe as a Gender Advocacy Officer from 2016 in July to 2018 to June.
The young missionary service gave me that platform to now live what was really into my heart. I will say it was a calling, but I just didn't know how to bring that calling out. So, that chance gave me a moment to realize that, "Hey, this is what I'm called into."
When I came back in Kenya in 2018, June, one of the requirements as the end service is you have to do an integration program, which is three months.
So, Hope Foundation for African Women came in as my integration program when I was coming back to Kenya. I reached out, and they said, "Yes, we would love to," because Hope Foundation for African Women is an organization in Kenya that focuses on gender justice, focuses on economic empowerment and advocacy to end female genital mutilation. So, they wanted me to come in as a project manager for three months. Now, Hope Foundation has always been supported by United Methodist Women. So, when I was ending my service, one of our directors, Judy Chung, they were like, "Hey, here is ... Look at this organization. I think you can fit into this organization," and I was given that chance.
So, it was only three months, and then the United Methodist Women, now the United Women in Faith, supported me to do a leadership program in Canada for two months, practicing leadership for social chance. After, when I came back, Hope Foundation was like, "No, we are not letting you go. You have to stay and be our acting CEO." But I told them, "I have a goal. I want to pursue my Masters in Divinity. I won't be here for long, but I can be an acting Chief Executive Officer for this period that I'm here with you."
So, I was able to work with them, but deep down in my heart, I still felt like I was being called to something different, something beyond economic empowerment. I felt so much tied to work on health issues and education. So, when I was the CEO and I was talking to the board, and I was telling them, "Can we integrate this aspect into the legal mandate?" they said, "It's hard to expand if we don't have the resources." But I felt there was just this fire burning in me that I called internal and so that is where now Mama's Smile came in. But now, we changed the name. It's called WEMA Health Foundation. Wema is a Swahili word which means wellbeing. So, it came in now to address the health issues and the education issue of girls, so that is my lifetime ministry.
Crystal Caviness: So, all these amazing opportunities are happening for you. What was going on for Leah, for your faith journey? What was happening with you, as far as your connection with God, just what you were experiencing? As all of these external things are coming to you, what was happening inside with you, with your faith?
Leah Wandera: I can say, I'm the fourth born in a family of seven siblings, and my father is a retired pastor, United Methodist Church. When I was growing up in this pastor's children family, of course you would wake up, and it's a requirement for you to go to church every Sunday. You are a pastor's kid. You needed to show up. You needed to be active. You needed to participate.
But to me, I would say it was more than just being a pastor's kid, because I found myself, at such a young age, being so active in Sunday School. Being there, who wants to say a memory verse? My hand is up. There was just this joy in me doing these things. I will say, as a child at that moment, I didn't realize how I felt so much joy in doing them, but I just loved showing up and participating in this.
But when I was a teenager, and I was going through ... My father was originally Anglican, Church of Kenya, and then he changed and moved to United Methodist, so we were not born Methodist, but born Anglican, baptized in Anglican, but then fully confirmed in 2006 as United Methodist. So, while growing as a teenager, going through the catechism class, we were being taught on how to recite Our Lord's Prayer and [inaudible 00:17:51]. So, each and every time I would say Our Lord's Prayer, I would ask our teacher, "Are we just saying it for the sake of saying it?" Then, he would be like, "Yes. You need to memorize it. You need to know it word to word, or else you won't be able to blessed and receive the holy communion. So, the thing was, if you forget the words, you won't receive the holy communion."
That was scary, because we would memorize because we wanted to receive the holy communion, but that questioning to me was, Our Lord's Prayer, it's a contemplative action. I just don't sit and say, "Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven." To me, those words meant so much than just cramming them and saying them loud. When we say, "Give us today our daily bread," which bread are we talking about, and what process does it take for us to get this bread on the table? What does it mean by that daily bread? When we say, "Forgive us our trespasses ..." To me, I started questioning those words.
So, I feel like that is the moment when I started growing spiritually. At that moment, I found myself even going beyond just being a pastor's kid. At one moment, because I really wanted to be so close to God, have that relationship, I found myself almost becoming a nun under the Medical Mission Sisters because I was so close to them, because I loved each and every day, evening prayer that they were having. I went to a Roman Catholic high school, and I even went to commence in the covenant. Yes, for five months, and I even submitted my application. I was always an aspirant to them. Those are the things that really, I will say, really helped me to grow deeper.
Crystal Caviness: This is when your faith became personal to you?
Leah Wandera: Yes. Yes, but I will say, it became so personal to me now. It was more than just being a pastor's kid. After growing and growing, and then when I got into mission work as a young missionary, I felt like, it's me and God, and it's God enabling me to do this. It takes God's hand to do this. Every time I would try to resist a calling, I couldn't run away anymore. So, at that moment, I found very deeper relationship with God.
When I went to work as a young missionary in Zimbabwe, I was working as a Gender Advocacy Officer. One of my programs was to work with women who are into commercial sex work, very young girls who are forced into commercial sex work. Every time I would go to the community and spend time with them, I would come back, and on Wednesdays, we used to have a fellowship. Someone will tell me, "Why do you associate with such people?" I ask them, "Why?" They'd be like, "Don't you see they're sinners?"
So, you can see how to me, I was relating differently in different situations. I'm like, "No. No one is to judge. We are all equal before God. God loves me just the way you love me." To me, I was like, it was just because they don't have a second option. They don't have an alternative in life. If they had a different economic alternative in life, they would choose a different path.
To me, I wasn't judging them, but stepping into the church, and someone looking at me and asking me, "Don't you realize that they are sinners?" I even started questioning our faith values. If I say love one another as you love yourself, what does that mean to me? So, I had so much theological questions that led me to Masters of Divinity. I just didn't wake up and say, "Hey, here I am. I want to apply for Masters in Divinity." No. Having those religious and theological questions led me to Masters of Divinity.
Crystal Caviness: Where did you come to when you got into studying theology? How did those answers come for you?
Leah Wandera: That's why I chose Social Justice Advocacy. I kept on asking myself, "Where is God in justice? Where is God in love? Where is God in advocacy work?" When we are talking about God in advocacy, one thing that was really disturbing me is, when we are talking about social issue, we are not only talking about Christians. We are talking about Muslims. We are talking about all these religions.
So, to me, I was asking myself, "Where is God in between here?" When growing up, I used to hear, "Oh, we only worship one God, Jesus Christ, so the Muslims are not your brothers and your sisters," and all that. To me, that was so troubling, to a point that when I went to do justice, economic empowerment project, and I'm having a group of women sitting at the table, someone will be like, "Oh, but she's a Muslim." I'm like, "So, what?"
To me, my question was, where is God on this table, around this table? How do we advocate for justice despite our different religions? So, that is what Masters in Divinity, Social Justice Advocacy, helped me to find all these answers and questions to, because God has called us to do this. I think that now leads me to now becoming a deaconess , and not a pastor. You might ask then, "Why not a clergy?" Because during all this time, I felt like I wanted to continue being in ministry. I wanted to continue to serve. So, after coming back as a young missionary, I was talking to my district superintendent. I was talking to my local pastor. I was talking to all these mentors, and they are like, "Oh, you're a good preacher. You're a good leader. You can be a good pastor. You're a pastor's kid." To me, I was like, "No. I really don't feel strongly called into being a pastor, but I know that I'm called into continuing serving in ministry."
That is where now I learned about the deaconess and home missioner. It was in 2017, and I learned it through the Executive Director, Judy Chung, Liz Lee, and the other people that were on the staff. Then, I wrote to them, and I said, "Hey, I'd love to be this, and this, and this." Then, the told me, "No." Then, I asked them "Why?" They said, "Because we don't have deaconess and home missioner movement in Africa."
Honestly, that really kind of broke my heart. I I think because of my persistence, they might have sat down, and just went through and said, "Probably this is the time for us to have the deaconess and home missioner movement in Africa. Let's give it a try." So, they told me, "This is the right way to go." So, I started from one, and I went through the process. I submitted my application, went to the interview, and I will say, God works in a mysterious way.
When I came in the U.S. in 2019, I even didn't come for the deaconess class, so I'll say more about that, but I was coming for a meeting because I was still working as the CEO for Hope Foundation. I was coming to a meeting that was organized by Global Giving and Bill Gates Foundation. They were trying to work around Neutrality Paradox, because they wanted to continue funding, but how do they continue funding on a neutral point?
So, it was only a three days meeting, and I came to represent the grassroots organizations from our African region. I'm so lucky that I got that opportunity to come. When I was here, I told them, "I'm here," and they're like, "Great. We have classes next month." So, they were like, "Can you?" I'm like, "Of course." They're like, "Are you able to do all the essay?" "Yes. God will give me the strength." So, I did my classes and courses.
Then, the rest is history. In 2021, I got welcomed as the first deaconess in African region. We have 11 candidates right now all the way from Zimbabwe, Kenya, Malawi, Liberia, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, and the movement is now growing and growing. I just feel like, I thank God, because if I had given up, probably today, we wouldn't be having the deaconess and home missioner movement in Africa.
Just for the record, deaconess identify as laywomen, and home missioners identify as laymen or anyone who wants to ... who is not identifying as a woman or a man, they can still use home missioner. We are lay in the United Methodist Church called into a lifetime commitment, a lifetime service. We have the mandates that I'll just take you through in short. We have our four mandates that our service, because we are commissioned and consecrated into lifetime ministry, and so our mandates are illiminating suffering, eradicating causes of injustices and all that robs life of dignity and worth, and facilitating the development of full human potential, and the last one is, we share in building global community through the church universal. So, each and everything that we do, all the ministries that we are appointed to, they have to align with these four mandates. I call myself, we are a bridge between the church and the community, because we focus on love, justice, and service.
Crystal Caviness: You are committing yourself to a lifetime of service. Why in the United Methodist Church?
Leah Wandera: Trust me, if I was to answer that question, it will take the whole day, why in The United Methodist Church. I will say that one thing that I love about the United Methodist Church is our mission statement. We are called. I love John Wesley's line, that the world is our parish. We are called into doing mission and ministry work in the church. To me, that is what I love most, because mission ministry goes beyond the pulpit. It goes beyond Sunday. It's on a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, and then on a Sunday, I say we celebrate in the church of what we have been doing Monday to Saturday.
So, why in The United Methodist Church? I'll say I love what Methodists do. Come sunshine, come rain, I'll say I love being a Methodist. We were raised Anglican, but my dad moved to Methodist, and we changed to become Methodist. Surviving being Methodist was hard. At one point, my family lost our home. It was burned down to ash just because my dad had decided to change from Anglican to being Methodist. I think probably that moment also contributed to my spiritual growth and relationship with God, because I kept on asking myself, "Why do we have to suffer so much in the sake of serving?" But the trust and the faith that my dad had in God, for working for God, that is what I think I followed, but not being a pastor, but being lay.
I love the United Methodists because it is giving me a chance to serve as a layperson. That is one thing that I love so much about being a deaconess and home missioner, is being able to serve as a layperson. Why? Because I love being in the community. You know, when the pastor is there, and all the congregation are seated here, that is what I love being, in the community. So for me, being a deaconess is the church supporting me to be in the community, to be with the people and to do the work that I love.
Crystal Caviness: When you're going ... I mean, you have your masters now, your Masters of Divinity in Social Justice Advocacy. You just shared that you're going for another masters. You're starting coursework in September. The course of study is-
Leah Wandera: Masters in Public Health.
Crystal Caviness: That's right, Masters in Public Health, so all community-based work. How do you integrate your faith? How are you showing your faith in this work?
Leah Wandera: I'll say, my ministry, currently my ministry is through the foundation that I started, as I mentioned earlier, in 2019, right now called WEMA Health Foundation. We focus on education and healthy living for girls and women in Kenya. Through the education, supporting girls to go to high school because of how high they went through the high school. I always, when I look at myself, I look at our fellow girls in Kenya, and so I focus on that.
] want to say how I bring in faith is, I look at it from a holistic way. I always draw the triangle. We have the body, we have the mind, and we have the spirit. One thing that I really struggle with questioning is, why do we separate the body and the spirit? These two things exist together. They coexist. There's no way the body can exist without the spirit, and the spirit cannot exist out of the body. To me, what I've really for a long time learned is that sometimes, when we come to our church, sometimes our theology focuses so much on the spirit, and either shames the body, or sees the body as either sinful, unruly, or something to be tamed. That is what is disturbing to me.
So, through my work and through my ministry, and the work that I do, is looking at the body, the spirit, and the body, so bringing them together, because if my body's well, my spirit is well, right? If my spirit is well, my mind is well.
So, I always look at this thing, and I feel like you can't separate them, the body, the spirit, and the mind. You can't really separate them. They coexist. If one is at dis-ease, then the other is at dis-ease. If I'm not well body-wise, then my spirit won't be well. That is why God incarnated into flesh through Jesus Christ, right? So that we can have the faith, and the belief, and the trust in resurrection. So, looking at the flesh, the spirit, and the mind, it helps me bring my faith into the work that I'm doing, because I believe that I'm stepping into Jesus' shoe, because that is what Jesus, as a Christian, taught me to do.
Crystal Caviness: I feel like there's really exciting work coming from you, Leah, for sure. Well, as we finish up, I just have a couple of more questions. The next one is, is there anything ... We talked about so many things today, but is there anything that you wanted to share, that we haven't yet had a chance to talk about?
Leah Wandera: Okay. All right. There is a question that you asked earlier, how do I keep my spirit in shape? Probably just to share about that. I've never really thought so much of how I should keep my spirit in shape more than I thought about it during the COVID-19 crisis and pandemic. In that moment, when that physical relationship and connection was no more, I feel like I had my own space. That moment when you are feeling emotionally down, you are feeling like things could not be working, you are feeling like there is no one you can knock at the door and see that person, and just have that hug and all that, in that moment I realized how God, the presence, and the comfort, and the love is always around us each and every time.
So, I will say, I've never learned or just thought about how to keep my spirit in shape more than I thought of it at that time, because I thought of not only on a personal level, but at a community level. To me, I will say, at home, we use the traditional stove for cooking, the three stones. Every time my mom will send us and say, "Go get stones for cooking." Now, when you are getting those stones, they needed to be for the same level. If not, if you put the pot on it, it won't balance. It will be like ... you know? And you can't cook without one stone. When one stone is out, then there's no cooking, because it won't balance.
That is how I always feel when it comes to keeping my spirit in shape. Leah, the community, and God, these are three stones, that if one is not there, then I won't be in shape. So, there's those things that I do at a personal level that connects me with God. During COVID, I learned how to sew. I realized how that is so therapeutic. I just found myself sewing and sewing. At that time, when I was making masks for people, I felt like, "How am I contributing to someone outside Leah?" When I was making these, I always remembered the story of Dorcas, Tabitha, in the Bible. Why? Because when she died, she was prayed for, and she got her life back just because the women were feeling like, "She's gone. Who is going to make the clothes for us?"
So, I feel like keeping my spirit in shape, it's also connected with the people that I'm around with and God. I found myself actively participating in Bible studies, contextual Bible studies that help me grow spiritually, and help me connect with the people that I'm working with. I have found myself doing what I call swallowship. That's just a name I made up, swallowship. You know the way we say fellowship, like being in fellowship with one another, I say swallowship, as in swallowing, so meaning that eating, just being together and being with the community.
Crystal Caviness: Sharing a meal.
Leah Wandera: Sharing a meal.
Crystal Caviness: Over swallowship.
Leah Wandera: Yes, being on the table, and that just brings how to me, because it nourishes my body. It uplifts my spirit. It keeps my health. That is what it does to the next person who is in need of that swallowship and fellowship. And just prayers, I'll say. Sometimes, you just take a moment to step back and reflect. Sometimes, I don't even have the strength to say any word, and I just keep quiet. You know what I do? I just take an empty seat, and I just put here, and I say, "God, I invite you to sit with me." It'll just be an empty seat, but God's presence is there. I just keep silent, and I just allow God to join me, and speak to me, and guide me through. That is what sometimes uplifts my spirit.
As I can say, my work focus is on health and education, and if I'm not well, my spirit is not well. So, I look so much into self-care. A lot of work that I do, sometimes it's overwhelming, and if you don't take care of yourself, then you can't give what is not in you. If I'm overwhelmed, sad, and fatigued, the world needs me. So, taking care of myself in one way, and just learning ... I'm one of those people that, I always feel like something has to be done. Something has to be done. But I've just learned to take a step back. If I'm not able to control it, I invite God in that space.
As deaconesses and home missioner, we have a very amazing community that is always there in solidarity with one another, and if it's overwhelming, I just call them. I just reach out to so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so. We have sometimes check-ins, that we have meetings to just check in on one another. It has been a great moment, just knowing that you have a community. You have siblings that you can reach out and just share in how ... So, I'll say that that has really ... that really keeps my spirit in shape, and of course learning, education, knowing more and more. I'm always so curious to learn, and I think I'm always very open to learn. So, just studying, learning, and allowing the Spirit to lead me into the new understanding that I should go. It helps to keep my spirit in shape.
Crystal Caviness: Well, Leah, thank you so much for being with us on Get Your Spirit in Shape. It's just been a delight to get to know you and hear more about the deaconess program, and about your work, and just all that you do for The United Methodist Church. Thank you.
Leah Wandera: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. It's my humble to join you at this time.
Crystal Cavines: That was Leah Wandera, who started the United women in Faith’s Deaconess and Home Missioner movement in the Africa region, as well as being the first Deaconess appointed and serving in Africa. To learn more about Leah and her ministry, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. In addition to the helpful links and a transcript of our conversation, you’ll find my email address so you can talk with me about Get Your Spirit in Shape. Thank you so much for joining us for today’s episode of “Get Your Spirit in Shape.” I look forward to the next time that we’re together. I’m Crystal Caviness.