Marthe, the eldest daughter of a family of four girls in Cameroon, had darker skin than the rest of her family. Her parents told her she was stupid and ugly. She suffered humiliation and frustration. No skin-bleaching product could remove the disgust she felt toward herself. Eventually, Marthe’s search for care, love and affection led her into prostitution.
The use of skin-bleaching products is common in Cameroon. Many believe that Cameroonian men prefer light-skinned women as partners, girlfriends or wives. Some perceive women with light complexions as more attractive, intelligent, appealing and sexually desirable than their dark-skinned sisters.
During the 2015 annual meeting of the United Methodist Cameroon Mission Initiative, the Rev. Solomon Mbwoge was appointed to plant a church in Muyuka, a semi-urban locality. During an evangelism event, Marthe approached him and shared her story. She said that rather than finding the acceptance she craved through prostitution, she felt despised. Sometimes, clients abused her. Prostitution caused her emotional, psychological and physical pain.
Marthe found refuge in the church, and today she sells fresh tomatoes in a local market.
Sharing Marthe’s story
Recently, 55 people gathered in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s capital, for a Peace with Justice seminar sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and heard Marthe’s compelling story. Participants included 40 clergy and laity from the Cameroon Mission Initiative, three imams, university students and members of the Council of Protestant Churches of Cameroon.
Led by the Rev. Neal Christie of the Board of Church and Society, participants classified words and phrases as “non-harmful” or “most harmful.” Mbwoge encouraged participants to use healing language that conveys acceptance and love.
In a workshop on domestic violence, Dr. Sodon Clarnette, a psychologist and psychotherapeutic specialist from the University of Yaoundé, recommended four component processes of nonviolent communication – observations, feelings, needs and requests – as useful tools. Participants were encouraged to reframe how they express themselves and how they hear others and to resolve conflict by focusing on what they observe, feel, need and request.
Christie explained the Trauma Resiliency Model, a program designed to teach skills to clinicians working with children and adults with traumatic stress reactions.
Participants were encouraged to become agents of change in their local communities as they advocate for nonviolence and healing. They were urged to coordinate programs and projects in addressing and denouncing violence and promoting peace with justice.
What would Jesus do?
While challenging the church and individuals to use words that heal, Marthe’s story also raises the ancient question of how the church deals with prostitution.
Prostitutes were part of the humanity Jesus came to save from sin and eternal death. Like some in our churches today, the religious leaders in Jesus’ time were shocked and scandalized that Jesus would accept invitations to sit and eat with “sinners.” Jesus answered, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17b, NRSV). Asked to affirm the death penalty for a woman caught in the act of prostitution, Jesus said, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7b, NRSV).
The United Methodist Church in Cameroon is in ministry with the poor, youth and young adults, women, prisoners, street children and other vulnerable people. In that central African country, prostitutes and others involved in the sex industry receive little help. However, God calls us as a church and as individual Christians to empathize and be in mission with every one of God’s beloved children.
Nothing justifies disengagement.
The Rev. Collins Etchi Ako, who serves Mount Carmel United Methodist Church, near Yaoundé, is Cameroon Volunteers in Mission coordinator and national youth and young adult president.