One of my goals with the year of biblical womanhood project is to help women take back Proverbs 31.
The ancient acrostic poem celebrating the virtuous woman was never meant to be a standard women struggle to meet, but rather a blessing that celebrates the accomplishments they’ve already made. As we heard from Ahava, in Jewish culture, many men recite the poem to their wives at the Sabbath meal, and Jewish women often praise one another for accomplishments in homemaking, career, boldness, and justice by declaring “eshet chayil!”—woman of valor!
I met so many women of valor on my trip to Bolivia that it was hard to decide which ones to feature. But these six really stood out:
Marta was herself a sponsored child who grew up in Viloma, just west of Cochabamaba. When she became a teenager, her parents tried to pull her out of school so that she could work in the fields like so many rural Bolivian woman. But Marta loved school and wanted to continue her education, so with the help of a teacher, she moved to the city where she learned a trade by day and attended school at night. “The women who work in the fields cannot take care of their children,” Marta said. “They work from sunrise to sunset, leaving their little ones to play in dangerous places, and then they are exhausted at night. I wanted to do something different.”
Marta became such a skilled seamstress that when she married and moved back to Viloma, the ADP (Area Development Program) sponsored by World Vision employed her. Now she works alongside ten other women—all mothers of sponsored children—who make blankets, purses, and satchels not only for World Vision but for outside clients as well. The sewing station is located right next to the school, and women with younger children are allowed to keep them nearby while they work. Their wages far surpass those they could earn working in the field. Recently, Marta and her fellow workers made hundreds of blankets to hand out to every sponsored child in Viloma, enough to fill two rooms, floor to ceiling! Marta reminds me of Tabitha, an accomplished seamstress who made clothing for orphans and widows and who earned the distinction of being the only woman in the New Testament referenced with the female form of the word “disciple” (Acts 9). Eshet chayil!
Andrea’s official title is “communications officer” for World Vision, Bolivia, but as our translator and guide, she became our lifeline in the field. Smart, feisty, funny, and extremely knowledgeable about both Bolivian culture and American culture, she represents all that makes World Vision’s staff so effective. At just 27, she is full of stories—bringing just one pair of clothes to what turned out to be week’s worth of disaster relief work, getting phone calls from Korea at 3 a.m., traveling from Bolivia to the U.S. with a child in need of life-saving surgery only to have the nurse get sick and the child push her in a wheelchair through the airport. Explaining the intricacies of Catholic-Protestant tensions in Bolivia, Andrea said in her thick accent,“When people ask what I am, I tell them I am Protestant because I protest everything!” (She also had an opinion or two about Mark Driscoll!)
Headstrong yet tenderhearted, Andrea translated both the language and the culture with such ease, she made it look easy. Occasionally, when she was translating the story of a struggling mother, tears welled up in her eyes. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if in 20 years, Andrea was the president of World Vision!Eshet chayil!
Elana, her husband, and five children sleep in a tiny open hut right next to the pigs that they raise. Although World Vision supplied them with livestock which the family has successfully multiplied to sell at the market, times are still tough, especially since Elana’s husband suffered a stroke. In spite of these difficult circumstances, when Elana saw that a local mother had abandoned her two-year-old daughter Arminda to live alone in the streets, Elana took her in, eventually adopting her. (Arminda is a real charmer, by the way. Watch Matthew Paul Turner’s video and you will see what I mean.) Like a lot of rural Bolivian woman, Elana comes across as shy. She is missing some of her front teeth and her skin is weathered from the sun. But Elana holds her head high and makes eye contact. There is a beauty and a spark there that can only be explained by a brave and tender heart. Her story made me wonder, what excuse do I have not to care for a child in need? Eshet chayil!
Cinda, a soft-spoken woman with earnest eyes, who like most women in the country wears her long black hair in two braids down her back, had three little girls and several acres of land to tend when her husband abandoned the family. Although she had the skills she needed to harvest potatoes and beans, her planting time, yield, and variety were severely limited due to a lack of irrigation to her property. It would be difficult for her family to survive with only one adult tending the fields.
Fortunately, Cinda and her family are part of a World Vision ADP. Her three girls have sponsors whose contributions are not only used to purchase school supplies and meals, but are also pooled together with other contributions to help solve community problems. Partnering with local leaders, World Vision helped the community build and maintain a better dam—a beautiful reservoir of deep blue beneath a mountain called Hunu, capable of providing irrigation to ver 170 families and even stocked with fish for extra protein.
Now water runs swiftly through Cinda’s property, which not only yields several varieties of potatoes and beans, but also sustains a couple of llamas, a herd of sheep, and a noisy pig. In fact, Cinda produces enough crops to not only feed her own family but also to sell the excess at the market. Against all odds, she has become a successful farmer and businesswoman. Eshet Chayil!
Janet was introduced to us by Gherson, the manager of the Viloma ADP. “Bolivia is a chauvinistic country,” he said. “We have a lot of family violence, discrimination against women, and lack of opportunities for women. Most of Bolivia’s pastors are male, but here in Viloma, we have a rare privilege—a female pastor.” He then stepped aside so that Janet could lead us in a devotional about Elijah.
Just as Elijah was surrounded by an invisible army, so we are surrounded by forces for good that we cannot always see, Janet explained. She encouraged us to act boldly and prayed that our eyes would be opened to God’s work in Viloma. “Then we can go out and face the troubles in our community like the prophet—quiet, confident, unafraid.”
Quiet. Confident. Unafraid. These words describe Janet and all the women like her who see beyond the patriarchy and the obstacles that surround them to speak prophetically about a better future. Eshet chayil! (To learn more about Janet, read Joy’s excellent post about chauvinism—both in Bolivia and here at home.)
On the very first day of the trip, we pulled up to a school where the children waited outside to greet us. When faced with a crowd of eager children, it’s hard to know where to start, but I was drawn instantly to an older girl standing to the side with a big smile and a confident laugh. When I asked her name, she responded brightly, “My name is Lizeth!”
As it turns out, Lizeth was to share the devotional that morning. She spoke from Matthew 13, where Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed. “Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
It was the only time during the trip that I couldn’t stop myself from crying on the spot. The mustard seed is such a beautiful picture of World Vision’s trickle-up approach to lifting communities out of poverty. They start by addressing the needs of children, and from there work to improve the conditions that surround them so that mothers, fathers, grandmothers, grandfathers, siblings, and the entire community are all affected. A single sponsorship is like a tiny mustard seed that when it grows, becomes a tree in which the birds can come and perch in its branches. Lizeth is living proof that this model works. Eshet chayil!
If you want to help plant such a mustard seed, consider sponsoring a child. The first 150 sponsors will receive a special edition Bolivia bloggers necklace by Lisa Leonard Designs. Lisa was kind enough to give each woman on the trip two necklaces—one for herself and one for a woman with whom she made a special connection. I gave mine to Marta. Elizabeth Esther gave hers to Elena. What woman of valor will you give yours to? (And what do you think of regularly featuring “women of valor” here on the blog?)
To meet more women of valor, check out my friend Jana's post about "Bolivia's 'It' Girls."