A time to teach and learn “a diakonia of solidarity”

Rev. Dr Marcia Blasi standing next to a statue of Katharina von Bora at Faculdades EST, Brazil. Photo: Private

Voices from the Communion: Rev. Dr Marcia Blasi

(LWI) – For many higher institutions of learning around the world, the coronavirus disease pandemic not only ushered in an unexpected shift from in-person to online teacher-student interaction but it also brought new discourse into teaching.

Rev. Dr Marcia Blasi is professor of feminist theology and coordinator of the theology course and the Gender and Religion Program at Faculdades EST, the theological university of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB). In this Voices from the Communion interview, Blasi talks about coping with “anxiety and gratitude” how “we miss not being afraid” and the determination to “work for gender justice” as classes continue online.

How has the novel coronavirus pandemic in Brazil changed your working environment?

The coronavirus pandemic changed everything. When the Ministry of Education imposed lockdown measures in early March, we had just started a new semester. From one day to another, classes were transferred to online platforms, the offices closed and the campus went silent. We normally have around 60 theology students on campus and over 15 faculty members, besides students and professors from other courses.

Professors and students had to figure out how to work best from home, behind phones and computer screens. Dealing with fear and anxiety became one of our main tasks. Although the university academic calendar includes distance learning courses, this turned out to be a totally new experience.

The Gender and Religion Program works transversally to build gender justice in the different areas of action, teaching and research, and we had just moved to a new office space and welcomed new team members. Workshops and seminars that had been planned changed and we had to reinvent ourselves. As the days passed, we created new routines, different ways of caring for each other, and being in community in spite of being socially distant.

Please elaborate on “dealing with fear and anxiety.”

There is a lot of anxiety over preventing the disease, taking care of oneself and others, and about the future. However, as a community of God, we engage in a diakonia of solidarity. We are grateful for the possibilities that allow us to care of ourselves and others, to have internet access, food and a home, for the recovery of students and staff who became sick. But we really miss the face-to-face interaction, the customary hug, in-person seminars with students and congregations, and most of all, we miss not being afraid.

In July, we conducted a survey among theology students and professors to understand how people were coping with the pandemic. The response was similar: a mixture of anxiety and gratitude. To hold this tension with gentleness and care remains a daily challenge.

How does this affect teaching?

By 20 October, Brazil had recorded more than 5.2 million coronavirus cases and nearly 154,000 people had died from the disease [World Health Organization]. In some states like ours [Rio Grande de Sul] more than 5,200 people have died. Despite good preparation by the public health system and availability of medicine and personal protection equipment, workers were pushed to the limits, physically and emotionally.

Teaching is always contextual. In the midst of a pandemic, fear and the reality of social injustices became even more visible, and this challenged not only the teaching format but the content too. It also challenged us to listen, to reflect together, support each other, live in community and build knowledge and hope together.

During a recent LWF webinar on education and Lutheran identity, you said “violence against women, children and the elderly” in Brazil had increased during the pandemic, can you elaborate?

It is important to remember that violence in the home has not started with the pandemic nor was it created by the pressure and stress brought about by the coronavirus disease. The government released information that in April alone, just one month into social isolation, there was an increase of 44 percent in reports of violence against women, compared to the same month in 2019. There was also a 22 percent increase in femicides during the pandemic.

Social isolation confined people together behind closed doors for 24 hours a day. Many people working in the formal and informal sectors lost employment and a secure source of livelihood. In an environment where violence is already occurring, the growing stress and the economic vulnerability have increased aggression in the home, especially against women, children and the elderly. The latter group is even more at risk because social distancing makes it difficult to assist them.

In Brazil, violence in the home is part of a patriarchal culture and machismo that devalues women and girls. Christian Scripture interpretations and teachings on obedience and women’s submission legitimize such a culture, as does the growth of fundamentalist religious groups, political influence and legislation.

Have people devised new ways of helping out during the pandemic?

To respond to the new context, several campaigns have used creativity to raise awareness about violence in the home through social media. In Rio Grande de Sul, the Brazilian committee of the HeforShe movement organized the “Purple Mask Campaign.” In partnership with public officials, pharmacies are now places where women can ask for a purple mask as a password for the attendant to get the caller’s name and address, and alert the police.

At church level, the IECLB in partnership with the Gender and Religion Program at Faculdades EST has launched the “For a home without violence” campaign. Through social media, radio spots, prayer and a counseling hotline, the church makes it clear that violence in the home is a sin and offers support to people being victimized, and calls perpetrators to accountability. Until the end of 2020, the Gender and Religion Program will offer free online courses on the topic of violence against women and counseling of victims and survivors.

How can taught theology shape perceptions on gender justice?

According to Faculdades EST Gender Justice Policy (adopted in 2015) gender justice is a theological, pedagogical and ethical principle. Therefore, issues of gender justice are part of how we do and teach theology. It has to do with the authors we read, the way we relate to each other, the use of inclusive language, and awareness of power relations among men and women, among other aspects. It can be very challenging, but it is also a sign of hope and commitment to life and a witness to society.

What does it mean for you to belong to the global LWF communion?

To belong to the LWF global communion is to experience the grace of God, to know that we are not alone in the world, but that the Spirit of God moves us as sisters and brothers.

Personally, being part of the LWF communion has shaped my life and my vocation. As a young theology student, my husband and I received a scholarship to study for one year in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa. The experience taught us that there are diverse cultures, races, languages, ways to celebrate and worship within the Lutheran communion, but through baptism we are part of the same family, living the multiform grace of God.

Being part of the communion has also given me strength and courage to work for gender justice as part of my vocation and theological commitment.

Faculdades EST, is the theological university of the Evangelical Church of the Lutheran Confession in Brazil (IECLB).

Voices from the Communion

The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.