There are some things Emily Nielsen Jones just can’t accept. Girls should not be born into a world that values them less than boys. Women should not bear the brunt of crushing economic inequalities. And our religious traditions should not in any way validate patriarchal gender norms that attempt to “keep women in their place.”
“In this moment in time, when we see how enslaving the world is, with so many human rights violations,” says Nielsen Jones, “we need to work harder to enlist our religious traditions in ameliorating these structural inequalities, not exacerbating them, by bringing out the deeper essence of our spiritual ideals which support human equality. We can do better. We have to connect the dots so that we move forward, not backward.”
For Nielsen Jones, cofounder and president of the Imago Dei Fund in Boston, Mass., that means partnering with “change agents, locally and around the world, to build bridges of peace and create a world where girls and women can thrive and achieve their full human potential.”
The best trafficking ‘prevention’ the church can be engaged in is establishing a very clear, very solid spiritual framework of human equality for men and women alike and working toward gender balancing our own organizations.
As a donor-activist in the women-led philanthropy movement, Nielsen Jones started the Imago Dei Fund in 2009 with her husband, Ross Jones, and Executive Director Debra Veth. Their early research and development took them to Cambodia, where they saw anti-trafficking efforts firsthand and became partners with the faith-based anti-trafficking collaborative Chab Dai. As they engaged there, they gradually found a niche helping these organizations establish a clearer framework for gender equality by translating Christians for Biblical Equality materials into Khmer and cosponsoring forums around women’s leadership. The more they learned, the more focused their goal became: to invest their resources to further God’s kingdom by affirming the unique creation of every person’s calling in the world.
Today the Imago Dei Fund supports unique educational and micro-enterprising efforts in Uganda, Cambodia, Haiti, and the United States so as to “co-create” a world that respects and enhances the freedom and dignity of all. Using a “gender lens,” they strategically partner with organizations to make sure all of their policies and efforts in the world are working to increase gender balance and thus send out empowering ripples of change into what are still highly patriarchal cultural contexts. Motivated by how few Christian organizations have women on their boards, the Imago Dei Fund helped initiate a national academic study on women in evangelical leadership by partnering with Gordon College, and it has been instrumental in helping some seminaries create more opportunities for women.
The granddaughter of immigrants from Sweden and Norway, Nielsen Jones was raised in upstate New York in a family where she and her two sisters learned early on “not to drink the Kool-Aid” of gender messages in their evangelical community. Her parents and grandmother instilled an empowering ethic, and along the way she learned to tune out disempowering religious messages and to “listen to my own heart.” When she came home from church one afternoon complaining that only the boys in Sunday school at her Southern Baptist church were asked to pray, the response was along the lines of “This is not okay, and we need to go complain!” Thus began her journey of faith-based gender activism!
“I might get into evangelical hot waters by saying this, but I have always believed in my own equality as a woman—and women’s equality—without needing a biblical argument or exegesis to say so,” she says. “Of course, it’s important to find a clear biblical explanation for gender equality; however, sometimes I wonder if we set ourselves up for an ongoing debate and disagreement, as if burying our heads in the Bible is the only way we can arrive at truth rather than listening to our own hearts. Both are important.”
That gender lens is what has shaped both her personal vision and the direction of the Imago Dei Fund. Now, as more ministries and churches combat human trafficking, Nielsen Jones hopes they will also begin to look more deeply at the religious messages that prop up male power over women and legitimize male-only leadership models. These factor into the “dangerous humanitarian mix” that continues to devalue the dignity and worth of females, making them vulnerable to a host of violence and discrimination at a time when women and NGOs all over the world are working so hard to empower girls and women.
“The best trafficking ’prevention’ the church can be engaged in is establishing a very clear, very solid spiritual framework of human equality for men and women alike and working toward gender balancing our own organizations.” The irony of advocating for girls around the globe while preserving all (or mostly) male leadership structures at home and within our churches and organizations is obvious, she says, and another reason we need what she refers to as “holy disruptions.”
“We have more economic inequalities in today’s world than when American slavery was an institution,” she says, “and that weighs on me. Something’s wrong when people are in such duress that they sell our own bodies and dignity in order to survive.”
As long as these injustices exist, Nielsen Jones will be looking for ways to address them. “As a donor-activist, I don’t always get to see the work, but I can help connect the dots between religious ideas around gender and their humanitarian implications. I find great joy in doing my part in the global movement for gender balance that we see across so many sectors of society, including our faith traditions. But things are still tenuous, so a good first step for Christians here and around the globe is to look within and make sure we are not part of the problem!”
Jo Kadlecek is the senior writer and journalist-in-residence at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. She is the author of almost a dozen books, including Desperate Women of the Bible (Baker Books, 2006).