Asian Women on the Cutting Edge of Mission: Past and Present

Traditionally, the role of Asian women was mainly in the home. In church and Christian mission, this has been translated to generally confining Asian women to ministries with children and women, hospitality, and community service. However, they may have been overlooked for their significant impact on the churches and societies in their contexts and of their times.

Historical Role Models
An early example is Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922). One of India’s most revolutionary thinkers of her time, she was known as a pioneering social reformer, defying the caste system and overcoming barriers to rescue outcast children, widows, orphans, and destitute women. In fact, a home was established which eventually became the Pandita Ramabai Mukti Mission. Under the many services provided at Mukti Mission (orphanages, schools for the illiterate, medical services for the poor, homes for the unwanted, and a church), her vision continues in the lives of many women and young girls who have found hope and new life.

Ramabai expressed her conviction this way: “People must not only hear about the kingdom of God, but must see it in actual operation, on a small scale perhaps and in imperfect form, but a real demonstration nevertheless.”

The Biographical Dictionary of Chinese Christianity recorded a number of Chinese women who by faith promoted new ideas and pioneered new projects. Space allows me to mention only two.

Shi Meiyu (Mary Stone) (1873-1954) was one of the first Asian women to graduate from the University of Michigan in medicine. She returned to work in Jiujiang, China, as a medical missionary of the Woman's Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church. For twenty years as the hospital superintendent, Meiya cared for patients, trained nurses, translated training manuals and textbooks for Chinese nurses, and promoted public hygiene. According to the Dictionary, “Grown up with unbound feet, she was enthusiastic in opposing foot binding.”

Eventually, she left the Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society and established the Shanghai Bethel Mission, which later developed a hospital, schools, and an orphanage. Bethel was well-known for its training program for nurses. Not only were they well-trained in nursing skills, they were also trained in evangelism.

As one of the female pioneers for women’s work for the Southern Methodist Mission in Korea from 1897 to 1903, Yu Lingzhi (Dora Yu) (1873-1931) was considered “the first cross-cultural Chinese missionary in modern times.”1 Her work was multifaceted and involved Bible teaching, medical work among female patients and school children, teaching Korean girls with learning disabilities from poor families, and translating and compiling textbooks.

After her return to China, she established what might be called “the first Chinese faith mission, following the footsteps of Hudson Taylor.”2 She played a prominent role in the Chinese holiness movement, which has an “historical significance for the theology of Christian spiritual growth and women’s role in missions.”3

Recognition should also be given to Korean women in the “minjung” movement. Writing on Asian women in mission, Sun Ai Lee Park recounts the growth of Christian women’s concerns in Korea for the human rights struggles of the “minjung” (masses of poor, exploited, and marginalised people) in the 1970s. Many women became preachers and workers in the day care centres of the churches to reach the minjung.4

As a result, the minjung movement “challenged both the church and society to deal with the problems of socio-economic and political injustice.” This, in turn, “brought democracy to Korea in the late 1980s, and certainly played a ‘prophetic’ role in Korean history.”5

Twenty-first Century Innovative Models
Toward the latter part of the last century, and since the beginning of the twenty-first century, there has been a rediscovery of mission as holistic in nature, centred on the mandate to love God and our neighbour (Matthew 22:34-40). Melba Maggay, founder and president of ISACC (the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture), argues with biblical undergirding that loving God and loving our neighbour (those who are needy, poor, and marginalised) is a single act. She believes that “ultimately, it is the love of God and neighbour that will make any work endure”6 in this century of massive global social needs.

Two women from Asia have been engaging in such enduring work.

Lalita Edwards and Romanna. Lalita Edwards: Medical Doctor; Founder/director of Santvana (meaning “comforter”) Children’s Home for HIV/AIDS Infected/affected Children in Pune, India
According to one article, “Dr. Edwards is no stranger to the red light district of Pune, India. For years, she has regularly journeyed inside—where few dare go—to offer free medical help and advice to women who have been forced or coerced into the sex trade.”

Her heart goes out to the children of these women. In 2005, she started running Santvana Children’s Home, which took in HIV-positive children who were often abandoned and/or orphaned by AIDS, as well as malnourished street kids, commonly the victims of human trafficking and child labour.

Still, many of the children of commercial sex workers stay with their mothers. When Edwards realised how vulnerable the children are between the hours of 5 and 9:30 p.m., she set up a crèche, offering to take care of them with the help of qualified staff. This would protect them from their high-risk environment, even if just for a few hours.

Edwards believes that Bible-based values rooted in faith in Christ are key to HIV/AIDS prevention. According to one source, she has played a vital role in challenging churches to address issues of sex and sexuality and AIDS awareness. For more on Edwards’ work, go to

Romanna: Dentist; Forest Conservationist in East Asia
What has dentistry got to do with forest conservation?

Participants of the CWME (World Council of Churches Commission on World Mission and Evangelism) Working Group on Mission and Spirituality met in March 2010 and made this observation: “In our days, there is a quest for a holistic understanding of mission relevant to the contemporary ecological crisis. God calls us into mission in order to bring healing to creation.”7

It was this understanding and calling that led Romanna to use her dental skills to help protect the much depleted rain forest of East Asia from logging.

In the NGO which Romanna co-founded, the objective is twofold: to promote health care of poor villagers and to preserve their natural resources—their precious forest. When patients come to her for dental treatment, they are educated on the importance of preserving their trees. However, they need the incentive to act on this as they rely on the income from logging to feed their families.

Romanna gives them dental treatment at a discounted price if they agree to stop logging. They can also pay in kind with such things as manure, seedlings, and rice husks for use in the reforestation project. Romanna likes new ideas and challenges. Her passion has been to engage with people in remote areas, especially those in the Muslim community. She believes that effective engagement means addressing the needs of the whole being (physical, social, spiritual) in word and action. When approached to be involved in this new NGO—where she could provide quality dental care for those who cannot afford it, while at the same time protecting God’s creation—she felt it was a great opportunity to make God’s presence felt and his love known among the Muslims in East Asia.

Filipino Women Impacting Diaspora Mission
They may not be highly-qualified professionals, and their names may not appear in any mission biographies, but their mission initiatives and impact will be recorded in history. They are the thousands of evangelical Christian women from the Philippines working as housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers in royal courts and average homes around the world. A high percentage are in the Middle East and North Africa, where missionary visas are not granted.8

Together with their male counterparts, they belong to a movement—the Filipino International Network—and seize opportunities to reach the nations through themselves being widely dispersed globally. They have become “a powerhouse for the cause of world mission.”9

Passion • Compassion • Gifts • Faith

These are the four things the women above had in common. Their passion for God and his creation, coupled with their compassion for the physically and spiritually needy (just as Jesus had for the harassed and helpless multitudes in Matthew 9:36), motivated them to use their gifts (skills, experience, creativity) to push boundaries and spawn fresh approaches to mission.

By their prophetic voices and catalytic actions, they challenged, as well as inspired the Church and society. Their passion, compassion, and gifts were integrated with faith—faith in the God who cares and is able to transform lives and communities for the better, both present and future.


1. Robert, Dana, ed. 2002. Gospel Bearers Gender Barriers: Missionary Women in the Twentieth Century. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 85, 90.

2. Ibid, 92.

3. Ibid.

4. Park, Sun Ai Lee. 1992. “Asian Women in Mission.” International Review of Mission 81(322):265-280.

5. Kim, Sebastian. 2008. Christian Theology in Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 142.

6. Maggay, Melba. 2008. “To Respond to the Human Need by Loving Service.” In Mission in the 21st Century. Eds. Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross, 52. London: Darton, Longman, and Todd.

7. Aguado, Maria. 2010. “Mission Spirituality and Care for Creation: An Introduction.” International Review of Mission 99(390):175.

8. Wan, Enoch and Sadiri Joy Tira. 2009. “The Filipino Experience in Diaspora Missions: A Case Study of Mission Initiatives from the Majority World Churches.” In Missions from the Majority World: Progress, Challenges, and Case Studies. Eds. Enoch Wan and Mike Pocock, 394. Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library.

9. Ibid.

Loun-Ling Tan is a lecturer in Asian and mission studies and director of Asian studies development at Redcliffe College in the U.K. She formerly worked with OMF International and MSI Professional Services in East Asia, mainly in mission mobilisation, research, and training.