Melissa Browning, Ph.D.
Atlanta, Georgia USA

Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies congregational and community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her recent book, "Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania," builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and is an ordained Baptist minister.

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The case of the missing cell phone

By on April 14, 2010

shapeimage_2Last week during my fieldwork session, my field assistant’s cell phone went missing. At the end of the session, when she realized the phone was gone, she panicked. Without alerting any of us as to what was going on, she pulled everyone back in from the packed vehicles and made people dump their purses. I was horrified. The conversation got heated and too quick for my slow swahili ears to comprehend. I tried to bring order, but no order was to be found. Even when the phone was found in the car (the person who stole it abandoned it when everyone was called back inside), peace was still out of reach.

I spent much of the week thinking about the incident and worrying that this would completely sabotage the sense of community we had created in the fieldwork group. On the advice of my affiliate here in Tanzania, I sent everyone a text message during the week letting them know the problem had been resolved and that I loved each of them very much and hoped they would return the following week.

Preparing for this week’s meeting, I was worried the issue would resurface. Everyone knew who stole the phone, but I still wanted to avoid accusation. St. Thomas Aquinas once said that a person who steals when they are in need is not morally culpable for the sin because the greater sin is their being in such great need. I don’t know if this applies to cell phones, but I could certainly understand why someone might steal. Almost all the women I’m working with are in need. All but one of them are widowed or separated; almost all are working small jobs that probably don’t cover their basic expenses. I knew a wrong had been done and needed to be rectified, but I wasn’t sure how to approach it without it leading to someone being accused or feeling the need to leave the group.

But when we gathered together again this week, there was a sense of peace in the room. The person who stole the phone was initially withdrawn and isolated as we gathered. However, when we addressed the issue together, some of the women in the group shared some profound things about forgiveness and unity that allowed us to move past the event. It was agreed that as a group, we would forgive and put this behind us and “never speak of it again.”

In this event, I learned several important things. The first is the obvious lesson of forgiveness. In this group, the unity of the whole was more important than seeking justice through accusation. Justice was reached without judgement. The second thing I learned was that the women in the group were most disturbed that a theft happened in the space where we were meeting together. The space of sharing we had created was seen by many of them as a safe, almost sacred space. The women were upset not because they thought they were being accused, but because this space of trust had been violated. When we met together again, the main goal of forgiveness was that we as a group move on and accomplish what we set out to do.

In the end, I think trust was restored and a lesson was learned. And I’m pretty sure my field assistant won’t leave her phone sitting on the snack table again.