This month, we are celebrating International Women’s Day by featuring stories of courage and determination by ordinary women who are playing extraordinary roles within our Baptist community.
Finding one’s voice – Charlene Delos Santos
Charlene’s upbringing was not a typical one. Arriving in Australia at the age of six with her parents and younger sister, her Filipino heritage has largely shaped her family’s decisions and hopes. Her early experience of church, in a predominantly white youth group, was one of being on the fringe.
“It was hard being the only Asian person in my close group of friends.”
Charlene’s good humour, and affable smile belie the struggle for identity and finding her own voice in leadership in a culture where she does not fit the status quo. A life shaped by expectations from cultural heritage along with power structures pervading Western society are shared by many who call themselves second-generation Australian. For some, this tension can be overwhelming and destructive.
However, Charlene’s love for Jesus and desire to make him known has opened up a place for ushering in peace through right relationship with God and across cultural distinctives. Towards the end of the high school, Charlene had a strong encounter with God.
“During that time, I felt so loved by my father in heaven. I felt so surrounded and embraced by his love.”
Charlene was compelled to do what she could to share God’s love with others. As a student and with the support of Scripture Union (SU), she started a prayer group in school, and ran lunch time programs. “It was hard work, and at times really disappointing, but I felt Jesus was close.”
This foray into ministry leadership brought Charlene to a point of tension with traditional expectations of her migrant family. “Even though they were Christians, there was a lot of resistance to me seeking to be in ministry. As a child of migrant parents, they were worried about me not being financially secure or having a stable job. To compromise, I ended up doing a youth work degree at RMIT, rather than studying at Bible College.”
Upon graduation, Charlene accepted a position with SU in schools ministry and ran an internship program for culturally diverse leaders. After 11 years with SU, Charlene stepped out in faith, seeking God for a workplace where culture was celebrated and affirmed.
Through God’s sovereign hand, SURRENDER Conference sought her out and Charlene is now in her fifth year on the team. Her work with SURRENDER built connections with the BUV, where she is currently coordinating IGNITE, the BUV’s annual multicultural youth conference.
Reflecting on the conference, Charlene speaks with deep understanding,
“Many of the second-generation youth at IGNITE live every day with pressure from both sides – from their parents’ or church’s cultures and from western society”.
“When they gather at the IGNITE conference, they can breathe. They feel like they can be themselves. Many are building bonds with other youths outside their church and community because they understood each other.”
Charlene describes it as not knowing where one fits in, yet also trying to integrate multiple cultural identities.
“Because of my personal journey, I am passionate to engage with and support this next generation of culturally diverse leaders.”
Charlene is working closely with the team to provide focus on international leadership development for the IGNITE leaders and for connections to be maintained beyond the conference.
Being one of the few Asian women in ministry leadership today, Charlene dreams of a diverse church with more multicultural leaders – particularly female leaders.
“There are many good women leaders serving in their church communities, but there are also limitations to areas in which they can lead, many barriers and missed opportunities. Currently, there are also few role models for young second-generation leaders to follow.”
Charlene is in the continual process of deepening her relationship with Jesus and learning her own voice in leadership. But she freely admits that finding her voice in leadership has been fraught at times. The majority of leaders in meetings represent traditional Western society, and subtly hold the power of opinion. ‘When I am in a meeting, I listen to these voices in the room more than others to gauge whether I am on the right track, rather than ask, “What is my voice? What do I think?”
Charlene laments the times she has not listened to her gut and has shaped and filtered her ideas to suit what the powerbrokers may want to hear. “There are other times where I live out of that sense of what God has called me to do and be. And other times when I should have listened to my gut, but I decided to go with what I thought success looked like. And it has hurt.”
The journey to finding her voice has required self-reflection, courage and persistence. She freely admits, “It’s a challenge I’m learning to overcome!”
Charlene Delos Santos is the Co-Director of Surrender Australia and the BUV Multicultural 2nd Generation Coordinator.