IAM Staff Profile: Michelle Boonzaaier

In this monthly series, we hand over the blog platform to IAM’s staff to share their own journeys, stories and insights in their own words. Though our journeys are all unique and individual, many of us share common challenges and dilemmas as we simply attempt to lead our lives as people of faith while loving whom we love.

Rev Michelle Boonzaaier, Program Manager at IAM, holds a Bachelor’s degree in Diaconia Youth Work from Huguenot College. She started her career in agricultural development, working with small farmers, and went on to work as a fundraiser at the Institute for the Blind. She holds a Master’s degree in Divinity from the University of Stellenbosch after which she entered the ministry as a Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) minister. Michelle served on the IAM Board in 2010 and joined the IAM staff in 2011. Apart from Michelle’s work at IAM, she continues to work as a consultant in the field of rural development. She was appointed full time and is part of the senior management team from January 2017. Here is Michelle’s story in her own words.

There is something about words that has enchanted me since I was a little girl. I was an early reader and one of the biggest gifts that my Mom gave me was a bi-weekly trip to the library. The walk to the library was just over three kilometres and at the end of this seemingly never-ending walk, was the magic of words.

Today, I still play around with words as they shape me and the world around me. At IAM a huge part of my work is creating alternative, inclusive messaging while co-creating transformative realities through words.

Along with words, my faith journey started at a very young age. I knew, even before starting school, that I wanted to be a minister of religion. When other girls were “nursing” and dressing their dolls, I lined them up and preached to them. Even as a small child I knew that I was meant to share words, creating and sharing the stories I found inspiring from Sunday School. I often embellished the stories, adding my own spin to them, re-enacting them as entertainment for my dolls.

I was shattered when I completed matric in 1991 and was advised not to study theology because I was a woman. I pursued an alternative to theological studies aimed at becoming a minister, a Youthwork degree at Huguenot College in Wellington. At the end of my studies, I continued to have the niggling feeling that this was not my path, and I started work in rural development in the Northern and Southern Cape. The work with small-scale farmers in rural communities was the beginning of a life-long journey towards reimagining “calling” and ministry.

After a winding path of, amongst other things, working as a fundraiser at the Institute for the Blind I started studies in Theology at Stellenbosch University in 2001. By this time, I had already started to understand and interpret my role as an “outsider” in spaces that had previously been inaccessible. At Huguenot College, I learned to navigate a space as a young Black woman, that only two years before I enrolled was open only to White students. Navigating this space came with its unique pains and joys, learning and unlearning and joining others in actively trying to transform spaces.

My years at Stellenbosch University were, to say the least, complicated. By the time I got to Stellenbosch University, I enrolled as a Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) student where I inhabited a space that only a few years before had started a process of joint theological training of DRC and Uniting Reformed Church (URCSA) students in one place. (For those who don’t know, the DRC was traditionally a White church, while in the late ‘80s the URCSA brought together the Dutch Reformed Mission Church – a traditionally Coloured church – and the Reformed Church in Africa – a traditionally Black church – under one denomination. So you can imagine that the early days of joint training for the DRC and URCSA was an interesting time indeed.) During my time at the Faculty of Theology at Stellenbosch University, I always had the sense that I did not belong. This feeling of being an imposter has, to a large degree, shaped my sense of self, it has also shaped my theological positioning and ministry in Inclusive and Affirming Ministries (IAM).

As I’ve shared this sense of being an imposter at Stellenbosch University with more people since then, I’ve discovered more stories of being left out. I found other people on the fringes who felt that they did not belong. The people I encountered also often did not fit the normative mould. I realised that feelings of being an “outsider” has many varied shapes, sizes and colours. In these years of early ministry, a penny dropped for me. I realised that prejudice and exclusion in the form of racism, sexism, able-bodiedness, homophobia – to mention a few, were all just that same.

In joining people with my words and stories I was able to make sense of theological reflections, sense of calling and ministry. During this time, I joined IAM as a board member, initially to position my body with partners who were also excluded from ministry in mainline churches because of their sexual orientation. In the IAM space I became more and more aware of the intersections of oppression as I had experienced them. I found new vocabulary for an embodied faith journey.

For the past eight years I have been working for IAM and more recently joined the senior management team as a full-time member of staff.