P. Karuna Shree Joel: Messenger of hope

Profile of a global Mennonite Brethren leader

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Karuna Shree (Feb. 8, 1964—July 7, 1996) was born to Mennonite Brethren high school teachers S.S. Krupiah and B.D. Kanthamma on the MB Mission compound in Wanaparthy, India.

During Karuna’s pre-theology studies at MB Bible School in Shamshabad, God called her to full-time ministry, and she committed herself into God’s hands. By 1984, Karuna had completed a Bachelor of Theology from South India Biblical Seminary in Bangalore.

When she was 21, Karuna Shree married P. Menno Joel, her teacher in Shamshabad. This arranged marriage, the common practice in India, was made by her parents without her knowledge. Though initially cautious, Karuna agreed and Menno encouraged and actively supported her pursuit of theological studies. They had a son and two daughters.Karuna recognized how discrimination toward women within Indian culture also happened within the church, where women’s gifts and participation in ministry were rarely encouraged. Convinced of the unused potential, she pursued theological training, concluding that Jesus did not regard women as inferior.

Karuna completed a Bachelor of Divinity from Andhra Christian Theological College in Hyderabad and became the first MB woman to earn a Master of Theological Studies, which she completed at United Theological College in Bangalore. She specialized in homiletics, which proved challenging given that preaching by women was not accepted in MB churches.

Karuna promoted the ministry of women with gentle urgency, knowing full well the obstacles within her society and church. She sought to help women understand the biblical teaching about women and encourage them to explore their gifts.

Karuna shared her testimony at the 1990 Mennonite World Conference in Winnipeg. She was the first Mennonite Brethren woman to represent India at the ecumenical Christian Conference of Asia.

Shattering barriers that had limited women’s involvement within the India MB Conference, Karuna served as a member of the Conference’s Governing Council, as editor of the monthly magazine and as an instructor in homiletics and pastoral ministries at MB Centenary Bible College in Shamshabad. She also served as the executive secretary of the Mennonite Brethren Women’s Conference.

Karuna and Menno traveled extensively on behalf of the conference, leading retreats and seminars. Her love and acceptance toward all endeared her to local villagers and conference leaders.

A conflict between two rival groups over leadership of the MB conference also affected women’s ministries. At a gathering of women from both factions, Karuna advocated for a single unified leadership body. When the women voted overwhelmingly to unite, she voluntarily stepped down as secretary to make space for the election of new leaders. Her humility prompted someone from the rival group to declare that Karuna had given good leadership and should continue in her role.

At age 32, Karuna Shree was killed in a vehicle accident along with her 8-month-old daughter, Sneha. With less than a day’s notice, more than 2,000 people attended her funeral.

Shortly before her death, Karuna reflected on her ministry, “Above all, God’s continuous grace sustains me to bear everything and anything. I am a small vessel in his mighty hands.”

Written by Doug Heidebrecht, director of global training and associate professor of mission and theology at MB Seminary in Canada. This is an edited version of this profile published by the MB Historical Commission. 

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