Archive for the ‘women in ministry’ Category

A Little Levity for Women in Ministry

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Okay, so I don’t feel like being serious or thoughtful or reflective or even spiritual here on the blog today.  After spending over thirty minutes in my closet yesterday anguishing over what to wear to the pulpit to preach in, when I stumbled on this button this morning I howled.

pulpit magnet

You can order the magnet or (if you’re really bold) the tee-shirt:

A Stitch in Time

Monday, August 24th, 2009

I promised to send this 1989 photo of Prathia to a sister blogger over at Prathia’s Daughters a blog dedicated to women in ministry committed to social activism. The photo of me standing beside women I admire and have befriended over the years is one of a number of photos I keep nearby me here in my study. Taking the photo out of its frame and scanning it into the computer for  Prathia’s Daughters and looking at it again and again has brought back sweet memories.

The photo was taken 20 years ago at my 1989 graduation from Princeton Seminary.

PTS graduation

I had the dubious distinction that year of becoming the first African American woman  to earn a Ph.D. in Old Testament. At least that’s what they tell me. That’s what the history books say. Of course, none of that was on my mind at the time. I had gone to school like they told me so I could get a good job. The job I wanted at the time was something that combined my interest in religion with my desire (since childhood) to teach. I had no earthly idea at that moment what all that meant. But I would soon learn.

I’d managed to skip attending the graduation ceremonies from my undergraduate college and the one I was supposed to attend when I completed my master’s degree program there at Princeton. Why did I not go? Bourgeois affairs. Counterrevolutionary. Rituals I had little to no use for. Or, so I reasoned. Seemed like good reasons at the time. The truth was that none of my peeps  had the money or wherewithal to come north for my graduations. So why bother? But thank God for friends. My then and now good friend M. Elaine Flake, standing there to my left, insisted that I march in the graduation ceremony and be hooded as a newly minted black Ph.D. I seem to recall in fact that she threatened to disown me if I didn’t. She got that this was a historic moment even though I didn’t at the time. Sure enough Elaine showed up for my graduation. As did other friends.

Thank God for friends who were then and are now smarter and wiser than I am.

To my immediate right is Rosemary Bray (McNatt).  We were girls pretending to be women back in the 70s there in New York City.  (Can you say “Sex and the City”?) How did we meet? I seem to recall that Rosemary had posted a note on a bulletin board at a well known feminist bookstore there at 92nd and Amsterdam asking whether there were other black women out there who wanted to join her in starting a black women’s literature reading group, and I gave her a call. (This was back before email, Facebook, and cell phones, y’all.) I was working as a broker at Merrill Lynch at the time, and Rosemary was an editor at Essence magazine. We met and became fast friends. In her capacity as an editor at Essence Rosemary was able to see to it that my first article would be published in Essence magazine. Thanks Rosemary. I owe you.

To Rosemary’s right is the indescribable Debyii Subabu Thomas, an AME minister and now professor in the Communications department at Howard University. At the bottom of the photo, her bushy ‘fro peeping out, is my fellow AME friend Paulette Coleman, art educator and urban planner, whom I’ve known since we were students in Cambridge, Massachusetts and both members of the Artisha Wilkerson Jordan Missionary circle of St. Paul AME Church. That’s right. Long before I was a minister I was a missionary in church. That’s where women clergy got their start back then, in the various women’s auxilaries in church. Things are different now. Now you don’t even have to have spent any time getting to know women in the church, you don’t have to like church, and you don’t even have to know God to go into ministry these days. But that’s another story.

There to the extreme right in the photo is Prathia Hall Wynn.

Remembering Prathia (1940-2002)

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Prathia In 1962 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was visiting Terrell County, Georgia speaking to a congregation whose church building had recently been burned to the ground by the Klan. The name of the church was Mt. Olive Baptist Church. In the service was a young SNCC worker and college student, Prathia Hall.  She had distinguished herself as someone with great oratory talents and possessing a strong religious background, so she was on the program that night to pray.  As she prayed Prathia drew on her talents as the daughter of a Baptist preacher and began to intone her own vision of the future by peppering her prayer with the phrase, “I Have A Dream.” King was impressed; and as ministers often do King would later go on to incorporate an inspiring phrase he heard from someone into his own speeches. By late1962 the phrase, “I have a dream” had become a fixture in sermons King frequently gave as he traveled the United States.

So who was Prathia Hall?

Prathia Hall grew up in Philadelphia. Her father, Reverend Berkeley Hall, was a Baptist minister and a passionate advocate for racial justice. She left her undergraduate studies at Temple University to join the throng of college students who were heading south to be freedom fighters and to take part in the movement taking place there. Prathia joined the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and eventually became one of the first women field leaders in southwest Georgia.  Prathia would later go on to become a preacher, following her father’s footsteps as a Baptist minister. She helped break barriers for women’s leadership in the Baptist church by distinguishing herself as an outstanding preacher. In 1962 she was the first woman to be received into the membership of the Baptist Minister’s Conference of Philadelphia. After her father’s death Prathia accepted the call of Mount Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia to come and pastor the church her father once pastored.

Prathia later enrolled at Princeton Theological Seminary where I met her. We were classmates, she focusing on ethics while I focused on biblical studies.  I remember the long talks we had about God, ministry, life, love, and the struggle for justice. I don’t recall her making any special effort to impress me with her SNCC credentials. Neither do I recall her saying a word about having influenced ML King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.  She was always in great demand as a speaker even while she was still a graduate student at Princeton, probably because she had been speaking and preaching for a long time before she arrived at Princeton. I got a chance to watch Prathia juggling studies, pastoring, her travels as a speaker, along with her most important job of being single mom to two rambunctious teenagers. I would often go down from Princeton to Philadelphia to preach for her at Mt. Sharon Baptist on those Sundays when she had to be out of town. Prathia Hall (Wynn) eventually graduated from Princeton with a Ph.D. in ethics, specializing in womanist ethics, theology, and African-American church history.

In 1962 Prathia Hall inspired the imagination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  by lending him a phrase(”I Have A Dream”) that would become a staple of his preaching and the signature of his life work. It seems only fitting decades later that Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall would go on to become an associate professor at Boston University School of Theology, holding the Martin Luther King Jr. Chair in Social Ethics. Prathia Hall died on August 12, 2002, following a long illness.

I am remembering Prathia Hall this week.

Now and Then…

Monday, July 20th, 2009

I reconnected with someone very special from my past this weekend. The experience has me still reeling here on Monday morning. And since I was too weepy yesterday in the pulpit to explain to the church who she was to me, I guess I should say here what I tried and failed miserably to say on yesterday.

First, it pains me to admit that I couldn’t place her face when she first walked up to me on Saturday after the Prayer Breakfast. You know what I mean. Someone comes up, and you know the face, or supposed to know, but you can’t remember the name. Your mind races through the files on your hard drive.  The quick search turns up empty. You sense that she was once someone very important in your life, but you can’t seem to locate the file yet with all the information on it. Something about her face told me that I once loved her dearly. The feelings came trickling back before the actual memories did.  And then it slowly dawned on me. Mrs. Vivian Thomas.  The secretary at my old high school. But Vivian Thomas wasn’t just any secretary. Mrs. Vivian Thomas  had been my guardian angel, my confidante, my friend, my play mother during some of the stormiest days of my teenage years.

In my homeroom class I was the designated person to turn in attendance sheets and lunch money to the principal’s office there where Mrs. Vivian Thomas worked.  I took the job because I always looked forward to my talks with Mrs. Thomas as she stood there across the counter with her short brown frame, her warm eyes and gentle smile, and the lovely mole between her lip and nose. I was a mother-hungry girl and knew how to wiggle my way into other mothers’ hearts, even though I never succeeded with my own. Mrs. Thomas had children of her own, but that didn’t keep her from nurturing other young people who came through the principal’s doors.

I know now that Mrs. Thomas looked forward to my morning visits as much as I did. I was a ham, a brooder, a wall flower, a girl with a quick wit who loved the attention she showered on me. Every morning I came in she’d asked me how I was doing, and our conversations about home, boys, school, and life would start from there. Mrs. Thomas knew when I was happy and she knew when I was brooding over something that left me short and snappy.  And she knew how to tease me out of my moods,  love me into submission, and scold me into behaving like I ought. Did I mention that I was something of a terror to my teachers when I was in my early teens? Don’t ask. It’s a long story. I’m just grateful I got through those years.  Fortunately there were three or four colored school teachers who in the course of my childhood  impacted my life by noticing that there was more to my brooding personality than met the eye and found a way to give me the attention and direction I sorely needed back then. I’m convinced that my life would have turned out completely different had it not been for these colored school teachers from my childhood…and Mrs. Vivian Thomas, the high school secretary.

“Renita, get in here and calm yourself down.”
“Renita, what’s this I hear about you acting up in class?”
“Renita, don’t let that boy I’ve been seeing you with talk you into doing something that ruins your life.”
“Renita, you going to college and you’re going to make something out of your life. You hear me?”
“Renita, you’re going to make it baby.”

Mrs. Vivian Thomas is in her 70s now. It was my time on yesterday to beam when she was introduced as a deacon (not deaconess) at her church. She’s also a cancer survivor, thank God. But since time will not be denied what’s due it, Mrs. Thomas walks slightly stooped over and slower than she did decades ago. But her eyes, those twinkling eyes, they are still the same.  And that smile, the one with the power when I stepped in the principal’s office to melt my heart and reassure me things would be alright, it’s still there too.

Mrs. Thomas went home and composed a letter to me Saturday night after seeing me at the breakfast and had someone hand it to me before I went into the pulpit on Sunday. In it she reminded me, encouraged me, and let me know how proud she is of the woman I’ve become. She was also thankful to God that she’d lived long enough to see her prophecy come true.


And so there we were on yesterday. Me, the preacher, standing in the pulpit sniffling and choking up, trying to find the words to thank a woman God decades ago sent into my life to save me from myself.  And there she sat on the front pew Deacon Vivian Thomas weeping and wiping her nose and shaking her head in wonder and gratitude to God.

Here and there, now and then, God allows us glances back at our past and glimpses into the future, permitting us to see a larger view of what God has in store, and has had in store, from the beginning…

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29:11)