Did you hear that? It’s the sound of shards falling from the church’s stained-glass ceiling.
It’s what we heard when two female pastors of African-descent ascended to the position of bishop in their respective synods in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod made history Saturday, May 5, 2018, when its assembly elected the denomination’s first female African-American bishop — the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport. One day later, the Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, a pastor in Beloit, Wis., was elected in the South-Central Synod of Wisconsin.
The importance of these votes cannot be overstated in a denomination that, according to the Pew Research group, is racially 96 percent white — the “whitest” among the denominations. And in a country that cannot bring itself to elect a female president — much less include a female of color on the ballot —the fact that the church has lifted up these women as their leaders is significant. It disrupts the narrative that the church is behind-the-times, woefully out of touch, and unresponsive to the changing culture. This is one time that the church is actually ahead of the curve, out in front, and leading the way.
Certainly, this is not the first denomination to raise up women of color to its highest positions of leadership.
For example, Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly was the first African American woman elected Bishop in the United Methodist Church in 1984, and the UMC elected four more as recently as 2016. The Rev. Vashti Murphy McKenzie was elected bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2000. The Rev. Teresa “Terri” Hord Owens was elected as the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2017.
And at Lexington Theological Seminary where I teach, I am proud to serve under the first female African-American president in the school’s history — the Rev. Dr. Charisse Gillett. And just last year, our seminary called its first female Hispanic vice president of academic affairs and dan – the Rev. Dr. Loida Martell.
The womanist theologian Delores Williams wrote a book called “Sisters in the Wilderness” that interpreted the story of Hagar in the book of Genesis through the lens of African-American slavery and its fallout of internalized oppression. (Womanism is social theory that focuses on the experiences of black women.) She explained how black women today are like the Egyptian slave girl and have been overlooked as having a unique, empowering, contesting knowledge of God through direct encounters in the wilderness.
Williams saw Hagar as epitomizing the experience of slaves and their descendants in the United States. She identified Hagar’s story of slavery, sexual exploitation, surrogacy, and poverty as the nexus in which women of color must construct their theology. Notably, Hagar is the only one in the Bible who gives God a name: “The One Who Sees.” Williams urged women of color to reclaim their fore-sister’s singular act of naming God for themselves and move beyond mere survival into flourishing.
According to Williams, the church has both helped and hindered the development of black women. On the one hand, their faith in God and the church is what enabled them to get through “one more day” and keep hope alive in the midst of slavery and its aftermath. But this same church, Williams argued, has manipulated, exploited and coerced black women in ways that take advantage of their faith. This makes for an interesting dynamic when black women try to answer the call to preach. The church has traditionally dismissed female preachers and openly defied and undermined their calls and positions of ordained leadership. Black women have to had to struggle mightily just for a hearing in the church.
For too long, mainline Protestant churches have ignored and dismissed black women’s experience, while simultaneously upholding sexism and the oppression of women of color. In the spirit of black female preachers such as Jarena Lee and Sojourner Truth, these rising women of color who are leading the church are uniquely equipped with boldness and fearlessness forged out of the need to confront both racism and sexism in pulpits that are often hostile to their presence.
On this Mother’s Day, we can celebrate with the biblical mothers — with Hagar and Hannah, with Deborah and Mary — and now with Patricia and Viviane. Because this is the sound of the church emerging from the wilderness.
Reach Leah D. Schade, a professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary, at firstname.lastname@example.org.