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Sankofa and Synergy: Meeting Together as Women of Color

In her thought-provoking essay, Dr. Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty makes a compelling case, precisely and rightly, about the creative ways women of faith embody justice and equality through different expressions of our vocational call. Faith interwoven with justice-making should be the basis for authentic Christian discipleship rather than women’s demand for equality in religious, social, economic, and political life becoming the rabble-rousing controversy for church conflicts and congregational dissensions.

Hinson-Hasty’s first snapshot – facing invisibility and erasure is a reminder that 40 years ago when I was ordained as the first Black woman to Word and Sacrament by the Presbytery of Catawba1 of the United Presbyterian Church (USA) in Shelby, North Carolina on April 23, 1974, there were one hundred and fifty-four white clergywomen2 listed on the denomination’s ministerial roll. As a member of the baby-boomer generation, my overarching African American socio-cultural reality consisted of exploited fathers, overworked mothers, substandard housing, functioning literacy, malnutrition, and the denial of full citizenship, especially our constitutional right to vote. Moreover, I was quite conscious of the complex conditions of anthropological ethical perspectives and theological supremacist presumptions imposed on all-black-churches, in all-black-presbyteries, in all-black-synods in the 1950s. A world of blackness crammed inside of dominating whiteness.3

Moreover, it is important to consider justice and equality as defining elements in the Christian struggle from slavery to freedom, by lifting up the historical fact that African American Presbyterians have been part of the reformed faith tradition ever since the establishment of the first Presbyterian Church in North America at Southold, Long Island, New York, in 1640 to the date of the First General Assembly in 1789.4

Dr. Frank T. Wilson, one of the country’s leading experts on Black Presbyterians and Black Presbyterianism, documents that African Americans, under a variety of conditions, have been members of the reformed communion for the past 374 years.5 The larger issue for descendants of enslaved Africans who endured the brutalization of North American chattel slavery for more than two and a half centuries, followed by another century of forced white segregated apartheid, is identifying which aspects, if any, of Reformed doctrines are significant for the Black Church community in the 21st century.

Hinson-Hasty invites us to wrestle with underlying questions emerging from her second snapshot – standing at intersections created by male norms. In other words, if, as Christians, we embrace a theology wherein every person is sacred, has inherent worth, and is created in the image of God, and if we commit to living daily as the discipleship of equals, how do Presbyterian social teachings and organizational polity help us deal with the effects of institutionalized systemic suffering? What can churchwomen register as life-affirming when participating in worship services where language is exclusive and females are portrayed as infectious progenitors of sin, carriers of corruptive power like the snake in the Garden of Eden? In what ways do Hinson-Hasty’s examples of sexism, racism, and class elitism offer illuminating answers and invite us to embrace new ideas about our capacity to take chances to eradicate cultural invisibility and challenge ecclesiastical powerlessness that exclude women from full participation in communities of faith and in society?

As a Christian Ethicist, I understand the mandate before us, however, is the ministry of justice involved in debunking social gender myths and unmasking inherited patriarchal traditions that Bob Herbert cogently sums up in his op-ed column in The New York Times:

We have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that the barbaric treatment of women and girls has come to be more or less expected. We profess to being shocked at one or another of these outlandish crimes, but the shock wears off quickly in an environment in which the rape, murder and humiliation of females is not only a staple of the news, but an important cornerstone of the nation’s entertainment.6

Sankofa: bird reaching back with eggIn relations to Hinton-Hasty’s third and final snapshot – looking forward, I would like to introduce Sankofa, an Akan symbol from Ghana, West Africa, showing a bird looking backward with the egg of the future in her beak while moving forward, signifying the need to include the ministerial presence of clergywomen of color as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) envisions its future. Hinton-Hasty correctly identifies several racial/ethnic clergywomen ordained in the late 1970s and early 80. I would like to add to her list the names of the Reverend Holly Haile Davis from the Shinnecock Nation and the Reverend Blanqui Otano-Rivera of Puerto Rico.

Beginning in 1979, with the support of the Reverend Ann DuBois in the Office of Women in Ministry in the Vocation Agency in NYC, racial/ethnic clergywomen in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) gathered annually to establish supportive community, to engage in continuing theological education, and to explore the unique challenges we faced as Ministers of Word and Sacrament.7

The Reverend Ida Wells presents the illuminating portrait of racial/ethnic clergywomen in this way:

We are preachers, teachers, administrators, musicians, dramatists, counselors, pastors and scholars who have heard God’s call and have dedicated our lives to God’s service. We are seminarians, and graduates, young women and older women, Black, Asian, Hispanic Native American, who are studying and working to do our part in the establishment of the Kingdom of God in our time. We are ministers who confess one Lord, one faith, and one baptism; united in the common goal of the spread of God’s word and work to all humankind.8

Over the years, we traveled to meetings in Houston, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Kansas City, Stony Point, NY, Cairo, Egypt and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Sankofa synergistic core rightly draws our attention to the foci—community, continuing education, and professional development—in three ways. First, we encourage each woman of color to tether her experience as prophetic catalyst, effecting change for the most vulnerable in our communities of accountability, with the specific message God lays on her heart of hearts to proclaim each Sunday morning when she stands behind the sacred desk. Second, during our annual gatherings, we bridge multiple identities, languages, traditions and habits, experiment with a variety of ethnic worship styles, and share opinions and ideas about various dynamics that seem like intractable gender politics in our local presbyteries. And, third, we learn new songs, dream new dreams, and dare to develop new visions of what God is saying to us in the Word and in the world today.

To make visible our curious invisibility, in October 1982 we began publishing sermons, essays, poetry, book reviews, calendar of events, job openings, and usable truth in our periodically published newsletter. Unanimously, we joined in solidarity with the Reverend Idalisa Fernandez of Fort Washington Presbyterian Church in NYC, in naming our newsletter, Que Pasa?: Information for Racial Ethnic Clergywomen (1982-1993). Our main concern in Que Pasa? is to share our voice, our creativity, and our agency. In holding each other accountable, we celebrate our joys and support each other during hard times. Women-of-color religious leaders are a distinct subset within the church community. In turn, the pastoral component of our prophetic ministries requires us to stay mindful of the various ways we generate transformative changes, oftentimes while being situated in hostile work environments.

Due to the extraordinary denominational hurdles and the uneasy alliances some of us encounter with a few presbytery executives, racial/ethnic clergywomen work together in concert when analyzing the dailiness of life, both at the margins and in the center. We address issues such as civil and human rights, ecology, hetero-patriarchy, sexual discrimination, white supremacy, professional isolation, resistance to neocolonialism, shifting socio-cultural norms and class expectations. As a population that is seriously underrepresented among the denomination’s powerbrokers, we share creative coping mechanisms for dealing with conservative, misogynist racism along with possible solutions and innovative strategies of resilience.

A thrilling aspect of looking forward while simultaneously fulfilling the Sankofa vision of holding on to our history as we move into the future is the opportunity for clergywomen of color to once again meet annually as we lift up the creative ways multiracial conversations inform and strengthen the work of ministry throughout the commonwealth of God, morning by morning.

Notes:

  1. See this text for a discussion of the successful and effective empowerment of African American clergy and laity leadership in the greater Charlotte, NC. D. G. Burke, ed., The Catawba Story, 1866 - 1980: A Brief History of the Catawba Presbytery. Sponsored by the Historical Committee of the Catawba Presbytery, United Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., 1981.
  2. The Presbyterian Office of Information of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.(NYC) stated that there were 154 clergywomen in the May 28, 1974 press release announcing my ordination.
  3. This is an excellent resource, a thick description of Black Presbyterianism. Darius Swann, ed., All-Black Governing Bodies: The History and Contributions of All-Black Governing Bodies-A Report of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of the General Assembly, 1996.
  4. For detailed historical data and analyses, see the following: William T. Catto, A Semi-Centenary Discourse, Delivered in the First African Presbyterian Church, Philadelphia, May, 1857. Phila: Joseph M. Wilson, 1857; rpt. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Pr., 1971; Periscope: Black Presbyterianism – Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: 175 Years of Ministry – 1807 – 1982. Vols I (1982), II, and III (1992). NY: A publication developed by Project 175 Committee, Office of Black Mission Development Program Agency, United Presbyterian Church in the USA.
  5. Wilson’s book is foundational. Frank T. Wilson, ed. Black Presbyterians in Ministry. NY: Vocation Agency, UPCUSA, 1979; Henry Highland Garnet, (1815-1882). The Past and the Present Condition and the Destiny of the Colored Race. 1848 rpt. Miami, FL: Mnemosyne Pub. Inc.,1969.
  6. Bob Herbert, "Women at Risk," Op-Ed Column in The New York Times (August 7, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/08/opinion/08herbert.html.
  7. The following book is an engaging presentation of the African American Presbyterian Clergywomen ordained from 1974-1999: Karen V. Brown and Phyllis M. Felton, compilers, African American Presbyterian Clergywomen – The First Twenty-Five Years (Witherspoon Press, 2001).
  8. Ida Wells, "What Is the Racial/Ethnic Clergywomen’s Conference" (essay) in Que Pasa? (October 1982) p. 1.
     

 

 

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