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A Tribute to Women in the Church

By Dr. Lawrence Burnley

I recently viewed Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s documentary The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song on PBS. The presentation of this documentary comes as we transition from Black History Month into Women’s History Month. March is also a time when the University of Dayton recognizes and celebrates the extraordinary contributions, gifts, and brilliance of the 2021 Women of UD honorees. I am a product of the Black Church, and I am reminded of the victories experienced by Black people and the broader human family as a direct result of the prophetic and pastoral leadership of women within the church. I am also reminded, painfully reminded, of the violence directed at and experienced by women by and within the church. So, on behalf of my brothers, I say thank you and I am sorry.

I offer an expression of thanks, appreciation, and affirmation to my sisters for who you have been, who you are, and whom I trust and pray you continue to be and are becoming.  To God be the glory for creating you in God’s own Image! You are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made!” – Psalm 139: 14. I also offer an apology for the violent expressions of abusive patriarchy that has and continues to be informed by distorted biblical interpretations and theological formations.

As a tribute to women within and beyond the Church, I share these voices:

“The church has two identities. It has the identity of being oppressive of women and it is interesting because when you look at slavery, the church of the slave master, it’s that same kind of message that would go to the slave. Therefore, when women begin to demand empowerment they call out this duel contradiction and I think for them to give up to women was in many ways in their heads emasculation. Then they had the Bible. They had the Bible to tell them that they were supposed to be on top. It’s just that the women has the Bible too. They could say to them 'The Bible is saying more than that, dear'.” – Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, 2021

“If the man may preach, because the Savior died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Savior, instead of a half one? As those who hold it wrong for a woman to preach, would seem to make it appear.” – Jarena Lee, Religious Experience and Journal of Ms. Jarena Lee, 1849

 “There's always someone asking you to underline one piece of yourself - whether it's Black, woman, mother, dyke, teacher, etc. - because that's the piece that they need to key in to. They want to dismiss everything else.”― Audre Lorde, Racialized Politics of Desire in Personal Ads, 2004

“I had explained that a woman's asking for equality in the church would be comparable to a Black person's demanding equality in the Ku Klux Klan.” – Mary Daly, The Church and the Second Sex, 1968

 “The history of Christianity shows that orthodox objections to syncretism have less to do with the purity of faith, and more with who has the right to determine what is to be considered normative and official.” – Ada María Isasi-Díaz, En La Lucha = In The Struggle: A Hispanic Women's Liberation Theology, 2004

“Women were expected to sit in the pews, receiving messages from men in the pulpit. Their role was to recognize God in their pastor, not to expect or demand that he recognize God in them.” – Melissa V. Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, 2011

I will conclude my blog giving tribute to women in the church where I began, the Black Church. Had it not been for the Black women who suffered under the tripartite oppressive reality of classism, racism, and sexism, it can safely be said that the church --which arguably continues to be the socioeconomic and political epicenter of the Black African American community-- simply would not be as we have come to know it. Another voice of our past make my point this way:

“As I look about me today in this veiled world of mine, despite the noisier and more spectacular advance of my brothers, I instinctively feel and know that it is the five million women of my race who really count. Black women (and women whose grandmothers were black) are […] the main pillars of those social settlements which we call churches; and they have with small doubt raised three-fourths of our church property.” – W. E. B. Du Bois, Darkwater, 1918

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