Open Letter to Presiding Bishop-Elect Joseph W. Walker III and the “By Invitation Only” Attendees of the Inaugural Meeting of the SHIFT
On Monday, December 9, someone forwarded me a post on Facebook about an initiative by the Bishop-Elect of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. I read all of it and was disturbed. I posted about it on WomanPreach! Inc.’s Facebook page. People asked whether I would respond further. I pondered it and decided, “Yes.” And then, my response became OUR response, taking on a life of its own. I appreciate the people who signed this letter and the people who wished they could have. This is what justice-making and beloved faith community-building look like to me–a group of people from the church, not all whom would agree with each other about everything, but who know that the table of God is expansive and who know that it takes all of us to change the world for good. I’m glad to be on the journey with you all (and the many unnamed and unsigned people not reflected on this post).
December 12, 2013
Open Letter to Presiding Bishop-Elect Joseph W. Walker III and the “By Invitation Only” Attendees of the Inaugural Meeting of the SHIFT
How an initiative begins significantly affects how it goes forward.
We read with interest the well-crafted December 9 press release of the coming “SHIFT,” a new initiative spearheaded by Rev. Joseph W. Walker III, Presiding Bishop-Elect of the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship. We paid special attention to the quotations and looked at the pictures. What a curious title: “Rebranding in the body of Christ: The Ultimate Leader Shift.”
As we read the letter, we became increasingly more disturbed and troubled. Although our first response was “no women were in the room,” in fact our concerns are deeper. It was just sinful and wrongheaded for a group of men to gather without active, real participation of women. We want to be clear about what disturbs us in this moment. Generally, we ignore lists of “100 most influential,” “10 best preachers,” etc.—how could we know who are the 10 best preachers, given all the powerful preachers who will never have a stage? So we read “chosen ones” and “greatest movement” with a grain of salt. But if those gathered intended to communicate an inclusive, progressive, dynamic, forward thinking agenda, your images and rhetoric failed you.
The post-letter from Bishop Walker—apparently written in response to comments made about the absence of women—said “a number of women who were invited… many were unable to attend” (though there were NONE present). We are hard-pressed to believe that all those busy men could come to the SHIFT meeting, but not one woman was available at the time. Quite frankly, if scheduling the meeting proved to be that problematic for women only, then one would be forced to rethink its planning strategies and organization. In the interest of being in solidarity with your womanist sister clergy, if this initiative really intended to be “new,” “progressive,” and “bold,” we think our Womanist/Black Feminist allies in the photo ought have refused to meet or release anything without a critical mass of sister leaders present, not as tokens, but as full participants. If there were men in that room who were in fact appalled by the lack of female representation because they did not know beforehand who would attend, we would hope that our brother allies would publicly declare their disappointment that a meeting with no women present was not rescheduled.
That’s what solidarity and ally-ship look like.
We’ve been chastened not to call black male church leaders out in public. We’ve been told that we have misunderstood. The rising bishop responded in his follow-up letter in what he called “a teaching moment” that we should “ask questions” rather than assume, presumably to correct his errant critics. We say that the gathered brotherhood of clergy should make their commitments clearer. What exactly do they hope to accomplish on behalf of the church? Does it matter to anyone other than women that women are invisible in a gathering of putatively this import? The Bishop’s letter read like a justification for male privilege. The usually “invisible cloak” of arrogance and male-only leadership was visible. All the rhetoric sounded like everything we’ve ever heard from male-dominated meetings.
As Womanists-Feminists-preachers-scholars-activists our responses come from several places. We are not making assumptions. Your press release and its attending images speak volumes. You are not interested in iconoclastically breaking from tradition. You’ve made clear that even if women were invited their insight, input, or wisdom was not considered significant enough for the group to wait. Indeed, the notion that women have to be “included” is itself a male privilege power move. Surely, you are aware that most black churches are comprised of as much as 80% female membership. We also know that women do the majority of the work of the church, without whose labor the organization and mission would fail. To be crystal clear, women’s gifts and capacities in all aspects of church leadership are as critical to the survival, relevance and progression of the church as men’s. Are women not already included in God’s plans?
You’ve communicated—loudly—that (male) “Generals” would strategize and tell all the foot soldiers what to do. A clear inference one gets from your invitation to meet is that God only calls “Generals” who are notorious and already “celebrity” preachers, i.e., those considered “important” and “special” people. Only those with thousands of members know anything about impact or leadership. We understand. That presumption makes sense in an entrepreneurial understanding of the church, where faithfulness is measured only in dollars and size. It smacks of religious elitism. What could an inner-city pastor with only a few members who’s faced gangs and helped people who are poor and struggling to thrive possibly have to offer? You’ve communicated that the hierarchical, “Fathers-know-best,” male-centric table works for you and you’ll scoot over and cram in a couple more of some you deem “worthy.” It is presumptuous and ill thought-out.
We will take you at your word that you didn’t intend to communicate most of the above, if you’ll take our word that’s how many people who care equally about the future of the church received it.
Intent and impact are two very different things. Be clear. Images matter. Rhetoric matters.
In this climate in which the black church finds itself on the brink of becoming irrelevant in the public’s eyes and where black preachers are portrayed on TV as money-grubbing pimps in the pulpit, it would seem that preachers serious about redeeming the times and restoring the reputation of the black church would be committed to justice that reflects genuine shared leadership with women. More than 27 years ago, Rev. Prathia Hall challenged the black Baptist Church on its rampant patronizing exclusion of women, and we find ourselves having to do the same. Dr. Renita Weems once asked, “What will it mean in the history of the church if record droves of women experience and accept their call and we go on with business as usual?” By your omission, you dishonor the legacy, ministry and lives of the biblical general Deborah and prophet Huldah; the church house leader Chloe; and deacon Phoebe and co-workers in the gospel Euodia and Syntyche. You dishonor the work and ministry of women such as Jarena Lee, Septima Clark, Ella P. Mitchell, Brenda Piper Little, Shirley Prince, and Bishop Barbara Harris, and countless of notable and unnamed others.
The challenge with critiquing SHIFT and movements that exclude more of God’s people than they include is that onlookers immediately think it’s personal. Religious male-centered leadership is “normal” and “sacred” and any attempt to question it is deemed perverse or personal. Our call is not for women to have access to patriarchal power, but that we all work together to create new, healthier, more humane—and therefore more godly—systems. We ask you to consider, not only those at the table you’ve spread, but those who are not present. We believe such consideration is central to the ministry of Christ. Women are invisible at the table, but so are many others, including, self-identified same-gender loving Christians. As you consider what or who has their feet on the necks of those you want to liberate, consider whose necks your feet may be holding down. Self-reflection and self-critique are deeply important in justice work.
In response to your invitation for dialogue, here are a few questions to get the dialogue going: How do leaders who claim to fight for justice not know that sexism—excluding women or only including them as afterthoughts—is just as vile and sinful as racism and that it takes intentionality to transform, if in fact you intend to do so? How do self-proclaimed Womanist allies not include women and men who are Womanists and/or Black Feminists in the shaping of vision? Womanist/Black Feminists are not concerned only with the “inclusion” of women in public religious life. That’s about numbers. As people of faith, committed to the cause of radical inclusion, justice and love, we would be remiss in our integrity and derelict in our respective vocations, if we did not speak to injustices and oppressions as evidenced by this introduction of your initiative. We are interested in vision and shared influence and the building of the Commonwealth of God, beloved communities where everyone is valued, heard, protected, and helped to thrive, even if we disagree with them on a number of fronts. Jesus modeled this expansive community best and thus was persecuted for it by self-styled religious movers and shakers of his day.
One last point. You can understand, can’t you, why talk about “core family values” by a fraternity of male preachers raises concern for many of us? We have seen from this last election cycle what happens to women, poor families, and same-gender loving people when right-wing conservatives draft laws and draw up policies in the name of God and family values. Is SHIFT an initiative of black men merely reflecting the same toxic politics and policies? In other words, who is permitted to sit at the table and to fully participate as self-possessed people? Are single people okay as single, or are they people who need to get married? What about single people who’ve adopted children and built families on the village model—a very African approach to family? Is there room for LGBTQ families already among your ranks, or is yours a movement bent on silencing, demonizing, or maligning them? Is there enough emotional, theological, and intellectual bandwidth within the organization to partner for social change with people with whom you don’t agree? I wonder what would happen if you thought Dream Defenders, New Black Man (in Exile), Moral Monday activists or Black Youth Project members, leaders of The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, for example, were just as important collaborating partners FROM THE BEGINNING?
Bishop Walker noted that women’s full inclusion is a key priority. If so, one social justice organizer said, “If you say it’s for ‘us,’ don’t do it without us.” A noted activist once said that if you’re comfortable with everyone in the room, you’re not leading a revolution.
Finally, you may ask: “What do you want to happen?”
We want this group to commit that all future SHIFT meetings will include women religious leaders around the table, clergy and lay, pastors and academics—the presence of women whose voices you admit are critical and crucial to participating with male religious leaders in redeeming the times and redeeming the future of the black church.
We want members of the group to publicly acknowledge that, though you may not have intended the slight, this first gathering was sinful and flawed by these exclusions. If this exclusion was not the intended message, take a good faith opportunity to correct that error.
We raise these concerns and questions because it is faithful and just to do so. As catalyst for this letter, Dr. Valerie Bridgeman, along with any number of the undersigned, is willing to be in an open dialogue with Bishop-Elect Walker and any of those in that first meeting.
In the Struggle and in the Spirit,
Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, Ph.D. Biblical and Homiletics Scholar President & CEO of WomanPreach! Inc. Board of Trustees, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference * Dr. Iva E. Carruthers General Secretary Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference * Renita J. Weems, Ph.D. Biblical Scholar Nashville, TN * Rev. Carolyn Ann Knight The Seminary Without Walls Smyrna, Georgia Bishop * Yvette Flunder Presiding Prelate, The Fellowship of Affirming Ministries Pastor, City of Refuge San Francisco, CA * Rev. Leslie D. Callahan, Ph.D. Pastor, St. Paul’s Baptist Church Philadelphia, PA * Jaha Zainabu, Poet * Rev. Maisha I. K. Handy, Ph.D. Pastor, Rize Community Church Associate Provost Interdenominational Theological Center * Robert Hoggard, Founder & President American Baptist College Affiliate of S.C.L.C * Matthew Wesley Williams, Lithonia, GA * Rev. Donna M. Vanhook, Burlington, NC * Rev. Marsha Foster Boyd, PhD, Englewood OH * Brittney C. Cooper, Ph.D., Departments of Women’s & Gender Studies & Africana Studies Rutgers University * Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright Board of Trustees, Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference * Myia Williams-Sanders * Rev. Martin L. Espinosa, Senior Pastor, Ray of Hope Community Church, Nashville, TN * Rev. Vivian Nixon, CEO, College and Community Fellowship & Founder, Education Inside Out Coalition * J.T. Thomas, Cleveland, OH * Rev. Dr. Gary V. Simpson, Senior Pastor, The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn NY & Associate Professor of Homiletics, Drew Theological Seminary * Keri Day, PhD, Professor of Ethics & Director of Black Church Studies, Brite Divinity School * Rev Toni DiPina, Pastor, Rockdale Congregational Church Northbridge, MA * Rashad D. Grove * Rev. Carla A. Jones * Jeralyn B. Major * Pamela R. Lightsey, PhD, Boston University School of Theology * Rev. Asa J Lee, Arlington, VA * Rev. Carolyn Hutchinson, Temple Hills, MD * Rev. Rashad D. Grove, Pastor, First Baptist Church of Wayne, PA * The Rev. Dr. Violet Lee * Tamura A. Lomax, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, Virginia Commonwealth University * Darnell L. Moore. writer and activist * Estee Nena Dillard * Rev. Tawana Davis, Executive Minister, Shorter Community AME Church & Assistant Coordinator, Rocky Mountain District Women in Ministry * Rev. Cherisna Jean-Marie, Atlanta, GA * Rev. Dr. Alice Hunt, Chicago Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL, UCC * Karlene Griffiths Sekou, MPH, MTS * Rev. Cedrick Von Jackson * The Rev. Wil Gafney, PhD, Chair of the Biblical Area and Associate Professor, Hebrew, Jewish and Christian Scripture, The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia * Min. Jamie Eaddy * Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, Executive Pastor, The Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Brooklyn, NY * Rev. Andrea Clark, Assistant Pastor, Antioch Baptist Church Tulsa, OK * Rev. Quincy James Rineheart, M.Div., S.T.M. * Rev. Dawnn M. Brumfield, Associate Pastor, Urban Village Church Chicago, IL * Ashon Crawley * Pastor Michelle E. Freeman, M.Div., Houston, TX Min. * L. Proverbs Briggs, Atlanta, GA * Rev. Dollie Howell Pankey, MACM, MTS, Pastor, St. James Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Jasper, AL * Rev. Catharine A. Cummings, M.Div., Pastor, Wesley UMC Church, Springfield, MA * Rev. Earle J. Fisher, M.Div., Senior Pastor, Abyssinian Baptist Church (Memphis) & Adjunct Instructor of Contemporary Theology at Rhodes College * Rev. D.r Mitzi J. Smith, Ph.D * Charles Bowie, Ph.D * Rev. Carla Patterson, Associate Minister, Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC * Rev. Vanessa M. Brown * Karlene Griffiths Sekou, President Dignidad International, Cambridge, MA * Rev. Felicia Y. Thomas * Rev. Carla Patterson * Rev. Alisha Lola Jones, M.Div., CEO & Founder InSight Initiative, Inc. * Rev. Margaret Aymer, Ph. D., Associate Professor, Interdenominational Theological Center * Min. Brenda Summerville, M.Div. Chicago, IL * Roger A. Sneed, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Religion Furman University * Rev. Andre E. Johnson, PhD., Pastor, Gifts of Life Ministries, Memphis, TN & Dr. James L Netters Associate Professor of Rhetoric & Religion and African American Studies, Memphis Theological Seminary * Rev. Althea Bailey * Rev. Yvette A. Assem, M.Div., Womanist Missionary Language of the Black Woman’s Touch * Min. Robin P. Sessoms, M.Div. * Rev. Dorothy Harris, J.D., Pastor, Unity Fellowship Church of Columbia (Maryland) * Carla E. Banks * Jamall Andrew Calloway, S.T.M., Associate Minister Mt. Aery Baptist Church, Bridgeport, CT * Rev. Benjamin Ledell Reynolds, PhD student, Chicago Theological Seminary * Fallon Wilson, M.A., ABD, University of Chicago * Rev. Karyn Carlo, PhD * Rev. Dr. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, Assistant Pastor for Special Projects Union Baptist Church, Cambridge, Massachusetts & John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor Colby College, Waterville, Maine * Rev. Charisse R. Tucker, Minister of Administration, St. Paul’s Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA * Terry T. Hocker, Sr. Pastor/Founder, Bound By Truth And Love Ministries, Cincinnati, OH * Rev. Jamie D. Hawley, Chaplain University of Michigan * Rev. Kendal Brown, Dean of Students, Lancaster Theological Seminary * Rev. Melva L. Sampson * M. Brandon McCormack, Ph.D., Assistant Professor Departments of Pan-African Studies and Humanities (Religious Studies), University of Louisville * Charlotte Caldwell * Rev. Brian Foulks, Lexington, SC * Lisa Ann Anderson * Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., Ph.D., Professor, Biblical Interpretation New York Theological Seminary & Visiting Scholar of Religion & African American Studies, Columbia University * Min. Hazel M. Cherry, Oakland, CA, M.Div. Candidate, Howard University School of Divinity * Bishop Andre L. Jackson, Founding Pastor, New Vision Full Gospel Baptist Church, East Orange, NJ, MA in Practical Theology/ M.Ed Candidate Regent University, VA * Rev Candace Lewis, United Methodist clergy * Rev. JoAnne Marie Terrell, PhD, Associate Professor of Ethics, Theology, and the Arts, Chicago Theological Seminary * Rev. Dianna N. Watkins-Dickerson, Chaplain, USAF * Larry T. Crudup, M.Div. Candidate, Perkins School of Theology * Rev. Rosalyn R. Nichols, D.Min. Organizing Pastor, Freedom’s Chapel Christian Church (DOC) Memphis, TN * Min. Guy Sebastian Johnson, Leesburg, VA, M.Div. Candidate, Lancaster Theological Seminary * EL Kornegay Jr., Ph.D., CEO/Founder The Baldwin~Delaney Institute, Chicago, IL * Liz S. Alexander, Seminarian, Chicago, IL * Candice M. Benbow, Durham, NC * Rev. Toni Dunbar, D.Min., Associate Pastor & Dean, City of Refuge United Church of Christ, Oakland, CA; Executive Director, YA Flunder Foundation; and Founder & Director, Refuge Leadership Development Institute * Rev. Gwen Thomas, M. Ed., Author, LGBT activist, & Huffington Post blogger * The Rev. Canon Terence Alexander Lee, Rector, St. Gabriel’s Episcopal Church, Hollis, NY * Rev. W. Jeffrey Campbell, Executive Director, Hudson Pride Connections Center, Jersey City, NJ * Evan R. Bunch * Pastor Genetta Y Hatcher, Detroit, Michigan * The Rev. Fr. Marcus G. Halley, Associate Priest, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church – Kansas City, MO * Rev. Dr. MarQuita Carmichael Burton * Rev. Don Darius Butler, Pastor, Tabernacle Community Baptist Church Milwaukee, WI * Rev. Raphael G. Warnock, Ph.D., The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA * Dr. Tony McNeill, DWS, Director of Worship & The Arts, The Historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, GA * Rev. William I. Spencer * Min. Davica Williams-Warren, M.Div., Miami, FL * Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Pastor for Formation and Justice, The First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plain (Boston, MA) * Rev. Dorian Mendez-Vaz, President & Founder, Within Her Reach, Inc. * Min. Ryan Hawthorne, M.Div., Princeton Theological Seminary * Rev. Kimberly Henderson Philadelphia, PA * Rev. Raedorah C. Stewart, MA, Preacher, Poet, Mother of a Son * Rev. T. Renée Crutcher, Founder/President, Sankofa Ministries & Tellin’ Our Story Publishing, Inc. Atlanta, GA * Min. Kamilah Hall Sharp, J.D., M. Div. Candidate, Memphis Theological Seminary * Bishop Dwayne D. Royster, Senior Pastor, Living Water United Church of Christ & General Secretary, Higher Ground Christian Fellowship International * Dr. Donique McIntosh, Associate Pastor, Namaste’ United Church of Christ * Minister Kelli X, M.Div., Madison, TN * Rev. Sharon L. Bowers UMC Pastor, ITC Alumna * Rev. James A. Hardaway, M.Div., MACE, Pastor, Mount Gilead AME Church, Columbus, GA * Rev. Stephanie Buckhanon Crowder, Ph.D. * Keith Crawford, Jr. * Dr. Irie Lynne Session, Senior Pastor The Avenue – Warren Avenue Christian Church | Dallas, Texas MDiv. Black Church Studies Concentration | Brite Divinity School DMin. 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Frank A Thomas, Ph.D. Director of the Academy of Preaching and Celebration & The Nettie Sweeney and Hugh T. Miller Professor of Homiletics, Christian Theological Seminary * Min. Kymberly McNair, Social Justice Coordinator, Antioch Baptist Church, Bedford Hills, NY * Dr. Teresa Fry Brown, Director, Black Church Studies Program & Professor of Homiletics, Emory University, Atlanta, GA * Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce, Director, Black Church Studies, Princeton Theological Seminary * Dr. Sharon Ellis Davis, Director of the Center for African American Ministries & Black Church Studies & Adjunct Professor, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago, IL & UCC Pastor * Rev. Kimberly G. Walker, Pastor, Village of Hope CME Church, Stone Mountain, GA * Joshua Crutchfield, Nashville, TN * Rev. Dr. Judy Cummings, New Covenant Christian Church, Nashville, TN * Rev. Dominique C. Atchison, M.Div., Associate Minister, Brown Memorial Baptist Church & Sacred Conversations on Race Coordinator, Connecticut Conference UCC * Rev. Chaka S. Holley, MSW, M. Div. * Dr. Lynne S. Darden, Assistant Professor, New Testament, Interdenominational Theological Seminary, Atlanta, GA * Rev. Dr. Judy D. Cummings, Senior Pastor, New Covenant Christian Church, Nashville, TN * Rev. Bianca Davis, M.Div., Associate Pastor of Children, Youth, & Young Adults, God Can Ministries, UCC * Rev. Christina Dawn Reed, Pastor, Mount Zion AME Church, Duffields, WV * Rev. Paris Lee Smith, Sr., M/Div., Sr. Pastor of First Congregational Methodist Church, Louisville, KY * Min. Brandon J. Perkins, M.A., Providence Missionary Baptist Church-Christian Education Intern, M. Div Candidate Columbia Theological Seminary * Rev. Cassandry Redmond, M.Div., Christian Methodist Episcopal Church Richmond, CA * Min. Xavier Coombs * Vance P. Ross, Sen. Pastor, Gordon UMC, Nashville, TN * Rev. Ramone R. Billingsley. Th.D. Student, Wycliffe College at The University of Toronto * Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart, Pastor, Christ Missionary Baptist Church, Memphis, TN * Bishop W. James Thomas, II * Dr. Marvin McMickle, President, Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School * Jacqueline Glass, CEO, At The Well Conferences, Inc. * Rev. Alfie Wines, M.Div., Ph.D., Pastor, Bible Scholar, Theologian * Rev. Lisa M. Allen-McLaurin, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Church Music and Worship, The Interdenominational Theological Center, Atlanta, Georgia * Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins, Pastor & Teacher, Euclid Avenue Congregational Church * Rev. Addie N. Peterson, Messiah Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, VA * Dr. Rosetta E. Ross * Rev. Starsky D. Wilson, M.Div., Pres. & CEO, Deaconess Foundation, Pastor-Teacher, St. John’s UCC-St. Louis * Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, Pastor-Teacher Quinn Chapel AME Church Jefferson City, MO & Co-Founder Women of the Cloth * Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould, Pastor-Teacher Quinn Chapel AME Church Jefferson City, MO & Co-Founder Women of the Cloth * Rev. MacArthur Flournoy, Director for Faith Partnerships and Mobilization for the Human Rights Campaign * Dr. Melanye Price, Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and Political Science, Rutgers University * Rev. John M. Gilmore, Open Heart Spiritual Center, Memphis, TN * Rev. Angela Denise Davis, M.Div., M.S., CRC, Founder & Spiritual Director, Sister Harriet Spiritual Collective, Atlanta, GA * Rev. Nichelle L. Jenkins, J.D., LL.M., M.Div. * Deirdre Jones, Seminarian, Chicago Theological Seminary & Assistant Minister-Youth Pastor, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) * Deirdre Jones, Seminarian, Chicago Theological Seminary & Assistant Minister-Youth Pastor, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) * Dr. Valerie Y. Holmes, Religious Chair for NAACP of the Prince George’s County Chapter * Rev. 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