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Black women seek larger roles in churches

Imelda Ellison sits quietly in her pew as, one by one, dressed all in white, the members of the Emmanuel Women of Worship come down the center aisle.

Their heads held high, some 15 women step and sway, clapping and singing. For a few mesmerizing moments, the women’s choir is the center of Sunday worship.

Then its members take their seats near the pulpit. This is when Ellison, a religious educator with a “burning” call to the ministry, envisions herself up front leading the flock in prayer.

But it is the male ministers on either side of the Rev. David Cobb Jr., Emmanuel’s pastor, who take over the service.

Cobb started the choir six months ago as a way to increase the visibility of women in the service, but his congregation at Emmanuel Baptist Church in Cleveland is not ready for women ministers, he says.

Black women activists say change is long overdue in their struggle for equal opportunities in their church. They can be trustees and teachers and can even be ordained as deacons and ministers in some black churches. This is more expansive than the Catholic Church’s position, which does not allow female clergy, but is not as open as more liberal white Protestant churches.

Like many evangelical churches, many individual black congregations still ban female clergy. And even among churches that accept women ministers, it is rare for a woman to be a senior pastor.

Rather than continue to fight, many women with seminary degrees have switched to predominantly white mainline Protestant churches to find a place in the pulpit.

There are success stories. There are three women bishops in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where the Rev. Gena Thornton is the longtime senior pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cleveland.

In Akron, the Rev. Diana Swoope will take over as senior pastor of the 1,200-member Arlington Church of God on Jan. 1.

They are the exceptions. For every Thornton and Swoope, hundreds of women seek their first pastorate in black churches. Many churches such as Emmanuel still have all-male deacon boards that oversee the congregation’s spiritual life.

Tradition and a literal interpretation of biblical texts urging women to be silent are part of the reason women have been kept from the front of the black church, observers say.

There are concerns that women clergy could undermine the historic role of pastors as important leadership models for black men.

The issue is also about power and sexism, women say.

“How can we say we love the Lord and we oppress women?” Ellison says.

In the late 1950s, an Emmanuel leader informed Doris Jamieson he would nominate her to be the only woman trustee. The board oversees church finances and administration.

“But you got to learn to keep your mouth shut,” Jamieson recalls being told.

Today, a third of the 12 trustees at Emmanuel are women. And women there, unlike at many other black churches, offer Communion. Visiting women ministers preach on Women’s Day.

In the coming months, the pastor plans to feature women at least monthly in the service.

Their roles will range from reading Scripture to leading the congregation in prayer.

“I want everybody in the church to know they can play an important part,” Cobb says. “I don’t want it to appear the only thing women can do is cook and hand out clothes.”

In other advances in northeast Ohio, female clergy assist male pastors in teaching and worship at several prominent Baptist churches, including Antioch, Mt. Sinai and Olivet Institutional in Cleveland.

But this progress still represents only a “chipping away” at the formidable barriers to women in ministry in the black church, say authorities such as Bettye Collier-Thomas, author of the upcoming book “Jesus, Jobs and Justice: The History of African American Women and Religion.”

“What we’re concerned about is full equality, and at this point we just don’t see that,” she says.

With women making up some two-thirds of the people in pews at many black churches, some leaders worry about “the feminization” of the church, and say they need male role models to reach young men.

Many black male clergy keep the tradition of banning women from the pulpit based on biblical passages emphasizing female submission or the predominance of men in authority.

There are no women ministers or deacons at the Second Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland, where the Rev. C.D. Gant has been pastor for more than 40 years.

Gant said most pastors in black Baptist churches “believe the Bible is against women speaking in the church, women preaching.”

The Rev. Milton Bradford of Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church in Cleveland said the Bible teaches “a woman is never called to be in authority” in the church. “It’s not what I say. It’s what the Bible says.”

The opposition of male pastors is a powerful barrier, Ellison says.

“A lot of African-American women don’t want to recognize you as a minister. It’s how they’ve been taught. It’s how the women have been taught. It’s how the men have been taught,” she says.

This has led many black women to turn to predominantly white mainline churches such as the United Church of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA).

The Rev. Angela Lewis, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Cleveland, remembers as a young woman repeatedly telling her Baptist pastor in Oklahoma that God was leading her into the ministry.

In making her case that God can use anyone, she even pointed out the biblical story of a talking donkey instructing the prophet Balaam. “Yes, you’re right, but the donkey was a male,” Lewis says the pastor responded.

The path Lewis took to Princeton Theological Seminary and the United Methodist Church is a familiar one.

In a review of research on the black church, Vassar College religion professor Lawrence Mamiya said studies by Delores Carpenter of Howard Divinity School showed substantial numbers of black women seminary graduates have switched to white denominations. More than half of the 380 ordained black women in one study turned to white denominations.

Mamiya says the number is declining slightly with the opening of opportunities in denominations such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“However, denominational switching still remains a significant factor for black women in ministry, and black church denominations are losing,” he reports.

Ellison, who is close to a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Ursuline College, explored other churches.

She was a deacon at Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Cleveland before returning to Emmanuel in 2005.

“God was saying this was where he wanted me to come,” Ellison says. “It was very hard for me, really, to come back here, because I knew I wasn’t going to be accepted.”

Ellison teaches a new member class and is part of the youth ministry team at Emmanuel. More than a month ago, she asked Cobb if she could be a minister at Emmanuel.

Cobb says he has not made up his mind on women as senior pastors, but he sees biblical support for women as associate clergy. “Women have just as much right to preach and serve in leadership positions in church as do men,” he says.

The pastor says he will treat Ellison as he would anyone making the request, by putting her under his supervision for two years to see if she is ready to be licensed as a minister.

Even if Cobb at that time thinks Ellison is prepared, however, he believes the congregation is not ready to accept a female minister. The deacons and the congregation, with many members in their 60s, 70s and 80s, would have to vote to affirm her.

Ellison’s struggle for acceptance at Emmanuel is being played out throughout the black church.

Swoope was associate pastor at Arlington Church of God for 27 years. Still, it was the support of the retiring senior pastor, the Rev. Ronald Fowler, an advocate of women in ministry, that “without a doubt” helped her get the top job, she says.

Ellison says she won’t give up.

“You definitely have to know who you are in Christ. You have to know that God has spoken to you. That’s where you get your power, your stamina,” Ellison says, adding, “Emmanuel, that door has to open.”


Information from: The Plain Dealer, http://www.cleveland.com

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