Leslie Callahan Brings Womanism to the Pulpit as She Leads in the Age of #BlackLivesMatter

In 2009, the Reverend Dr. Leslie D. Callahan was called to be the 5th and first female pastor of the historic 119-year-old St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Philadelphia. Callahan, who was once faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, leads her congregation with a focus on advocacy and community activism and a womanist slant.

Born in the coal fields of West Virginia, Pastor Callahan studied at Harvard and attended Union Seminary soon after. From there she earned from Ph.D. in American Religions from Princeton University.

Now Pastor Callahan advocates for lives at the margins in her role as head of the historic church.  For Harriet's founder and editor-in-chief, Kimberly Foster, caught up with Pastor Callahan to discuss her work and what it means to be a faith leader in the midst of #BlackLivesMatter.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

For Harriet: I am particularly interested in your role as an activist and as a preacher. What do you see the church's role in dismantling the sense of oppression, particularly white supremacy?

Pastor Callahan: Let me say that I actually believe that part of the responsibility of being human is to do good where you can, to do the right thing when you can, and to pursue truth where and whenever you can. That's really the way I try to live. On a personal and professional level, it plays out in how I try to treat folks who work with and for me. As a pastor, I have the privilege and resource of time to devote to the work that I think is important, and I try to bring all of that to this side of the war against oppression. As I said, I think it's everybody's responsibility in the places where we have access, the places where we have power, and the places where we have resources to defend what's good and right. In some ways it's simple, it sounds simple; how it plays out is complicated, but that's what it comes down to for me.

Have you always been oriented toward social justice work?

I have. I've always had a deep sense and commitment to both truth and fairness. I think that like many folks, both in my generation and generations after and probably before as well, I became more radicalized when it comes to racial issues when I went to college at a predominantly white institution. That's the place where I really discovered my blackness.

Funny how that happens.    

Yes, it is when my blackness became politicized for me. From Harvard, I went to Union Seminary, which has a liberationist theological bent, and started to think through some of the systematic ways these issues relate to religious life and discourse in practice. Yeah, we haven't always had as clear a movement and for that I am deeply appreciative of Black Lives Matter and what it means to really be part and in a moment where there is activity around dismantling racial oppression, but I've always been oriented in that way, certainly my entire adult life and have, when I could, tried to and now have the resources, both in terms of time and faith, so I'm able to plug in in a different way now.

You mentioned that you attended Union and that you encountered there a more progressive liberationist theology. One of the most common criticisms of the Black Church when it's reduced down to one thing, to a monolith, is that it encourages a sort of passive racial politic. I'm wondering if that is a fair criticism, that churchgoers and that preachers perpetuate pacification instead of addressing racism and inequality head on.

I think that the concerns that people bring to their religious life are complicated. I think too often those concerns are individualized and, in that way, narrow, and so what people want from their religious life, from their church, is a sense that their particular specific situation is going to be okay. I think that's an important role. I think that individual personal encouragement and pastoral care around life transitions and challenges, I think that's important work.

My point is that there's a limit to the ways in which you can personalize the things that are happening in your world, and so there has to be a balance. I think sometimes the church doesn't strike the right balance because I think we sometimes have a consumerist mentality. We try to give people what they want and what they want to hear. That's one piece of it.

The other piece is, institutions are, by their nature, conservative. That is, they're trying to self perpetuate. They're concerned about their continuation, and that makes it hard for them to take risks. Part of what it means to struggle and to try to see something different, to imagine something different, is that it's very risky. You're not always going to get it right. You're not always going to say the right thing. You're not always going to do the right thing. Our strategies are not always going to be safe, and I think that institutions in general can be resistant to that, like we want to be safe and I think people personally want to be safe. Part of the way we've been taught in church that we can stay safe is by doing the right thing. If you just do what you're supposed to do, God'll bless you, and I think it can be hard to take that risk when you're not sure it's the right thing. It's staying in the box.

I'm trying to avoid the notion that there's something inherent in faith that requires us to be passive. I don't think that's so. I think there are reasons why we might want to be passive that have to do with our own sense of safety, and then we lean in the direction of the part of the tradition and of the faith that help us to do that, but I don't think it has to be that way. I honestly don't think it has to be that way, and I don’t even think it should be that way.

I'm interested in what you feel is your responsibility as the leader of the church while we're in the middle of a black liberation movement.

Right. One responsibility that I feel is to be informative. I have institutional support that allows me to spend time thinking and reading and writing and having my sermons be informative about what's happening in our world. That's one of my responsibilities.

The other piece is to read these things that are happening in the world through the lens of what I believe the gospel is, because it's very easy, I think,  to end up on the wrong side of this. Say you watch the news and folks end up advocating against looting, as if that's the central matter. You understand what I'm saying?

It's like, Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait! I'm not burning anything down. However, don't get distracted from what the central matter is. There are people who are dying. We spend all of our time talking about the protection of property, of property in a system that treats us like property, but it's not quite worth as much as a CVS.

To read the times through the gospel and hopefully to influence the thinking of the folks who hear me on a regular basis, which is a smallish group. The other piece is to be encouragement and support for folks who are in the struggle, to be somebody folks can call and say, "Hey, I'm thinking about this," or just sometimes to tweet somebody and say, "I'm on your side with you."

All of that I think is what it really means for me to be a pastor. That's my role. I'm the pastor to the particular group of folks where I'm called and then I'm trying to be a pastoral presence and to represent a different vision of the church than the one that so often is the norm, because the church doesn’t have to be that. I don’t think actually fundamentally the church is that other thing. That's how I see my role.

Has that changed at all since Ferguson, the way that you see your role as a pastor?

I feel like I don't think I'm actually doing anything differently. When Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, I was in the middle of a summer series called Freedom Summer which I started in honor of the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer. I had been preaching about liberation every Sunday since June of that year. So in some ways, no, this was what I was doing. This was my project. I've been doing this since I've been doing this. What's different now is that I feel like I'm hooked up and connected across the nation with a lot of folks who are also doing it, other pastors and clergy leaders, younger and older, who are also doing it, and now we know each other.

Now I feel like we're connected to each other. In some ways, I think this is what's happened for all of the pockets of activists and scholars and people. Most people didn't wake up on August 9th last year, or the week before that, or the week before that with Eric Garner, and say, "Oh, my God. Racism is a problem. White supremacy is a problem." Most of us were already saying, "This is a problem," and what happened is that now we're galvanized and interacting with one another, so that's what I feel like has changed. 

Does the development of those networks make the work easier at all?

I wouldn't say easier. I feel like there are folks that I have met in the last year who are just my people. Yeah, it makes the work more loving. Loving is the word that's in my head, and more doable. I'll find myself saying to friends, usually via social media, that, "You need a break. Are you okay? Are you eating? Are you sleeping? You're on here all hours of the day and night. Are you taking care of yourself?" and vice versa.

The folks who are critical of the Black Lives Matter movement don't see the ways in which that piece is integral to the movement. I have the network of folks that I interact with and then there are networks of folks that are connected through a degree or two of separation and everybody's doing that for each other, but deeply. It's a deeply loving movement, where folks really are trying to be their very best to care for themselves and one another in the middle of this, as a part of the ethos of the movement.

There was the hashtag about black joy a couple of days ago, a few days ago. We get that black loving and black joy and self care and various forms of spiritual care and full care and healing and that real humanity is at stake here, and so it feels very loving and it feels healthy.

I'm wondering, where do we go from here? We have Black Lives Matter organized by three black women. You, yourself, are a Black woman leader of a church. What does that say about the future of activism? What does that say about the future of what the church and faith-based communities can be?

Yeah, one of the things it says is that destruction of patriarchy is also essential, and I have to say, we have to disrupt patriarchy. We have to disrupt it. More and more I think it's persuasive that we have to disrupt hierarchical thinking in general, but patriarchy in particular. The hierarchical thinking always leaves somebody out, always leaves somebody stepped on, and I think that is part. I mean, I think that the leadership of the Black Lives Matters is kind of decentralization. It's a model. It's a model for what it means. It's this disruptive sense that there's one person who's figuring it out.

It also follows a logic that's been tested that says multiple minds yield more creative results. It's just beautiful. If somebody had sat back and designed the movement, they couldn't have done better because part of what you get was with this movement and part of what I think the church certainly should learn from this, can learn from this, is what happens when you have lots of people who bring ideas, you test, and then you come back and you say, "Oh, we messed up there. We probably should have done this different here." That's fabulous. We need to do that more. I mean, that's great, but it's also part of what makes people uncomfortable because we don’t know who to put the mic in front of. Like folks outside don't know who to hand the mic to and more cynically, they don't know who to call because the movement is just huge, but not disorganized and that's wonderful.

I think that the challenge is to continue that possibility that says we're really better, the more heads we have in the game, the more people who are doing the thinking. We're better when everybody is accountable, when everybody is trying to do the right thing and trying to get better.

I'm interested in what type of resistance have you encountered? I think people really love their traditions. They don't like for their comfort to be disrupted, particularly in church settings where we're used to things being a certain way, and so I'm sure that you’ve encountered pushback, and so how do you deal with that?

I have to say that overwhelmingly, my congregation has been supportive. I am thankful to say at the same time, that I am able to do what I do because they support me in doing it. I was struck when I went to Ferguson last year and struck, as I'd been doing other things, both in Philadelphia and elsewhere, about how little pushback I get. I think some police officers in our congregation have been made uncomfortable by some of the things that I've said. I got a little pushback there, but I have to tell you that the most pushback I ever got has not been related to any of those.

Photo: Charles Fox

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