We’ve Got to Save Us: Fighting for Gender Equity in the "Messy Business" of the Church

By Rev. Simone Oliver

I recently read somewhere that the business of faith is a “messy business” and, as quiet as it is kept, indeed it is. As a matter of fact, it can be pretty slapdash, slipshod and sloppy. In spite of its foils, we have the assurance that the gates of Hell will never prevail against us, and with all of its foibles, we can be certain that God’s grace in Christ yet abounds and that God still uses ordinary people. So this is not to belittle the church but to call the church into honest conversation and create a dialogue that has the potential to transform church culture with its changeless traditions and create space for repentance, renewal and restoration so that the church might once again be formed by Breath and Spirit.

African-American women represent the highest demographic in the church with the Pew Research Center reporting that eight in 10 African-American women detail that religion is very important to them and that many African-American churches are comprised of upwards to 65% women. Yet the African-American church is one of the most oppressive places for Black women. Black women are the most committed group in the church. You will find us leading praise and worship on Sunday morning after being battered and abused on Saturday night. We will fry chicken on the church stove while aching for a “bun in our oven.” We carry the misery and melancholy of miscarriages while caring for children in the nursery and many of us are shouting HALLELUJAH with HIV. And it seems no one cares.

While we weep and lament for Black boys and men, dead at the hands of the empire, Black women are also dying as of results of direct violence by the state and being incarcerated in increasing numbers but no one calls their names. We are suffering disproportionately from diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease while praying for healing. And it seems no one cares. Let me not forget to mention that the African-American church has the highest level of clergy sexual misconduct but few policies and procedures that seek to prevent it.

So what’s the matter with Jesus? Absolutely nothing! Our faith is relevant. Our faith is powerful. Our faith is real. The problem is not with Jesus. The problem is with us. We have succumbed to powerless preaching that reinforces the social constructs of gender that relegate us to subordination while male privilege reigns. With a few exceptions, Biblical texts about women are interpreted in ways that portray us as deceitful, sexual objects and harlots who operate on the fringes of society and as powerless to change our lots in life. These images serve to solidify the patriarchal, misogynistic construct of secular society and keeps us silent, ashamed and in our proverbial places as second class citizens of the institutional church. And no one seems to care.

Sisters, I get it! I understand why we gravitate and flock to that space. Not only have we fallen in love with Jesus, we also long for connection, community and encouragement as we deal with the challenges of being Black women in a world that perceives us as hypersexual, angry, so physically and emotionally resilient that we are immune to pain, caregivers, breadwinners and, in the words of Zora Neale Hurston, “… the mules of the world.” We desire to be in a fellowship that will allow us to reinforce certain values to our children. To care for them. To encourage them. We desire to be in fellowship to find emotional support and spiritual wisdom. We need our village, a place of shared history and common good. We need a respite from the world. We need some place to exhale. To just breathe. To get lost in the blessedness of worship and the bond of our faithfulness.

Church is that place for so many of us but we must demand the institutions that we support to provide holistically for our care and development. If upwards of 50% of our congregations were suffering from cancer, we would create a ministry to support them. So we must speak up and make our needs known so that ministry can be developed to address our greatest needs. We must question what and how the Biblical texts are interpreted so that we can understand God’s intention for our lives and not just be lost in the panacea of worship. We must call the church to account for its own oppression and exploitation of women.

The African American Policy Forum wrote an open letter to President Obama in regards to the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, pointing out the disproportionate risks for women of color with respect to state-sanctioned and interpersonal violence, incarceration, disparities in health, wages and wealth as well as educational inequities. It goes on to say that there is little information on the status of women and girls of color and this is what feeds “the persistent myth that they are doing just fine.” We. Are. Not. Fine.

While our President may be taking steps to provide “full opportunity and equality” for Black women, we must begin to remove the layers of silence that have shrouded our existence and it must begin on a grassroots level. We must call the institutions into which we sow our time, our talent and our treasure to account. We must question gender inequity. We must question the interpretation of texts that disempower us rather than empower and whose interests those interpretations serve. We must question why matters of faith do not include matters of sexuality or mental and emotional health. We must question why the church is not willing to talk about domestic violence and sexual assault. After all, these issues are not only in the sacred text but rampant in our neighborhoods. We must raise our voices and question, question, question. How much will we give of ourselves to be in community? We’ve got to save us. No one else will.

Photo: Shutterstock

Simone is a recent grad from Princeton Theological Seminary and a passionate preacher, educator, and advocate for women who is committed to the spiritual care of women and girls and bringing healing their wounded hearts through God’s grace.

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