For black women at church, it’s more than the Aretha eu­logy

Manteca Bulletin - - Nation -

DETROIT (AP) — A black pas­tor’s con­tro­ver­sial eu­logy at Aretha Franklin’s fu­neral laid bare be­fore the world what black women say they have ex­pe­ri­enced for gen­er­a­tions: sex­ism and in­equal­ity in their houses of wor­ship ev­ery Sun­day.

In eu­lo­giz­ing the beloved artist known as the Queen of Soul, the Rev. Jasper Wil­liams Jr. de­clared that as “proud, beau­ti­ful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman can­not do — a black woman can­not raise a black boy to be a man.”

The back­lash was im­me­di­ate, given Franklin’s role as a mother and a pil­lar for women’s rights.

Franklin’s griev­ing fam­ily said Wil­liams’ eu­logy, which also in­cluded ref­er­ences to stop­ping black-on-black crime, was of­fen­sive be­cause it did not fo­cus on her. So­cial me­dia lit up with crit­i­cisms of his re­marks as sex­ist and misog­y­nist.

For many black women, Wil­liams’ eu­logy re­opened wounds and sternly re­minded them that black churches re­main male-dom­i­nated in­sti­tu­tions, where old-school re­sis­tance to women hold­ing lead­er­ship roles is still alive.

“Women are hurt­ing about this is­sue,” said the Rev. Barbara Reynolds, an el­der at Greater Mount Cal­vary Holy Church in Washington, D.C.

“It’s like we are still not equal. Women fight in ev­ery cause for ev­ery­body else, but we are not cel­e­brated or even tol­er­ated in sa­cred spa­ces,” Reynolds said.

Women not only fill the pews in many black churches, they also serve as church nurses and ush­ers, and work be­hind the scenes. Some are trustees, keep­ing an eye on church fi­nances and mak­ing sure bills get paid. Others are evan­ge­lists, or are or­dained as dea­cons. But many are de­nied true lead­er­ship roles — and in some cases, women are asked to de­liver ser­mons from the church floor, rather than the pul­pit.

Some male min­is­ters “ac­tu­ally deeply be­lieve that men are sup­posed to be in charge,” said the Rev. Ch­eryl Townsend Gilkes (JILLkz), as­sis­tant pas­tor for spe­cial pro­jects at Union Bap­tist Church in Cambridge, Mas­sachusetts, and a so­ci­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Colby Col­lege in Water­ville, Maine.

“Their read­ing of the Bi­ble does not have a vi­sion of gen­der equal­ity,” Gilkes said. “Black women are very con­scious of how im­por­tant they are to the sur­vival, growth and con­ti­nu­ity of the church. Very of­ten, to be­come ef­fec­tive, prom­i­nent lead­ers, they have formed their own or­ga­ni­za­tions and ex­er­cised that lead­er­ship out­side the pul­pit.”

Wil­liams, pas­tor of Salem Bi­ble Church in At­lanta, had also eu­lo­gized Franklin’s fa­ther, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, in 1984. He pref­aced part of his eu­logy for Aretha Franklin on Aug. 31 by say­ing “70 per­cent” of black house­holds are led by black women.

Wil­liams apol­o­gized later, but de­fended his choice of topics. He said he was try­ing to highlight the strug­gles that sin­gle moth­ers face and his words were taken out of con­text.

But even dur­ing Franklin’s fu­neral, the ab­sence of black women in the pul­pit was ev­i­dent. The front row was oc­cu­pied by Jesse Jack­son, Al Sharp­ton and pri­mar­ily other black male pas­tors. No black fe­male pas­tors were fea­tured on an early speak­ers’ list for the fu­neral.

Shirley Cae­sar, a gospel mu­sic le­gend and se­nior pas­tor of Mount Cal­vary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, sang dur­ing the ser­vice, but also seized the mo­ment to squeeze a lit­tle preach­ing in. Most of the in­di­vid­ual singers were prom­i­nent fe­male per­form­ers.

“There are male lead­ers in some black churches that don’t al­low women to preach from the pul­pit and, if they do, it’s typ­i­cally on spe­cial oc­ca­sions like Women’s Day,” said the Rev. Ho­race Sh­effield, pas­tor of New Des­tiny Chris­tian Fel­low­ship of Detroit.

“Some de­nom­i­na­tions are more strin­gent and less likely to af­firm women than others,” Sh­effield said. “That’s part of our Chris­tian tra­di­tion and that has al­ways both­ered me. We can be dis­crim­i­nated on the color of our skin and we can dis­crim­i­nate against women be­cause of their gen­der. It still ex­ists by virtue of the fact that you have churches that don’t al­low fe­male min­is­ters as pas­tors. It ... ren­ders us in a lesser po­si­tion to chal­lenge dis­crim­i­na­tion in any form or any place when we’re part of it.”

About 70 per­cent of the 500 mem­bers at Sh­effield’s church are women. Sh­effield said two women serve as as­so­ci­ate pas­tors. Some of the dea­cons are women and the head of the stew­ard board is a woman.

He said the roles of women in black church lead­er­ship are chang­ing, “but we’ve got to open it up some more.”

The Rev. Maid­stone Mu­lenga, com­mu­ni­ca­tions di­rec­tor for the United Methodist Church Coun­cil of Bish­ops, says hav­ing only men in lead­er­ship and pas­toral roles is part of the the­ol­ogy taught in some churches.

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