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Saturday, December 12, 1998

Black women hear call to ministry


Scripps Howard News Service

Mary E. Moore swayed as she lifted the microphone and sang in deep alto the final chorus of the hymn "Keep Me Everyday." "I'm excited about being here tonight! How about you?" she asked as "Amen" echoed through Grace Missionary Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., during a Wednesday night revival service.

The tall, statuesque woman, dressed in a long, black robe with two crosses on the front, could have been mistaken for a member of a choir.

Only she wasn't there to sing from the pulpit with a Bible in front of her.

The reverend came to preach.

Moore, 48, who became the first female pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in South Memphis in February, is among the growing number of black women in the pulpit.

Experts say the increase shows that more black churches have begun to elect and to accept women in leadership roles, although many denominations, black and white, don't support female pastors.

"Women are coming from behind the barriers," Moore said. "Women are not as apprehensive as in times past."

Moore, who was licensed in 1990 and ordained a year later, credits the female pioneers in ministry for clearing a path.

During the service, she acknowledged evangelist Nettie Rogers, 76, who has been preaching for more than 50 years. Rogers is a member of Grace Missionary Baptist.

Rogers recalled her early days as an evangelist.

"It was male dominated," Rogers said. "I was denied and turned away. They didn't accept us. They said the Gospel didn't allow women."

Moore has a story of her own.

She once preached at a Baptist church where the pastor didn't believe in female pastors. She'd been invited by a member who hadn't consulted the pastor.

She wasn't allowed to deliver the sermon from the pulpit, and the pastor entered the sanctuary only after she had finished. He ignored her presence and proceeded to talk about his granddaughter's birthday.

Moore no longer preaches at churches where pastors do not believe in female ministers.

During the revival at Grace, where Rev. Coleman Crawford is pastor, Moore was received with applause and praises.

Crawford shook her hand and said Moore's message, on why Christians should not complain, also helped him.

"It brought a lot of us, I said 'us,' under conviction," he told the congregation.

But black women in the ministry still face some of the challenges Rogers and Moore have experienced.

On Nov. 17, the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association voted against allowing Rev. Sybil Mitchell to join the all-male organization of about 400 men. Eighty-seven of them stood against her membership; 27 were in favor. The ministerial association includes some of the most influential and respected leaders in Memphis' black community.

Mitchell had hoped that a vote in favor of allowing women would serve as a catalyst for those who are hesitating to come forward.

"It does not send a positive message to women in the ministry when we all know that God loves all," said Rev. Lee Brown, pastor of Springdale Baptist Church, where Mitchell is associate pastor, and one of the founders of the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association. "He is not gender-biased, just like He's not racially biased. Right now, I am in shock."

Mitchell is an ordained minister, and has been an instructor at the Tennessee School of Religion here, and religion editor of the Tri-State Defender. "I thought we were further along," Mitchell said. "In the Baptist denomination, we are further behind than others. These men are hard-liners standing on tradition."

Rev. J. L. Payne, president of the ministerial association and pastor of Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, said, "I'd like for them (women) to tell me where it says in (the Bible) they can (preach)," Payne said.

Rev. James Morganfield, pastor of Branch of Christ Missionary Baptist Church, echoed Payne.

"We don't accept (female ministers). We don't find anything in the scripture that does (support them)," Morganfield said. "We stand on that."

Still, the number of women in the ministry is growing.

Memphis Theological Seminary officials said an estimated 15 percent of their 40 to 45 graduates each year are black females, compared to the few who entered in earlier years.

"It's definitely increasing, without a doubt," said Rev. Barry Anderson, director of student services at the seminary. "It's larger than just people being called to the ministry and deciding to do this. I think that in society as a whole, females are being accepted in other roles."

The seminary's student population also is representative of numerous denominations, meaning more women want to take on those roles.

"(Women coming up now) have support. I didn't have," said administrative pastor Brenda Mills of Greater Harvest Church of God in Christ. "I didn't have anyone to talk to."

Mills, an ordained minister, waited three years after feeling she was called by God to the ministry to announce it.

"I didn't do it (before) because it wasn't popular," Mills said. "There were not a lot of women in the ministry."

She is one of six appointed "undershepherds," or pastors, at Greater Harvest, and the only female among them. But Greater Harvest has made an exception for her. Mills is not recognized as a pastor in the Church of God in Christ.

Opponents of female preachers sometimes cite 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 to support their beliefs:

"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law.

"And if they will learn anything, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church."

Supporters of female ministers argue that the scripture is taken out of context, and that the Bible is filled with references to women serving God as ministers.

"A woman can teach Sunday school. She can be a speaker. She can even be the superintendent of Sunday school, but the problem comes when she says that she's been called to preach," said Rev. Gina Stewart, pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church.

Stewart, 38, became the first woman elected to serve a black Baptist congregation in Shelby County in March 1995. She was the second woman elected to lead one of more than 500 Baptist churches in the county. Her church has a congregation of 1,100.

Each Sunday, Stewart's church is packed with men, women and children, many of whom were members when she was elected in 1995.

She clearly has the support of her congregation.

A common practice in the church is an early morning greeting, in which members walk through the church to hug or shake hands with other members and visitors. Stewart was embraced and hugged and called on from all sides one recent Sunday morning.

About the acceptance she found in her church, Stewart said, "I think it's a good thing, but even more, it's a God thing." She sees God working in her ministry, she said.

Rev. Melvin Lee, a member of the ministerial association and pastor of Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church-Hyde Park, said he believes it's time for black women to be accepted as ministers.

"The Bible said, 'Whosoever will, let him come.' We don't restrict that to say that only men can be saved," Lee said. "How can we testify that God can do anything, and then say God can't call women to preach?' "

Mills at Greater Harvest COGIC said she no longer expects people to accept her, as she did early in her ministry. Women called to preach are answering God, not men, she said.

"My ministry is bigger than any denomination," Mills said. "Ministry is more than a pulpit."

Rev. Rosalyn Nichols, 35, associate pastor at Metropolitan Baptist Church, said she has been encouraged by other female ministers, and men in her church.

"When I acknowledged my call, nobody said to me, 'You can't because you're a woman,' " Nichols said. Rev. Fred C. Lofton is the pastor at Metropolitan.

The African Methodist Episcopal Church has taken the lead in giving ordained women a place in the church.

Rev. Helen Rogers of Bethel AME Church was ordained elder, a position similar to a minister, in September. She is an associate pastor at Bethel.

Rogers said women must serve when they are called.

"I had a hunger," Rogers said. "After a while, the word became so nourishing that I hungered for it and couldn't get enough. It all fell into place."

The AME church also has a rigorous five-year training program for candidates who want to enter the ministry. Men and women must pass each step of the program before being given leadership.

"We have had women doing ministry from almost our inception, throughout the two hundred years (of) the church," said Charles E. Ware, pastor of Bethel, which has two other women now going through training. "We've never denied that they have been called."

Rogers is among the numerous women the AME church has ordained over the years, including Rev. Benita Granberry, 42, of St. Andrew AME Church, who also serves as on-call chaplain at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis.

Granberry said she has had no difficulties in her ministry.

"It's been a male-dominated area for so long, and some people's minds are simply not going to change," Granberry said. "If God truly has called you to the ministry, the Lord will make a way."

Rev. Deborah Thomas Dennie, an elder of Avery Chapel AME Church, is considered one of the pioneering female preachers in Memphis. She said she was called to the ministry in 1977; in 1980 she answered the call.

Dennie, a fourth-generation AME, said she believes more women will continue to accept the call.

"I think things are better because women are not cowering down to these negative views," Dennie said.

Rev. Sharon Karamoko, 45, is senior pastor at Good Samaritan United Methodist Church, which has a biracial congregation of about 120.

The daughter of a retired Baptist minister, Karamoko said women must move beyond the controversy.

"Society is still very much patriarchal, but when God starts stirring the water, people can't stop it," Karamoko said.

Sybil Mitchell said she prays her move to enter the ministerial association served its purpose.

"Suppose that all the women who say they were called to preach are wrong," Mitchell said. "When those women stand before Him, they'll have all these people standing behind them who have been saved. I don't think that would be too bad."

(Debra Elliott is a staff writer at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis.)


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