The complexity of gender equality for women of color is rooted in the fact that they have to confront both the opposition against them (woc) as people of color from white men and white women and the opposition against them as women from white men and men of color. However, just as the issue of racism is not monolithic, so also, is the issue of gender discrimination in people of color communities not monolithic. In other words, not all men of color present with gender discrimination and today, I wish to illustrate that with a story that I have lived but never shared before now.
Many know by now that both personally and in ministry, I was so discouraged by the gender and racial discrimination that at one time, I almost my pastoral assignment. However, what most people haven’t heard from me is the role of the Black church community – and particularly, the Black male ministers in my community – during that period of my life. Other than the one Black male minister in my community who spewed venomous hate and rejection at me, the reaction of the other Black male ministers whom I met afterwards, formed one of the two spaces where there was some level of acceptance for me and my person in ministry.
My community is historically divided into Black and White settlements and the location of the churches follow that distribution (although I didn’t know it at the time, my church plant started in the white settlement, and although I didn’t know it at the time, the LORD located our church property in the predominantly Black settlement, thereby effectively and once again, situating me between two worlds!). From the very first introduction to the community of Black male ministers by a non-indigenous white missionary in the area, they opened their hearts and churches to me. Almost immediately, I received a standing invitation to preach and teach at one of the Church of God in Christ churches and subsequently, other Black churches in the area. Through the invitation of the pastor of this one Black church, I officiated my very first wedding because he re-directed his clients to me (and even lent me his robe to wear at the ceremony). I will always treasure the very loving and very egalitarian conduct of this man who did not know me from Adam. Because I was new in town, he even drove me to and from the wedding venue which was in another city, but took a back seat during the entire ceremony and proceedings. This pastor would continue to forge an egalitarian relationship with me throughout my time in the community. In one of my articles, I mentioned how other ministers were quick to invite me to their events (which I honored) but conveniently managed to ignore the invitations to my church programs. Not this minister. My very first community outreach program in the area, he and another white male minister, my late dear friend, Rev. B., were the only two that ‘heard’ my invitation. Although, neither were able to attend because of prior engagements, they nevertheless went out of their way to make their support and presence felt. Rev. B asked what I needed to make the event a success and upon discovering that I needed a speaker and audio-system, invited me to speak at his church the very next day and asked his church to raise the funds for our system. They did and we purchased our own very first speaker! They also donated microphones and microphone stands to us for the occasion. My dear Black male minister, whom I now call ‘father,’ discovered I had no electric on the church property yet, so he volunteered to bring his generator, which he generously fueled, and also set up for us before he left. His church also donated the hot dog and hamburger buns for our event.
The ecumenical association of Black churches and their ministers never failed to invite me to any of their community outreaches. I was always seated in a place of honor among the Black male ministers and they always gave me a role of honor to play, even if they had to redirect or remove one male minister (i was the only female minister in their midst) just so I could have a role, they did it. Each year, I was one of their featured combined Good Friday Service speakers and I continued to serve alongside them in this capacity until the roles were given to young and upcoming ministers (male and female) in the community and this service was a celebration of the gifts and callings of men and women in the Black community and the presence of the Holy Spirit was strong!
Three years ago, when I brought a charge of gender discrimination against some of my white male colleagues, advocates from the community of Black male ministers together with some of the white ministers (male and female) rose to my aid and condemned the discriminatory behavior. One of the Black male ministers went as far as to request a meeting between me and the ministers in question, but although I gave my consent, the meeting never happened. Yet, I was comforted to see the level of sorrow this man demonstrated on account of my suffering.
I don’t know what my experience in my community would have been like if I had bought a house in and lived and worked in the Black church part of town instead of in the white church area. I’m tempted to think that my experience would have been different and that perhaps, IF I would have first, been exposed to the natural hospitality of African church (that still holds strong in African-American churches) towards strangers, that would have made my story different…I don’t know the answer to this as God located me someplace else, where I could only belong and be claimed by love, rather than by racial ecclesiology, and I am glad that despite being located on the ‘other side’ of town, the love and belonging of the Black church community still found and reached me. I appreciate this all the more because although not all Black churches typically ordain women as ‘pastors,’ they nevertheless respected me as ‘a pastor,’ addressed me as such, and gave me the full accord with their male ministers, and outside of my denomination male ministers, they have been the most accepting of me, my call, and my leadership. For these and many more evidences of mutuality in my North American, African-American church experience, I am grateful.
This article is dedicated to my very dear brother, friend and father, Rev. E. M., and the African-American churches for their role and efforts at fostering equality, mutuality and inclusion in my community.
-Rev. Oghene’tega Swann
Rev. Oghene’tega Swann is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Beaver-Butler Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church(USA). She is the founding pastor of Refreshing Springs Ministry, Aliquippa & Ambridge. She has the honor and privilege to be mother to one wonderful, biological child and many, many more non-biological children.