I never thought I’d experience empowerment while doing a research paper for class. Then again, I’d never written a paper about a trail-blazing woman like Jarena Lee, the first female African-American preacher in the States.
Her story is incredibly powerful to me. A woman who spent most of her young life struggling with guilt, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts, Jarena Lee had a powerful conversion experience at the age of 20 that inspired her to embrace the call of God to preach the Gospel. With great fear and trembling, she approached her pastor, the Rev. Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a denomination born of a desire to flee oppression, with the news of her calling from God. Unfortunately, Allen told her that the denomination knew nothing of ordaining women as preachers.
God didn’t let that stop her, though. As years went by, during which she married a pastor, bore six children, lost all but two of them, and then lost her husband, Jarena felt the call to preach burn fiercely within her. Eventually, Rev. Allen gave her permission to preach, and she became a widely popular traveling preacher throughout the 13 colonies and even in parts of Canada. Although she was never ordained, it is safe to say that Jarena Lee made a path for women in leadership in a strongly patriarchal and racist society, and she used her conversion story to validate her message along the way.
And then suddenly, as with the stories of so many other women in the church, she vanished. Neither I nor many of my Methodist friends had ever heard of her, despite her influence in and beyond her time. And I cannot help but ask, as I have many times before, why? Why has the voice of Jarena Lee, and the voices of so many other passionate women in Church history, been silenced?
While doing further research on Jarena Lee, I found a book at the EMU library called “You Have Stept Out of Your Place:” A History of Women and Religion in America by Susan Hill Lindley. The quote from the title comes from an indictment made by a Puritan minister to Anne Huthinson, a woman who had the audacity to believe that God could reveal God’s self personally to anyone, even a woman, without the mediation of another.
This incident happened centuries ago, but the minister’s message is still alive and well today.
I heard the message when Ephesians 5:22-33 was first preached to me and, at the age of 18, I was taught that this female submission was ordained by God. I heard that message when I looked at my church bulletin one Sunday, and the only names and contact information listed under the various ministry opportunities were those of men, not including their wives or other women in the ministry. I heard the message at Campus Crusade for Christ “Men’s/Women’s Time,” in which the men learned about discipleship and leadership, while I and my female companions were lectured on how to maintain our physical and spiritual purity as we prepared to (inevitably) get married to adventurous, Godly, authoritative men. I heard the message very loudly and clearly in the absence of women’s voices behind the pulpit.
But the most consistent, and the most heartbreaking, voices who spoke this message to me were the women of faith around me, the ones who told me that my desire to preach and lead was beyond my proper, God-ordained place. The women I revered and looked up to, who simultaneously told me I could be anything I wanted to be yet told me to squelch the fire within me, did more damage than any man behind the pulpit ever could.
This faith community that had provided me with spaces to experience and grow more aware of God’s love also told me to sit quietly behind the barriers that kept me from fully pursuing God’s calling. I, like Jarena Lee and Anne Hutchinson before me, felt empowered by God, Christ, the Gospels, and the Church but had the doors to leadership slammed right in my face. The same community that propelled me forward in my faith journey hung millstones on my neck that dragged my eyes and heart from heaven.
And so throughout my college years, I wrestled with these two contradictory experiences and messages. I wrestled with tradition and dogma, conservatives and liberals, culture wars and calls for ceasefire, all in the hope of better discerning God’s call for me as a woman. There were days of encouragement and hope, and days of exhaustion and despair. There were days I remembered why I fell in love with the Church, and there were days that I wanted to pack my bags and move to greener pastures.
But I did not wrestle alone.
I had many mothers and sisters, fathers and brothers, before and with me, who journeyed with me and spoke love, life, and strength into me, and fanned the flames of my passion until they could no longer be contained.
Because the truth they have helped me realize is, I have not stepped out of my place. I have stepped into it. I have been called into this place and embraced it like a lover. My place and I are one, just as the God who called me to this place is one with me. My place is wherever I go. My place burns within me. How, then, can I step out of my place?
You may call me into my place. You may call my place out from within me and draw it out like water until it runneth over. You may help me give birth to the place within me until the Love of God expressed through my calling is born into the world.
But you cannot call me out of my place. You cannot take my place from me, nor can you kill the flames that burn within my soul and course through the blood in my veins. You cannot tell me I have stepped out of my place. Because you cannot tell me to step out of my skin. God has given me this. And neither life, nor death, nor angels, nor demons, neither the past, present, nor future, nor the powers that be can steal from me what God has given.
So, like the women who have gone before me, from my spiritual grandmothers and mothers like Anne Hutchinson and Jarena Lee, and my biological grandmother and mother pictured above, I will continue to blaze the paths ahead of me, claim my birthright from God, and proclaim God’s love, grace, mercy, and justice from the mountaintops.
And I will share the journey with some amazing sisters in Christ, like my good friend Michaela, who was one of the first women in my life to share in and embrace the calling from God.
And I will continue to forge the paths for the women who will come after me, like this beautiful, spunky child. God has not given up on me, nor shall I give up on you, my mothers, sisters, and daughters.
And just as God has not given up on me, neither shall I give up on you, Church, the Bride of Christ. I will not give up on you who have hurt me, although you may continue to stifle my voice and try to put me back in my place. No, I will not give up on you, even though you may want to give up on me. I cannot abandon my own self, and my own self is inevitably drawn up in you, this big, beautiful, broken body of Christ. And what God has joined together, I pray God will continue to hold together, in a way that only God can bind that which is broken, in love.