(This is Part 2 of a series of posts this week on how I’ve lived out my own intersections within the church.)
I am a woman who grew up in the Black church, my training has come – for the most part – from within the Black church and I am a woman who was licensed and ordained in a Black church. But I kinda don’t preach like I have had any kind of cultivation in the Black church. I could give myself a little credit in that when I really started preaching, the First Baptist congregation was so kind and accepting of my voice that I have to believe what was coming out of me had some sort of an impact. But I don’t whoop, I don’t holler and my idea of “bringing it home” is a few thoughtful reflective questions, a prayer and an Amen. I’ve always understood “real” Black preaching to be adorned by its ability to prompt a call-and-response from the listeners. The beauty is that the sermon is not a monologue, but rather a dialogue, or even a dance between the preacher and the congregation.
I don’t dance; I just kind of, talk.
I was always pretty introverted growing up. I still am. (A later post will be on how I function in the church as an introvert & a contemplative) I had a lot of personality, but I didn’t like to be in front of people, unless I was playing a sport. I excelled in basketball and soccer and anything else that required me to sweat and be competitive. In church, I remember giving the visitors announcement one day when I was little and choking while I was up there. My brother, on the other hand, gave the youth sermonette one day in church. It was so good that my Pastor decided not to preach the sermon that he prepared and everyone shouted and went home. That was the shadow I lived in.
I have no idea when I even began to explore speaking. I ran across an old program from when Pastor Soaries was inaugurated Secretary of State of NJ and I was listed as the youth speaker. That must have been the day. I don’t remember having any significant public speaking moments before then. I don’t remember much about that day or even what I said. I do remember that I enjoyed it. Through college I was more concerned with my own personal faith walk that never did I consider anything public. When I did consider ministry as a calling, it was always grassroots and behind the scenes. I had been exposed to many preachers up until that point and honestly I probably didn’t consider it because I just didn’t see myself in any of them.
In seminary, I took Speech 101 and Speech 102, then proceeded to ask my registrar if I could skip Preaching 101 and 102 because that just “wasn’t me” and I “probably wasn’t going to ever preach.” (I actually said that) Everyone around me, if they were Black, seemed as if they were either skilled or passionate about shaping their voice within the tradition of Black preaching. There was one professor, Dr. LaRue, where taking his class was sort of an unspoken essential obligation that most of us as Black seminarians had. He was THE Black preaching professor who everyone went to, in order to learn the art of Black preaching from…and more. I was scared to be in that class. My voice and my passions seemed to contradict the flood of young preachers who would all contend for Dr. LaRue’s attention. Looking back in retrospect, I’m sad that I didn’t get a chance to glean from Dr. LaRue’s wisdom. He is a kind and wise man.
Enter Sally Brown.
Rev. Dr. Sally Brown.
Me, Ashlee, Jessie and Kim (my seminary friends) loved this woman. She was patient and kind and rigorous. Dr. Brown encouraged me to find my own voice. She encouraged me to make sure my content was on point. To make sure I understood that context was everything. I was nervous, resistant and hesitant to take any preaching class in seminary. I graduated from seminary, however, having taken 3 different preaching classes with her including an independent study. I almost applied to a PhD program with her in mind to study under. She was so impactful that I invited her to my ordination to take part in the ceremony.
Thank you Dr. Brown.
Once I left and went back to my home church, Rev. Soaries validated my gift. He put me up front, a lot. I honestly was so young and immature that he didn’t have to do that. But neither my youth nor my gender was ever a question to him(my immaturity was though). I watched him, who I thought and still believe to be one of the greatest gifted speakers/preachers I’ve ever heard. He understands context, his content is always substantial, his voice inflections always appropriate, his timing always near perfect, his command of the audience; genius. Watching him, was learning from him. I could find my voice in watching him in his. But still, I struggled on how to apply it to that context. Because really, most would consider me more of a teacher because a preacher has a little more umph. But, in other instances, I had seen preachers called preachers who didn’t have that umph…in non Black church contexts mostly. Not always. Did that make me less Black? Does that make me less Black? Should I not call myself a preacher? How does this work exactly?
Associate Campus Pastor for Preaching… So funny how God does things. One of my biggest insecurities all wrapped up in this dignified title and role. It was sort of like God just created this for me to work it all out. Me and my voice, preaching in jeans and flip flops with a mic stand and a few notes with 1500-3000 young faces staring at me. It was like God was saying to me “Yes you are a preacher no matter what context you find yourself in.” And even now having been out of that position and thrust in another context, I am still a preacher. So grateful for this blessed burden. I once heard this phrase in the movie Eat, Pray, Love where the main character Liz says “God lives in me, AS ME.” What a journey it has been just to come to a place where I can embrace that. Where I can preach in a setting in Ghana, West Africa or a prison in Mexico or an AME pulpit in Los Angeles and still be able to proclaim that God moves through me, as me. God speaks through me, as me. God lives in me, AS ME.