Days before Good Friday, the Rev. Stacey Hamilton continued to contemplate what she would preach about some of the last words of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Hamilton, one of seven black women preaching at “Women With a Word,” a service hosted by the Fellowship of Churches of Atlantic City and Vicinity at Faith Baptist Church in Pleasantville, N.J., prayed and did her “due diligence” by studying the meaning of the passage’s original Greek as she prepared to write her sermon.
In a growing tradition, at least a dozen churches across the country are hosting Good Friday services this year that feature seven African American female preachers, expounding in seven short sermons on the last seven phrases uttered by Jesus before his crucifixion.
“It’s a big deal because historically black women have been underrepresented,” said Hamilton, associate pastor of innovation and engagement at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Pleasantville.
“There’s still a lot of traditional views as they relate to women in leadership and having the ability to actually declare the Word and people actually come out and listen to women,” added the pastor, who also works as a computer engineer. “It’s definitely a shift within the last couple of years.”
Vanderbilt University Divinity School Dean Emilie Townes said she’s seeing “more and more” instances of black women preaching in “Seven Last Words” services.
Though some black women preachers recall being featured in Good Friday services decades ago, the phenomenon got a boost five years ago, when seven millennial black women preachers spoke at a Chicago church for an event sponsored by ShePreaches, a group that creates opportunities for younger African American clergywomen. The organization developed an online toolkit to encourage services on Good Friday featuring young adult black women in pulpits using womanist interpretations of the Bible.
The increased attention comes at a time when womanist theology, which focuses on the intersection of gender, race and class and empowerment of the marginalized across the African diaspora, is gaining momentum.
In March, womanist scholars of religion gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate their first consultation, at the city’s Howard University School of Divinity, in 1988. Last April, a Center for Womanist Leadership opened at Virginia’s Union Presbyterian Seminary with Alice Walker, the novelist and poet and one of the founders of the womanist movement, as the keynote speaker for the inaugural gathering.
The Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune, director of Ecumenical Advocacy Days for Global Peace with Justice, said black women, similar to the women who remained at the foot of Jesus’ cross, can speak of resilience despite difficult circumstances facing their communities.
“It is also significant that the collective Black church is recognizing our gifts and allowing them to be exercised in pulpits across the country during the holiest week of the Christian calendar,” said Copeland-Tune, who will be preaching at a predominantly black church in Largo, Md. “Space is finally being made for us to edify God’s people. There are cracks in the stained-glass ceilings.”
The Rev. Jacqueline Thompson, the first woman pastor-elect of the predominantly black Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, Calif., said in an emailed statement that African American women can particularly relate to Jesus’ suffering and injustices that led to his crucifixion.
“Many live and work in the reality of what Womanist Scholar Jacquelyn Grant calls the ‘triple oppression’ of race, class and gender,” said Thompson, whose church’s Seven Last Words service will feature “six African American women and one Euro-American woman who is a daughter of our church.”
“The message of life after death remains a critical one in light of the present day racist, sexist and xenophobic rhetoric and policies we see rampant in today’s society.”
The Rev. Aundreia Alexander, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches, cited more than half a dozen churches featuring seven black women speaking at Seven Last Words services, from “Womanists of the Bay” in Berkeley, Calif., to “Sisters at the Cross” in Alexandria, Va.
The tradition’s inclusion of black women may be a result of concerted efforts to put them in pulpit positions.
More than a decade ago, the Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, dean of the Methodist Theological School in Ohio, founded WomanPreach! Inc., which offers a Jarena Lee Preaching Academy to train women of African descent, and expanded it to include women and men.
She said many black women’s sense of calling to preach is now being undergirded by theological training.
“I think more women have gone to seminary and so they have gotten the degrees, not just the call but the training with that call,” said Bridgeman. “And so they’re unmoved by what might have been a historic resistance to their call because they’ve solidified for themselves their call.”
The Association of Theological Schools reports that the number of black women graduates of its affiliated schools almost tripled from 1988 to 1998 — increasing from 151 to 444. The number more than doubled again by 2018, reaching 994.
The Rev. Christine A. Smith, author of “Beyond the Stained Glass Ceiling: Equipping and Encouraging Female Pastors,” said she’s seen an uptick over at least a decade in instances of seven black women preaching on Jesus’ seven last sayings, including in her Akron, Ohio, area.
“This is a wonderful movement, but there are still major barriers that remain for women in ministry,” said Smith, a pastor dually aligned with the American Baptist Churches USA and the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who is set to speak at a “He Is Risen” Seven Last Words service with six other black women preachers.
“Churches particularly in the African American community, particularly in the Baptist denominations, African American Baptist denominations, there still remains strong resistance to women becoming senior pastors.”
Hamilton and others say African American women preachers are likely to address issues of justice during their 10 minutes or so in the pulpit during the Seven Last Words services. The New Jersey pastor said she intends to mention human trafficking and the stricter requirements proposed by the Trump administration for some who have qualified previously for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Hamilton studied several years ago at Bridgeman’s Jarena Lee Preaching Academy (named for the first African Methodist Episcopal Church female preacher) and said it was “transformational” in helping her learn about womanist preaching. She then recognized that she brings a unique perspective to preaching and not “the same as if a man is standing up to preach.”
Thus, the associate pastor said, she thinks it’s fitting that some churches are highlighting black women in their pulpits on one of the holiest days in the Christian calendar.
“On Good Friday, we’re able to share in a way that says there’s room for you, there’s room for you here in the midst of Jesus’ struggle and Jesus’ suffering,’’ she said, “that you may have a place in salvation and that this is for you. You matter.”
Franklin, 40, who was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, talked with Religion News Service about Christian film success, how men should respond to the #MeToo movement, and the importance of observing the Sabbath.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You are a Hollywood producer, an ordained minister and the author of a new book about men and the #MeToo era. How do you juggle these three seemingly disparate areas of your life?
I don’t view them as disparate. My goal in everything I do is to uplift and inspire and use entertainment as a way to do that. So anything I’m doing, whether it’s writing a book, or producing a movie, or speaking or preaching, it’s all with the same goal: How does the person that is engaging with me relative to what I’m doing in that moment — how can their life become potentially better or how can I say something or do something that can inspire them?
It’s like one wheel, just different spokes.
DeVon Franklin. Courtesy photo
How did you learn about the story behind “Breakthrough,” and how much is it a true story rather than “based on a true story”?
I found out about “Breakthrough” while I was promoting “Miracles from Heaven.” I met the family, Joyce Smith and (her son) John Smith, and Pastor Jason Noble. And when I heard their story I was blown away. It was just so captivating. I just knew that I had to bring it to the big screen.
When you look at films, there’s “based on a true story,” there’s “inspired by a true story,” there’s “inspired by true events,” but based on a true story is when it’s closest to the real story. And “Breakthrough” is without a doubt based on a true story.
“Breakthrough” comes to theaters around Easter. How has the success of your previous productions, including the animated Christmas movie, “The Star,” enabled you to present this new one?
I think every success is like stair steps — one leads to the other. And so “Breakthrough” being my third produced film, certainly, is building on the success of “The Star” and building on the success of “Miracles from Heaven.”
In “The Star,” celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Kristin Chenoweth added their voices to that story. In “Breakthrough,” main characters are portrayed by actress Chrissy Metz and actor Mike Colter. Has there been a shift in the willingness of mainstream actors and actresses to appear in Christian films?
Yes. What is amazing about this story “Breakthrough” — it’s a true story, and I think that sometimes the desire to put it in the faith-based genre sometimes overshines the fact that it’s true. And more people are looking to do a true story because they connect to it more so than it being a part of the faith-based genre per se. So it’s a blessing that these projects are able to get the attention of such incredible talent.
Following the example of other brother filmmaker teams, there’s a movie called “Sinners Wanted” that just premiered at a black megachurch in Maryland in March. Do you see more people trying to develop Christian films for the big screen? And do you think those smaller projects have more of a chance of being recognized by Hollywood than in the past?
I’m not familiar with that particular movie. I do think that there’s a lot of growth in this space. The Erwin brothers, who are my good friends, they did “I Can Only Imagine.” And that success led to an incredible new opportunity with Lionsgate for more projects to come through, which is great.
I have my deal here at Fox. The Kendrick brothers, who also do inspirational faith-based movies, they have a deal with Sony. I think ultimately as the right movies are developed and people find them, it’ll allow for even more new filmmakers and new films that may not currently be on the radar to emerge.
DeVon Franklin, from left, Jeff Lockyer and Danielle Strickland participate in a panel discussion about sexual misconduct with the Willow Creek Association near Chicago. Video screenshot
Turning to a completely different subject, you have spoken in a new video resource about ministry and #MeToo. What are some key tips you suggest for men to help reduce the chances of women becoming victims of sexual abuse or harassment?
One of the reasons why I wanted to write the book is because I do believe that, as men, we need to become better. And part of that is learning to love, and that means considering others’ needs before ours and putting our integrity and our character above the desire to sometimes feed those selfish impulses.
I challenge every man to not look at the #MeToo movement as a women’s movement. It’s not. We need to be a part of this movement. Whether we have been harassed ourselves or not, we need to help. It takes both of us to get it done. We have to be a part of the solution ’cause if not, I think we’re part of the problem.
You had spoken about how the #MeToo movement can cause some men to feel that they can’t or shouldn’t hire women who may be most qualified for a position in their church or other organization. What’s your advice for them?
My advice is to not allow fear to dictate decision-making, because, any man that’s afraid to hire a woman, it’s because of fear and a misconception of what’s really going on.
I think that it’s important that we hire the very best people. And if that happens to be a woman, we need to hire her. And, to me, a man that’s afraid to do that says more about the man than it does the woman. And it’s so important to not use #MeToo as an excuse to be afraid.
Let’s use #MeToo and #TimesUp as an excuse to become better and do that in every area of our life, including our hiring practices.
As someone raised in the Seventh-day Adventist faith, how do you keep your Sabbath even as you work on round-the-clock projects related to film and faith?
The first day that I was in Hollywood, I literally said when I was interviewing for the company that managed Will Smith, “I won’t take this internship if it requires me to work on the Sabbath.” And, every single job that I’ve ever taken since then, I’ve made it a part of it.
And observing the Sabbath is so important for a number of reasons, not just spiritual reasons, but also practical reasons. We are not built to run 24/7. And what I have found is if we block out some time to rest, people conform around that. I’ve been on set, producing films, and then I’m like, “Hey, all right, the sun is almost down. I got to go.”
It’s been integral to my success. And I highly recommend it to everyone ’cause I think it really makes a big difference.
Jimmy Jenkins and his brother, Joshua, stood in front of the crowd at a local AMC movie theater and admitted to being overwhelmed.
After showing their new movie, “Sinners Wanted,” for free the previous weekend at the black megachurch where their father preaches, on Friday (March 22) they were in a nearby theater filled with people who had paid for tickets to watch their first joint film project.
Like at least two other brother filmmaker teams before them, the Jenkins siblings are hoping their independent film will continue to expand the depiction of biblically based stories on the big screen.
They have chosen a particularly provocative storyline: A preacher named Leo Shepherd befriends, dates and marries a prostitute named Ginger “GiGi” Clementine.
“It came from the book of Hosea — Hosea, Chapter 3, verse 1 — when God told Hosea to go love a prostitute to show Israel how much he loves her,” said Jimmy Jenkins, the younger of the two brothers, in an interview.
“I wanted to take it and create it into a modern-day story that people can understand how much God loves humanity.”
Near the start of the movie, Gigi comes into the black Washington, D.C., church, beaten and bruised after a difficult night. An usher asks a scantily clad Gigi: “Why are you disturbing our service?”
Shepherd, the brand-new pastor, responds with a verse about God’s grace.
“She can have a seat. It’s all right,” he says.
The movie, which focuses on the need for forgiveness and on welcoming people frowning church elders considered undesirable, was presented last year at several film festivals, including the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.
Brothers Joshua, left, and Jimmy Jenkins at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden Film Ministry’s premiere of the “Sinners Wanted” film on March 16, 2019, at First Baptist Church of Glenarden, Md. Photo courtesy of First Baptist Church of Glenarden
Jenkins, 28, a filmmaker since age 22, partnered with his older brother, the leader of the young adult and drama ministries at their father’s First Baptist Church of Glenarden, to present the film through their company Jenk Ink LLC. They follow others in the faith-related film business, including brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, creators of “Woodlawn,” and Alex and Stephen Kendrick, whose movie “War Room” had the seventh-highest box office success for a Christian film.
Jimmy Jenkins said he sought out the Kendrick brothers for advice last year and their discussion encouraged him.
“They told me that the God idea works,” he said. “That’s one of the big things I got from it: Follow God’s will before you try to follow your will and when you do that, God can really bless you.”
Some of the Kendricks’ earliest films were supported by volunteers from their Albany, Ga., church who provided most of the cast, crew and catering.
Similarly, the Jenkins brothers have relied on their church for support of their production, with many of the extras coming from their Maryland congregation.
Their independent film, which has a six-figure budget, was shot in 16 days, with some scenes set in two neighboring Baptist churches in Washington, D.C. The directors coordinated around the schedules of their more well-known actors, including Lamman Rucker (of “Greenleaf,” an Oprah Winfrey Network drama about a family that runs a black megachurch) and Clifton Powell (of “Ray,” the 2004 movie about musician Ray Charles).
After selling out at the movie theater, the film is set to screen again the last weekend in March. Jenkins said he’s hoping it will expand to other theaters and churches.
Rucker, who played a church elder who declared that GiGi “doesn’t look like a Christian to me,” said in a panel discussion after the premiere that productions like these are “a labor of love” for actors like him.
“This wasn’t about getting paid,” he said. “This wasn’t about getting famous.”
Powell, a Washington, D.C., native, added in the same discussion that their participation helps dispel a fallacy about African-American actors leaving their hometowns behind when they head to Hollywood.
“When they say DC and it’s young men like this, we’re going to be here,” said Powell, who plays the church’s facilities director. “It’s all about relationships and it’s all about where we keep our minds as entertainers.”
He added that — as has been the case for some Christian films picked up by major companies — movies don’t have to be produced in Hollywood to gain a following.
“The power is right here in this church,” he said. “All y’all got to do is go out and support the movie and Hollywood will come to your house.”
Ginger and Leo, played by Ashley Rios and Kenneth Wayne, in the new film “Sinners Wanted.” Photo courtesy of Jenk Ink
Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60 in New Madrid County, Mo., in January 1939. Photo by Arthur Rothstein/LOC/Creative Commons
A Christian anti-hunger group has released a devotional guide to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of enslaved Africans in Jamestown, Va.
“Lament and Hope: A Pan-African Devotional Guide” was produced by Bread for the World and is set to be dedicated at a prayer service at a Washington church on Thursday (Feb. 28), the last day of Black History Month.
The free guide addresses past and current issues of unequal access to land, housing and education. It begins with verses from the Bible’s Book of Lamentations that speak of homelessness and affliction and conclude with a proclamation of the “steadfast love of the Lord.”
The Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith speaks at a Religious Freedom Center class for black theological students on Jan. 8, 2019, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
“We are saying that the history of people of African identity has been a legacy of spiritual resistance,” said the Rev. Angelique Walker-Smith, editor of the guide. “There’s been that resistance against the evils of enslavement and all the things that accompanied that.”
The devotional has been released at the start of a year in which many activities commemorating the arrival of the first African captives in Jamestown are planned, including some by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s 400 Years of African-American History Commission that was established by an act of Congress and signed into law by President Trump in early January.
Walker-Smith, senior associate for Pan-African and Orthodox Church relations at Bread for the World, said a delegation of young adults from across Africa plans to represent her organization in August at events planned in Jamestown, where people from the modern-day southwest African country of Angola were brought 400 years ago.
Bread for the World’s 2019 Pan-African Devotional Guide. Image courtesy of Bread for the World
Bread for the World’s guide was produced to help readers answer questions about how to move from lamentation to hope, drawing on the example of African people who were forced into slavery and protested it, she said.
“That spiritual resistance is actually a source of hope and still is a source of hope,” Walker-Smith said.
The guide will be promoted through partnerships with global, African and American networks of churches. It features monthly entries written by current and former leaders of the Angola Council of Churches, the United Theological College of the West Indies and the Ecumenical Poverty Initiative.
The dedication service and the guide itself will encourage participants to contemplate disparities that remain across the globe and determine ways to advocate to eliminate them, Walker-Smith said.
“At the end of the service, there will be a call to action to say you have a role in this narrative, you have an opportunity to be a part of this legacy,” she said. “What are you doing and how can you further this sense of hope?”
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear, left, discusses racial unity with Atlanta pastor Dhati Lewis, a vice president of the SBC’s North American Mission Board, during Evangelicals for Life on Jan. 17, 2019, in Washington. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
In recent decades the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded defending slavery, has attempted to come to terms with its record on race.
Now as the nation’s largest Protestant denomination faces a rare leadership vacuum at the top of two of its agencies and two of its seminaries — and installs a new mission board president Wednesday (Feb. 6) — questions have arisen about whether its statements committing to diversity will be reflected in hiring decisions.
SBC President J.D. Greear told Religion News Service he has recommended that search committees seeking new executives keep racial diversity in mind and consider going beyond “following networks that you know” in their search.
“In the ones that have asked me I have strongly encouraged there to be at least consideration given,” he said in an interview in January.
Greear noted that he does not have direct control over the selection of the new leaders. But he said that the search committees are open to diverse candidates.
“I haven’t received resistance from any of the search committees that I’ve talked to,” he said.
James Merritt is a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Photo courtesy of James Merritt
Last week, two former SBC presidents, joined by a prominent Las Vegas pastor, took the unusual step of sending a letter to the search committee for the new president of the SBC Executive Committee, inquiring about the breadth of efforts to replace Frank Page. Page retired last year after a “morally inappropriate relationship.”
“In your search for the person to fill this position, have you interviewed any minority candidates?” asked James Merritt, Bryant Wright, and Vance Pitman in an email to the search committee, according to the Biblical Recorder, a Baptist journal in North Carolina. “If not, we respectfully ask why not?”
Merritt confirmed to RNS that he sent the email. In response, he said, the committee “respectfully declined to answer our questions,” saying it could not reveal internal discussions.
“We felt like it was a legitimate question to ask out of a deep concern that we do indeed fulfill both the spirit and the letter of what we resolved to do,” said Merritt, a Georgia pastor. “And that is to reach far and wide and include minorities in the process.”
Almost a quarter century ago, Southern Baptists passed a historic resolution repudiating slavery. In 2012, they elected New Orleans pastor Fred Luter as the SBC’s first black president to a one-year term and re-elected him the next year. In 2015, they passed another statement that urged “Southern Baptist entities and Convention committees to make leadership appointments that reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the body of Christ and of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Texas pastor Dwight McKissic, who has called for the SBC to place minorities in appointed executive positions — beyond the elections of denominational officers to one-year terms — tweeted his appreciation of the email sent by the three Baptist leaders.
“It would be a travesty to appt a Prez, without … interviewing a minority,” he tweeted Saturday. “It would be a huge statement of disrespect to the 20% + minority churches who comprise the SBC.”
Roger “Sing” Oldham, spokesman for the Executive Committee, responding to a request for additional information, said the search committee is “diverse in its composition” — including a white woman and two black male pastors. He expects it will update the full committee about its search by its Feb. 18 meeting.
Oldham noted that the nominees elected to the SBC’s boards and committees in June, and chosen by its Committee on Nominations, were 12.6 percent non-Anglo. Of those nominees who were not serving as pastors, 43 percent were women.
Recently, at least two milestones also have been reached among the six SBC seminaries. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Kentucky-based flagship of those seminaries, appointed its first African-American board officer in 2018. Also last year, a woman was elected chair of the trustee board of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina.
Merritt said he hoped that all the current search committees would consider and interview diverse candidates.
“I think too often that Southern Baptists, we kind of come to the party a little bit late and too often we’ve been the caboose and not the locomotive,” he said. “And I think that we have an opportunity here to kind of start changing that narrative.”
After Wednesday’s installation of Paul Chitwood as president of the International Mission Board, four major SBC institutions will need to find new leaders: the Executive Committee, two seminaries and LifeWay Christian Resources, the SBC’s publishing division.
Paige Patterson was ousted as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas in May after allegedly dismissing women’s concerns about rape and domestic abuse. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley announced in October that he would retire at the end of this academic year. Thom Rainer announced in August that he plans to retire from LifeWay this year.
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, speaks with reporters at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting on June 14, 2017, in Phoenix. Photo by Van Payne/Baptist Press
McKissic said in an interview that he has seen progress in blacks being hired as Baptist association and state convention staff. He said he also is aware of minority candidates who have applied for past open executive positions and were not chosen.
“It’s not because they are not interested or they don’t apply,” said the black pastor, who has proposed SBC statements condemning the Confederate flag and “alt-white supremacy.”
“The Southern Baptist Convention has not demonstrated a willingness to place a black — a minority, period — to those high-level positions,” he said.
Dhati Lewis, the sole African-American vice president at the convention’s North American Mission Board, said he is not optimistic about diversity being accomplished soon in the top ranks, though he believes it should occur.
“They’re going to choose people that they trust,” he said of selection committees. “And when your relationships aren’t diverse, it’s hard to find people that you can trust that don’t look like you, talk like you and act like you.”
Appointing more diverse executive leadership beyond the traditional choices, he said, would be an opportunity for the convention “to show that we genuinely want to reach North America and we can get beyond our Southern roots and we can become more global.”
Asked about whether a woman could assume any of these positions, some leaders said that there’s nothing in the denomination’s constitution that precludes a female executive. The SBC’s faith statement declares that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Greear said his North Carolina megachurch has reviewed its staff directory and determined that many roles that traditionally had been held by men could be held by women. Now, the captain of its domestic and overseas missions program is a woman.
“I think the SBC as a whole – that’s in front of us – is asking the same questions,” Greear said.