Shalita O’Neale is not your average survivor.
The 34-year-old is a foster care graduate who took her experiences and used them as inspiration to create the Fostering Change Network, a nonprofit that creates avenues to a successful life while eliminating the stigma of being a foster care child. The organization is based in the Washington, D.C., area and hosts networking and workshop events throughout the country, including its Six Degrees of Foster Care Gala/Alumni Powerhouse Network event planned for New York City in May.
When O’Neale was approached for this interview, she was eager to tell her story so that anyone who has gone through similar troubles will be encouraged. Check out our interview with Shalita below as she shares her journey from sufferer to survivor.
THE BEGINNING OF GOD’S CHARGE
O’Neale was thrust into a horrific situation that many do not survive, but her tenacity to be loved served a purpose and she was encouraged along the way by an unlikely person.
How did you end up in foster care?
SO: My mother was murdered when I was two years old and my father was never part of my life; he drank himself to death when I was 16, but I didn’t find out until I was 19.
What was your experience in foster care?
SO: My experience in foster care was extremely lonely. I tried very hard to fit in and to avoid being a burden, even with my own family. I was put in a Kinship Placement with my grandmother at age five, but due to her alcoholism and physical and verbal abuse I was placed with my uncle until I was 13. Unfortunately, he was also physically abusive. At 13, I gathered the courage to tell someone and officially went into foster care. I lived in two different foster homes before going to live in a group home and often felt I was being punished because I did not have parents. There were people along the way that encouraged me and spoke to my potential and I am forever grateful for them. It was this and my desire to prove everyone wrong that fueled my ambition to succeed.
What are some of words inspiration that kept you going?
SO: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mahatma Gandhi
CB: Who was your role model growing up?
SO: Aaliyah! I was so lonely through my different living situations, despite that I had much older siblings (17 years older). My brother and sister were dealing with their own set of trials, because of our mother’s murder. But Aaliyah was the big sister I never had with her mix of tomboy and “girly” style, love of music, and humility that I could relate to. When she died I grieved heavily, but she still inspired me to grow into that type of woman, a woman who was loved and admired for all that she gave to the world.
Shalita chased the light despite her strenuous beginnings and went on to complete her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and her master’s degree in social work, with a concentration in community organizing and social action from the University of Maryland. Looking at Shalita, she did not seem like the hard-core detective type like Misty Knight from Luke Cage. We laughed about that. However her past did dictate what her future would become and in this case it was a good thing.
What was your “savior” moment? What made you create the Fostering Change Network?
SO: I’ve had several savior moments. Every time I wanted to give up, even end my life, there was something that removed the despair. Almost as if in the next moment, the feeling was forgotten and my will to live and to continue to move forward, replenished. I believe God has consistently used people, angels and spirit guides to intervene on my behalf. I started Fostering Change Network to show others from foster care that they are valuable contributions to this world and that they are capable of great things. I created FCN to highlight the accomplishments of alumni of foster care nationally and internationally and to provide the support they need to take their personal and professional endeavors to the next level.
Do you feel like God handed you this journey for a reason?
Shalita poses with her family. She admits that her family’s love is what keeps her motivated in spite of her past.
SO: Absolutely! I have come this far, learned so much and kept my “crown” in place during all attempts to remove it. I accept the power that I have been given and understand it is my calling to help others do the same. I’ve been married to an amazing human being for almost 10 years. He has always been very supportive of and patient with me. He was the first one to show me that you can disagree with someone without leaving them. You can love someone and not agree with everything they do or say. From my experience with my family and in foster care, I used to believe that it was normal to just leave people or force them out when you didn’t see eye to eye. My husband and I have grown together through our different journeys. He is an amazing father to our 6-year-old son, Amani. Amani has shown me what it feels like to have a heart on the outside of my body. I was afraid that I would not know how to be a good mother or wife because I have never seen it, but they have awakened those instincts in me. I may not have known what unconditional love looked like as a child, but I knew what it was supposed to feel like. I let my heart lead and I now have a family of my own to pour into, in the way I would have wanted to be poured into.
THE MARCH FORWARD
Although living a Christ-like experience we are only human and can still hold animosity towards those who have wronged us. When Shalita was asked about this, she took a breath, and with wisdom explained why it was important to forgive in order to grow into who you must become; and more importantly how it affects the future of those around you.
Do you forgive your parents? Both biological and your grandmother and uncle?
SO: Forgiveness was necessary for me to step into the person I am today. I will always be on the journey of “becoming,” but about a year ago, I was stuck and I didn’t know why. I realized that after so many years, I had not forgiven my father, mother, grandmother or uncle and so many others. I told myself I did, but the way I was living my life, making my decisions and attracting negative people and situations told me otherwise. Not only did I have to forgive them but I forgave myself, which was the hardest thing of all.
If there is never another like you, what is your hope for the future of foster care kids?
SO: I want foster children to grow up in a world where there is a universal understanding that they add value and are worthy. My hope for the future is that they see themselves and their greatness through people who have been in their shoes and lead by example. My hope is that they see the world full of opportunities that are available to them instead of a world full of people that mistreat and misunderstand them.
What is next for you. When it is time to remove your “crown”?
SO: I don’t think I will ever remove my crown; I strive to always be present with my power as a “Light Worker” in human form. Although some days its more challenging than others. In everything I do (foster care-related or otherwise) and with every person I meet, I hope even if only for a moment to help them adjust their own crown and to realize that it has always been resting there, gracefully, on their heads all along.
Do you have anything that you want the world to understand about people like you?
SO: It is time for adults who have experienced foster care at some point in their childhood to step forward. We are gifted. We are resilient. We have given so much to our communities and to the world. There are so many of us hiding in plain sight, waiting to bump into someone who can share in our experiences of foster care. We have wanted a safe space to heal and achieve with others that “get it.” Fostering Change Network is it. We are a network of alumni that have overcome the barriers associated with foster care and we are leading Fortune 500 companies. We are celebrities, legislators, community organizers, human service professionals. We are amazing parents to our children. We are not the stigma. To the alumni of foster care reading this I say: Welcome home.
Shalita O’Neale ended this interview with an embracing hug that gave the feel of “home.” Essentially she was built for this purpose. The Upcoming Alumni Powerhouse Networking Conference and Six Degrees of Foster Care Gala will feature a variety of speakers , workshops, and entertainment to include Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Humble G, and poet Bathsheba & Cage Free Voices.
“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV).
Have you ever known someone who never meets a stranger?
Folks who live their lives in such a way that nearly everyone they meet becomes a new friend astound me with their generosity of spirit. I admire their courage and zest for life, which compels them to embrace even those they do not know well, knowing that each creature has gifts to share with the world.
As a faith leader, when I meet folks with those sorts of spirits, I see some of the Spirit of Christ who, although divine, shared meals with the poor, sick, and sinful, laid hands on the infirm, and drew close to the crowds without reservation.
Even in His dying moment, Jesus stretched His arms wide as though embracing all of us and declared forgiveness over us because we did not realize what we were doing. Jesus is the embodiment of the grace of hospitality, and I would argue that hospitality is the biggest gift we, the body of Christ, can offer the world right now.
The Fear Factor
The current social and political climates have caused me to take a step back to examine what Scripture teaches us about welcoming strangers among us. I confess that I focus much of my time concerning myself with the sins that other people perpetrate on each other. I concentrate on the news stories about hate crimes without giving much consideration to the ways that I allow hate and fear to fuel my actions.
The truth is that fear motivates so much of what we do. Our fears prevent us from loving and practicing hospitality in the ways that our faith demands of us. In today’s social media culture, many of us have a fear of rejection. As humans, many of us also have a fear of not knowing which prevents us from meeting new people and having new experiences.
We also often have fears of being powerless that cause us to try to stay in places that make us feel powerful. We allow our fears to impede upon our ability to love.
Before turning outward and critiquing national and international leaders, I want to encourage us, especially during this introspective liturgical season called Lent, to look within to ask ourselves how we are practicing the kind of hospitality that Scripture and the example of Jesus Christ demand of us.
Love Thy Neighbor?
Many of us have learned the classic stories about hospitality in Sunday School and Sunday morning sermons.
We have heard about Abraham and Sarah, who unknowingly hosted angels who foretold the birth of Sarah’s son. In the passage from Hebrews I cited at the top of this article, the author alludes to that passage from Genesis. Despite the many admonitions throughout the Hebrew Bible to care for the foreigner, widow, and orphan, we, like the lawyer in Luke 10, often ask, “Who is my neighbor?”
In response to that question, we have heard Luke’s well-known story of the Good Samaritan who, despite his vastly different culture and faith, cared for an Israelite stranger he found injured on the side of the road. Even after hearing such a dramatic story of sacrificial love, we continue to struggle with caring for our neighbors. Perhaps my favorite aspect of the story is the way it condemns us for the times we fail to show love to people who are just like us.
We have become politically motivated to care for immigrants in recent months, as we should, but we mistreat those who sit right next to us in the pew or who share our offices at work!
Jesus tells Israelite listeners the story of an Israelite man who was robbed as he traveled from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest passed by and walked on the opposite side of the road to avoid helping. Then, a Levite, a religious leader from the priestly tribe of Levi, passed him. Only a Samaritan, a man who was from a different culture and faith background, cared for the man.
Many commentaries have explained that the priest and the Levite probably did not interact with the victim because of concerns about ritual purity, but does that not cause us to consider our priorities? We cannot prioritize legalism over mercy and love. Here was Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, essentially urging His listeners to ritually defile themselves because mercy is at the heart of the Gospel.
The Missing Link
What the world needs from the church is for us to be the church. The time is now for us to commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ in our actions. It was the way the early Church first began to thrive.
As J. Ellsworth Kalas puts it in his book The Story Continues: The Acts of the Apostles for Today, “The Christian church was born in a time and culture when the marketplace of beliefs was crowded to its borders. Religion was everywhere … This meant that it was easy to talk religion, but also that it was difficult for the decision to get serious. No wonder, then, that the followers of Christ were known as ‘people of the Way.’”
The earliest Christians stood out, and they increased in number because they lived their Christianity; for them, it was not simply an interesting intellectual idea. They attracted converts because of their countercultural way of viewing religion as more than a list of philosophies.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. provided a practical understanding of this concept in his sermon “A Knock at Midnight,” which appears in his 1963 book of sermons called Strength to Love. King preached, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state … if the church will free itself from the shackles of a deadening status quo, and, recovering its great historic mission, will speak and act fearlessly and insistently in terms of justice and peace, it will enkindle the imagination of mankind and fire the souls of men, imbuing them with a glowing and ardent love for truth, justice, and peace.”
In other words, from the Scripture we read, to the prayers we pray, to the songs we sing, our worship is real and lived and must transform us from the inside out. The church is not a place to go; the church is a thing to do. We call the physical buildings in which we worship churches, but the church is the body of Christ, at work in the world.
So, what does living our faith teach us about hospitality?
A Place Where Ministry Happens
One of my mentors in ministry began a new pastorate at the end of 2016. After examining the needs and challenges of ministry at her new church, she chose as her theme of her church “Radical Hospitality.” The new framework of thinking about the church as a place where radical hospitality happens has changed it in practical ways in just a few short months.
Church members are beginning to imagine their worship space as first and foremost a place where ministry happens. That sounds obvious, I know, but so many churches have gotten away from thinking of themselves as being ministry spaces above all else.
One of the most drastic changes she has made as pastor has been to reimagine the parsonage, the house that is owned by the church for use by pastors and their families. That house now serves a dual purpose. It is both a “meeting house” where retreats, Bible study, and meetings can occur, and it provides accommodations for the pastor and visiting ministers.
Knowing my colleague, and understanding what it means to be “radical,” I am expecting that in the months and years to come, her new ministry will continue to grow and transform to become more welcoming for all people.
It is our task, as the Samaritan did in the Gospel of Luke, to embrace all we meet. As Hebrews 13:2 reminds us, we do not know the actual identity of those we encounter each day. Scripture teaches us that if we open our hearts to the possibility, each stranger has gifts to share with us that will enhance our lives. My fellow people of the Way, let us go forward with joy to spread Christian hospitality.
Jaimie Crumley is a minister, blogger, podcaster, and ministry consultant. She blogs about race, gender, history, and Christian faith at iamfreeagent.com.
Share your thoughts on ministry and hospitality below.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) On Valentine’s Day, some Kenyan pastors handed out red roses as a sign of love to HIV-positive youth suffering stigma and discrimination.
The gesture was meant as a way to reach out to youth, many of whom feel rejected by the churches.
“We came to show the youth that we care and support them,” said the Rev. Geoffrey Wanjala Munialo, a pastor with Vineyard Church, a Pentecostal congregation in Nairobi.
“We’ve also been teaching them the right perspective of love,” he added. “The right perspective helps people care and eliminate stigma and discrimination in HIV.”
Widespread stigma prevents many youth living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from coming forward and acknowledging their condition.
“Most parents prefer the status of their children remain unknown,” said Munialo. “They fear guilt by association.”
Mary Mutua, who is HIV-positive, said she blames the church for not giving greater priority to people like her.
“The church does not want to talk about it,” she said, because it means acknowledging that young people contract the virus through sexual intercourse.
“Many are comfortable supporting those who got it at birth because they feel it’s less sinful,” she added.
AIDS is the No. 1 cause of death among adolescents in Africa, according to a UNICEF study that showed the number of teenagers dying from AIDS has tripled since 2000, while the number of new infections in other age groups has slowed.
Girls subject to sexual violence, forced marriages and trafficking, and gay and bisexual boys who use drugs are especially vulnerable.
The Rev. James Muhia, the parish minister at the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Ruiru near Nairobi, acknowledges that churches have not always done the right thing by young people.
“Forgiveness will open the doors for the church to accept and embrace them,” Muhia said, referring to young people.
Jane Ng’ang’a, the program officer for the International Network of Religious Leaders Living with or Personally Affected by HIV-Kenya, urged churches to work to become safe places for the youth and others.
“There are some wounded youth who have come to church,” said Ng’ang’a, “but they do not feel safe enough to share their condition.”
(Fredrick Nzwili is an RNS correspondent based in Nairobi)
(RNS) In one of his last official acts, President Obama has designated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and other civil rights landmarks in Birmingham, Ala., as the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
The designation protects the historic A.G. Gaston Motel in that city, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders had their 1963 campaign headquarters, as well as Kelly Ingram Park, where police turned hoses and dogs on civil rights protesters.
And it includes the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four girls died in 1963 after Ku Klux Klan members detonated more than a dozen sticks of dynamite outside the church basement.
“This national monument will fortify Birmingham’s place in American history and will speak volumes to the place of African-Americans in history,” said the Rev. Arthur Price Jr., pastor of the church, in a statement.
Obama’s proclamation also cites the role of Bethel Baptist Church, headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, and St. Paul United Methodist Church, from which protesters marched before being stopped by police dogs.
In his proclamation Thursday (Jan. 12), Obama said the various sites “all stand as a testament to the heroism of those who worked so hard to advance the cause of freedom.”
In other acts, all timed to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which will be observed on Monday, the president designated the Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Ala., and the Reconstruction Era National Monument in coastal South Carolina.
He cited the role of congregations in all three areas — from sheltering civil rights activists at Bethel Baptist Church to hosting mass meetings at First Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., to providing a school for former slaves at the Brick Baptist Church in St. Helena Island, S.C.
The designations instruct the National Park Service to manage the sites and consider them for visitor services and historic preservation.
“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
Millennials are the largest generation since their parents, the Baby Boomers, and already are making their mark on society and the church. As many young women are marrying and beginning their new lives, some will also take on the responsibility of first lady—the wife of the senior pastor—in their respective churches, a role with much spiritual and moral weight.
While the traditional idea of a first lady remains the same, many young women have a more contemporary view of how their lives can impact other women in their congregation.
LaToyia Ledbetter, 32, is a first lady at Mt. Pisgah MBC in Chicago. Her husband, Rev. Ernest Ledbetter III, is a third-generation pastor, so she is familiar with how the term “first lady” has evolved over the years.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the title … People just want to find a way to respect you as the pastor’s wife,” she says. “But I don’t want you to put me on a pedestal. We are all supposed to be working in the body of Christ … and bringing souls to Christ. We don’t want it to be like, ‘This is the pastor and first lady. Rise when they walk in.’”
Katie Windley, a millennial first lady from North Carolina, says she prefers to be called by her name rather than “first lady” because it’s simply a title, something she says pales in comparison to the moral role at hand: setting a godly example.
“To me, you should represent your spouse, carry yourself to a standard where others can look up to you. You should always carry an attitude of faith and not of anger, attitude, or animosity, but love and kindness, but you should never allow your being a first lady to become arrogant,” she says.
Katie admits that being a first lady is “challenging, but most desirable because God gives you the strength to handle things.” Many of those challenges also come from the pressures to live up to a position that many women regard as a real-life example of the Christian walk, something that LaToyia believes is every woman’s duty.
Rocking the Label
LaToyia Ledbetter poses with her husband Rev. Ernest Ledbetter III of Mt. Pisgah MBC in Chicago.
“At our church, we say that everyone is the first lady in her household,” LaToyia laughs. “You should be the first lady in your house, so technically, there should be a ton of first ladies. I don’t think the title ‘first lady’ [defines] a great woman. You can be a great woman without being called a first lady.”
“My responsibilities do make me feel different, because I have to set myself apart from others, even the ones that are my age that attend church or family members,” Katie says. “I can’t [be effective] in this role if my living doesn’t match up, but I am still down-to-earth and love to laugh and have fun.”
Regardless of the labels we use, LaToyia says there are major keys to being married to a pastor that all women must keep in mind.
“You have to love God for YOURSELF,” she says. “Have a personal relationship with him and a STRONG prayer life. That will get you through the toughest of situations, especially in those beginning years when learning to balance ministry and marriage.”
She also reminds young women to respect their husband’s calling, by always ensuring he has time to himself to pray, study, and listen to God’s voice—never make him choose between God and you.
Katie also emphasizes pursuing your own calling while you support your spouse. “I make time for my dreams because you have to. You can cause yourself to be mentally and physically depressed trying to follow right alongside your husband’s dreams. You still have to live for yourself and accomplish all you set out to do.”
LaToyia also points out that a first lady must have a congruent personal and spiritual relationship with her husband.
“I tell women who are dating ministers, go listen to a sermon while dating. You may love his company and think he’s a great guy, but you can’t be with half of him. If he is teaching something that you as a Christian can’t agree to or respect, then you should reevaluate and pray as you will have to support both the man and the ministry in marriage.”
The New-Aged First Lady
While the role of first lady in the church is an important one, millennial woman are increasingly independent and putting marriage among their generation on hold. In fact, only 27% of millennials are tying the knot nowadays compared to 36% of Generation Xers, 48% of baby boomers, and 65% of traditionalists at the same age.
With more millennial women holding out on marriage and pursuing personal goals, where does the concept of being a “first lady” fit into life? By definition, a first lady is “the leading woman in a particular activity or profession.” This means the status of first lady is not directly tied to courtship, as many of us grew up hearing.
“I think women of past generations have seen themselves through the lens of patriarchy, i.e., they saw themselves as helpmeets to those whom they married, and they worked within that space—but never out of it,” says 20-something believer Kristina Redd.
Photo Courtesy of LeToyia Ledbetter
“Women have conceptualized the power to be leaders outside of their husbands’ work. Now, marriage isn’t the requirement to be a first lady. The dynamic has changed where it’s understood that women may be married or single, but their passions and dedication to their own work is commendable and glamorized.”
Some millennials also agree that being a leading lady isn’t confined to being the bar-none, most excellent person in your field. For many, a first lady is someone who gives 100% of her effort, and doesn’t exalt or separate herself from her fellow women.
Student Kathryn Turner says she believes that “the millennial first lady can be the last lady in her profession, class, or whatever it may be as long as she performs to her best abilities. She understands that all people are different and will not judge anyone.”
Kristina chimes in that women of past generations have often “distanced themselves, so to speak, from [the women] they lead. A millennial first lady is admired more for her approach instead of being a figurehead. She rolls up her sleeves, and she isn’t afraid of the first lady crown to fall off while working.”
Leading Ladies of Tomorrow
While many millennials still believe the first lady role is a symbol of personal and professional success, many point to personal qualities that set a leading lady apart from the crowd, making her more than just a profitable working woman. Compassion, supportiveness, and humility were frequently cited as key traits.
“She’s someone who had a first-hand experience and clearly bounced back—a survivor of some sort,” says 24-year-old Jacquelyn Segovia, who also says many people want a first lady to “act right,” so it’s important that she stands up for herself and be a people person.
“She’s also a go-getter! Anything with Christ, she can do!” Jacquelyn adds.
Kathryn says the millennial lady is particularly unique because she doesn’t aspire to fit into a category, but instead “helps other women create their own category free from persecution or criticisms by others who have not learned to live as confidently and as comfortably in their own skin as she has. She brings women together, celebrating both their differences and common ground without attempting to overshadow or remold one another.”
Kristina points out that a first lady should be a dynamic person who understands her influence. Her faith is vital because her growth is based on a desire “for God to empty her fully so she can commit herself to the void her life was written to fill,” she says.
Most importantly, many young women agree that the life of a first lady is marked by interactions with her peers. Being a testament to God’s love and strength goes a long way in making today’s woman a first lady.
“A millennial first lady can look like and be any woman,” Kristina says. “She is present in the lives of those she cares for, and has expectations for those whom she gives her heart to. Any woman can be the leading woman of her life and for the story God has written her into.