The Common Good

Women in Church Leadership and Overcoming Stereotypes

One afternoon I was invited to share my experiences as a woman in Christian leadership — the challenges, joys, issues, struggles and blessings. It felt like those of us sharing were instant, intimate, connected soul sisters. Without knowing each other, and as different as our stories were, the common threads ran deep. We were all women in high levels of leadership in Christian organizations. So why does it still hurt so much? We’ve made so much progress, haven’t we?

After some questions, we reviewed what we would each share from our different perspectives. This would be a heartfelt, sincere, and vulnerable time of sharing. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what happened. The opening question was, “When did you first experience a challenge or issue with your leadership as a woman?” As the first woman began her story, the vulnerable places of her past and present began to flow through tears streaming down her face. And my own eyes welled up and brimmed over. This struck home to the core of my own experience. This is hard. It hurts.

Here are just a few of the barriers we shared about that afternoon. There’s the way that women are looked at differently with respect to their leadership styles. What is seen as strength in a man’s style may be critiqued as aggressive in a woman. When a man’s ego affects his decision-making, rarely is it confronted or dealt with, whereas a woman is called out for letting her emotions get in the way. This feeds the fear for many women leaders that it’s not OK to display any vulnerability. As much as we don’t want to admit it, there is also still a bit of a “good ole boy” way of operating even in Christian organizations that are advocates of reconciliation. To call it out can get one the blame of having a “chip on one’s shoulder” and playing the gender card for personal gain.

+Continue Reading

Women's History Month: Choosing to Opt-In

My difference catches me off-guard. Entering into new situations, I’m just being myself — not suspecting anything, doing the things that I do — when an odd, slightly off comment, a stray remark makes me realize that the person across from me is not interacting with me. Instead, they are interacting with a perception of who they think people like me are: Asian, woman.

And usually that perception does not include “leader.”

I’m different sounding. I’m different looking. I’m different leading.

As a leader, one question has helped me try to stay in my sweet spot and stick to my true voice, even when it’s different from those around me. What is the unique joy that I bring to God’s heart? When I feel the blister forming from too many frictional interactions, it’s this question that takes me back to my center.

Embracing the differences God gave me to steward, to shelter in my body, I continue on, knowing that perhaps for someone, somewhere, this will be a good fit.

+Continue Reading

We Are Woman

“Mom,” I asked, “why didn’t the ERA pass?”

It was 1982 and I was 13 years old — an age with sharp awareness of what is fair, but with no understanding of the forces aligned to thwart history’s progress. I was unaware of the storm swirling around the Equal Rights Amendment. I was only aware of my mother’s belief that it should pass.

I wasn’t an evangelical, yet – or even a churchgoer. I was simply a girl standing at the precipice of womanhood in a household led by a strong woman who cranked up the car radio whenever Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” or Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” piped through station-wagon speakers.

We are woman! We are strong! We are invincible. We are survivors and we roar!

So, I had no idea that Phyllis Schlafly (a conservative Catholic) and a broad contingent of evangelicals were actively campaigning against the simple amendment that required ratification that year.

The ERA was intentionally simple. Like the 19th Amendment, the heart of the amendment was one sentence long: “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied, abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Seemed simple enough. It was fair. Anything less would be unfair. So how could anyone stand against it?

+Continue Reading

Silence Is Not An Option

As a preacher and pastor, I have had the privilege of speaking to people from a wide variety of demographics. Especially since I am a woman of color, these opportunities have made me acutely aware of how the silencing of women’s voices — whether imposed upon or by our own choice — has so severely hindered the imagination of men and women in our society.

Time and time again, I’ve heard from young women that I am the first Asian female preacher they’ve ever heard and/or seen. And this absence has a cost. In the stark absence of a woman’s regular presence in the pulpit across the landscape of church life and formation, we are allowing our young women (and men) to walk through this world with veiled eyes and muted ears, incapable of seeing and imagining possibilities for themselves and others.

While we may acknowledge that men and women are equal, I believe there is power in who speaks.

+Continue Reading

Black Future Month: Uncovering the Intersections of Injustice

Black Future Month, a term coined by the new black vanguard, seeks to build upon the robust legacy of our foreparents while refusing to nostalgically rest upon their laurels. Black Future Month affirms our collective history of struggle, resilience, and achievement, while centering our present predicament in all its urgency. As this movement progresses, it’ll be imperative that we retain the spiritual foundation which anchored the freedom fighting of our ancestors,’ but this retention cannot come at the expense of passing the baton off to emerging leadership. We must go forward together, acknowledging that we need the collective wisdom of our people to navigate the troubled waters that surround us on all sides.

Black Future Month emerges from the #BlackLivesMater movement and the awareness that we’re in the midst of a watershed moment. There are currently “more African-American adults under correctional control, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War.” Black people currently constitute 12 percent of our nation’s populace, yet represent 40 percent of the nation’s incarcerated population. It’s estimated that 1 in every 3 black males will serve time in jail or prison in their lifetime and that 1 in 13 black people cannot vote due to felon disenfranchisement. As bleak as these realities are, mass incarceration is just a portion of the burden we’re bearing.

+Continue Reading

Revolutionary Love: Do You Hear the Call?

Revolutionary Love
Revolutionary love has given birth to new life.
We are gasping, breathing (I can’t breathe)
Screaming (We have nothing to lose but our chains)
We have been in the womb long enough
Blinking to the blinding light of the revolution
Our eyes adjusting
And we answer with what love looks like in public
Justice

I’ve been thinking about the life birthed out of revolutionary love. The night I met Waltrina, we stayed up until an ungodly hour — instant sister-friends. We bonded, talking about everything, about finding and losing faith — in God and humanity — then slowly picking it up again piece by piece, about being the diversity in mostly white professional spaces, about friends, family, and the struggle to find our places (as 30-somethings) in this “new” freedom movement.

Out of a deep revolutionary love inspired by Jesus and nourished from the well of our people, we have determined to get in where we fit in, living out the belief that there is a place for everyone in the movement.

Today's fight against the powers and principalities of systemic injustice cannot be left to the continued service of the elders that survived the 1960s civil rights movement, nor hoisted solely upon the shoulders of the teens and 20-somethings of today, just because they have energy and new ideas. Despite the focus on elders and youth, this is an intergenerational movement that requires all of us to answer the communal call. I am encouraged by one of my mentors, Mama Ruby (Sales) who says it is time to have all hands on deck.

+Continue Reading

Civil Rights Movement 2.0

The zeitgeist is clear. Much like Emmett Till’s murder in 1955 sparked the civil rights movement, the tragic string of murders of blacks in 2014 catalyzed another movement, the #BlackLivesMatter movement. This movement picks up where the civil rights movement left off, addressing systemic racial injustice in the legal and penal system, educational system, and economic system. In some ways, the battles we fight are more challenging than the ones our grandparents fought. Undeniably, we face off in a more complex world and against forms of systemic racism that are so subtle that they are almost invisible. Nevertheless, due to a unique combination of gifts and experiences, I’m hopeful that my generation of black millennials is ready to lead us on to a more equitable society. Here’s why.

1. We are propelled by the prophetic legacy of the past.

With a technological savvy that gives us unprecedented access to the true history of our people, and as perhaps the last generation to breathe the same air as the civil rights generation, we draw upon the legacies of the past as we move forward. When I sense that my capacity to forgive is waning, I recall my recent conversations with several survivors of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Ala., and I’m reminded of the inner healing that forgiveness promises. When I am tempted to pander to the powers that be, I call my radical granddad and ask him to tell me again about the many Black Panthers meetings that took place at the church he pastored in Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s. When I feel that I’m losing my courage, I read Ida B. Wells’ autobiography and am reminded that we are not alone. We are connected — part of a chain of black activists, each generation inspiring the next. Our heroes guide us every day.

+Continue Reading

Black 'Future' Month

I cringed. Recently, I sat watching a cable news broadcast — can’t remember which one. What I do remember is it featured people doing good in the world … and it made me cringe.

Lots of people were highlighted, but the two young black people they featured both shared the same general narrative: So and so had a hard life. He came from poverty. She came from abuse or neglect. But they rose above. Now look at all they’ve accomplished. It was striking. None of the stories of white people started with this narrative. Rather, theirs usually went something like: Little Suzy or Johnny took a class project and turned it into a major non-profit that helps thousands of orphans … in Africa.

No matter where you tuned into this broadcast, blackness unconsciously was associated with hardship and overcoming while whiteness was associated with genius and compassion.

I sat there thinking: The truth is we have had centuries of hardship to press through. Our history is present, the good and the bad. As in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the ghost of slavery haunts us. It affects our present. But it’s not just the past that haunts us. It is the same basic oppression of yesteryear —confinement, control, and disregard for black lives. So, it makes sense that the stories of our overcomers are as potent in current-day narratives as they are in history.

Jackie Robinson, Joe Lewis, Paul Robeson, Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, were the overcomers of our past. The black children in that broadcast were the overcomers of our present.

But what about the black future? One hundred years from now, will my family’s descendants still have to watch featured stories of black people doing good that always begins: So and so had a hard life?

During Black History Month we typically look back on all the accomplishments of those who paved the road for generations to come. But this month, we have been inspired by the #BlackLivesMatter movement to look forward to another kind of future for black men, women, and children.

+Continue Reading

The Wrong Messenger and the Smell of a Neck Bone

I am the Dean of Students at Covenant Theological Seminary, the National Seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). I am the pastor of South City Church in Saint Louis. South City Church is a PCA congregation, and it is predominantly white. I am a retired full colonel PCA Army chaplain. I was born and raised in North Saint Louis city. My father now lives in Ferguson, Mo. I am a black man. If that comes as a shock, believe me I understand; it is a shock to me every morning when I wake up and go to work at Covenant Seminary in West Saint Louis County, a mostly wealthy and white suburb. It shocks me every time I walk into my church in South Saint Louis and remember that I am one of only 47 black pastors in my denomination and that I work in a mostly white conservative, evangelical church. I am constantly at the feet of Jesus asking for help in navigating the racial, cultural, and generational waters around me. It is a wonderful opportunity, but it is challenging for someone like me; I grew up believing that white people never really wanted to be in close proximity to black people unless they were the ones controlling the situation. There was also the belief that the only black people who were successful in white organizations were the ones who did not mind being tokens without real dignity in the system. There may be people who believe these things about me. I have even questioned myself as to why I have been given so many opportunities in the PCA. I sometimes don’t like the answers that come to mind.

Recently, a young pastor asked my opinion on cross-cultural ministry. He asked me how an African American got two positions as both Covenant’s Dean of Students and as pastor of South City Church. I explained, “it makes no sense, since so much of the history in our denomination makes me the wrong guy for the job! But through God’s sovereign will, here I am!” His response was, “I guess God always sends the wrong messenger.”

+Continue Reading

Explaining 'Black Lives Matter'

It is difficult to understand why people, particularly Christians, view a statement as patently obvious as “Black Lives Matter” as a subject for controversy. However, sometimes the most obvious things still need to be said.

So:

Black lives matter because God made every one of us in God’s image. Black lives matter because the Bible tells us that we are part of a body and the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” Black lives matter because God pays particular care to those crying out under the burden of injustice and oppression.

As people of faith in a neighborhood that has been rocked by protests, tear gas, and arrests, we have sought to stand in solidarity with those who are groaning under the burden of oppression. We offer some physical support — hand warmers, a cup of coffee, an extra pair of socks, but we also offer our presence. The Bible often refers to Christians as “witnesses,” and there is something important about simply standing next to our neighbors in the streets and seeing what is actually happening.

We firmly believe that Jesus needs to be down in the clouds of tear gas and he lets us, his people, participate in his reconciliation by bringing him there with our own two feet. Christians, and particularly evangelicals, need to be in the streets. Our neighbors are just outside our doors, crying out that the system is broken and that our culture doesn’t value the lives of our brothers and sisters. We, as Christians, believe in sin and brokenness and we need to live out our belief that God values all of God’s people even as our culture picks and chooses who is worth caring about.

+Continue Reading