Black women struggle with call to clergy
The road for women wanting to be preachers in the black church has been difficult, to say the least. Yet, black women are slowly rising to leadership roles in one of the black community's oldest and most revered institutions. Some arrive in the traditional way - called by churches - while others are starting their own churches. Acceptance has been slow in coming in the traditional black enclaves of east Pasco County, but women now account for about 25 percent of the preachers in black churches. The first sign of change came in the mid-1950s, when a flamboyant seasonal evangelist, known as Father Roberts, ordained Flowers Hanner as a minister in his Royal Priesthood denomination. Hanner eventually opened her own church, St. Peter's Apostolic Church in Dade City that her son, William Hanner, later reorganized as At the Church of the Living Christ. Before "Mother Hanner," as she was affectionately known, died in the early 1980s, she was an example for other women who considered accepting a call into ministry. In the early days, black female ministers faced a stigma. They were perceived as extremists, religious fanatics, oddballs.Bishop Ethel Smith, founder and pastor of St. Luke Church of God Apostolic Faith in Dade City, focused on what she knew to be true. "I did not have any doubts about my calling. It had been prophesied that I would become a pastor," said Smith, who was ordained in the early 1960s and opened the church in her kitchen a couple of years later. "I wanted to be obedient to God and did not worry about what people thought about me." To some extent, how well women have been accepted as preachers over the years has depended on their denominations. Hanner and Smith, for example, were both Pentecostal, a denomination that, like the AME Church, has been more tolerant of female preachers than the Baptists and Methodists during the past 40 years. Biblical scripture has been used to justify both the position that women should and should not be preachers. On one hand, Jesus chose only men for his disciples. But then the Book of Joel says that in the last days all of God's children will prophesize. In some cases, that difference of opinion has been hurtful. Cassie Coleman, the pastor of First Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church in Trilby, used to get frequent invitations from local ministers to play piano and sing at their churches. But that changed after Coleman, who has also served as associate pastor of Greater Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Lacoochee and as pastor of Mount Olive AME Church in Trilby, accepted her calling in the early 1990s. "I was not welcome as fellow clergy by the majority of the male clerics," she said. "Some refused to call me 'reverend,' even though I pastored a church, and some vacated the pulpit when I took my seat amongst them." Why would black women remain so loyal to an institution that has relegated them to second-class citizenship? Bettye Collier-Thomas, a history professor at Temple University, argues in her book, "Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion," that black women see race as a more important part of their identities than gender and that they have accepted incremental changes and made concessions in order to keep their institutions strong and viable. When it comes to female preachers, though, some have refused to wait for acceptance from their male peers. Angela Pierre-Charles, Elder May Ross, and Saundra Coward have followed in the footsteps of Hanner and are examples of what we can expect of women in the ministry in the future. "I just want to help people and do what I was called to do" said Angela Pierre-Charles, pastor of Miracle Tabernacle Church in Dade City.