When we gender the pulpit in the direction of justice, we ordain her spirit with gratitude for the many miles she walked and the countless sermons she preached.
This month I celebrate the release of my second book, The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship. As I celebrate the privilege I have as queer feminist to stand behind the pulpit each Sunday—to gender the space in the direction of justice—I must also recall the myriad holy women who have gone before me. I think of many of my Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist: Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, and so many others. And this month I think specifically of my sister preachers, those who raised their voices in bold proclamations when the road was long and unimaginably difficult. I think of preachers like Jarena Lee.
Lee spent thirty years as an itinerant preacher and was the first black woman to be licensed to preach through the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church. Despite the fact that the AME issued a definitive ruling that women were not permitted to preach in 1852, Lee spent the bulk of her adult life preaching. Jarena Lee’s struggle to preach is a familiar story in nineteenth-century American Protestantism, even though the Second Awakening ushered in a period of intense religious revival; with camp meetings around every corner, there was an unprecedented opportunity for women to preach. Like Jarena Lee, though, they weren’t paid, ordained, or protected.
Lee moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia when she was 21 and told the famous Richard Allen that she was called by the Spirit to preach. Since the AME’s book of discipline didn’t say anything about women preachers yet, Allen asked her to hold off for a bit. So, she did what many frustrated women called to preach did; she married a preacher. Six years into the marriage her husband died and she knew she could no longer ignore her calling.
So, Jarena Lee left her two children in the care of people at church and hit the road. Her journals indicate that in one year alone she walked 2,325 miles and preached 178 sermons; that’s more than three sermons per week and six miles per day. And before we pass judgment on Lee for leaving her children in the care of others, it’s important to acknowledge her context in order to understand the power of her journey. According to homiletics scholar Anna Carter Florence:
“Preaching is a way of living and speaking in right relationship with God. It is a way of standing in one’s own life, before God and others. A preacher who denies this denies her very self; she goes down into the pit. She gets swallowed by the whale. She gets tossed this way and that until she relinquishes false notions of what her life should be and submits to God. And God does not adhere to human articulations of polity: God calls whom God will. If the preacher is a poor black woman in antebellum Philadelphia in the year 1811, a woman whom no one will believe and for whom living out the call will be unimaginably difficult, so be it: God does not call preachers to be believed. God calls preachers to preach. Lee had tried standing in someone else’s life; it hadn’t worked. She was ready to stand on her own.” (Florence, Preaching as Testimony, 44)
So, standing on her own two feet, sanctified and called, Jarena Lee was led by the Spirit into the thirty years of wilderness preaching alone. She received no salary. She was dependent on charity and kindness for shelter and food. “Certain poverty, strenuous travel, broken health, exhausting pace: these were the rigors that defined iterant life, and for thirty years, Lee lived with them.” (Florence, 45) Abiding in that broken wilderness is what made Jarena Lee both holy and human. Broken and flourishing.
When I think of women who have gendered the pulpit in the direction of justice, I think of Jerena Lee. Evoking a sense of movement, as though she is walking right off the canvas, and surrounded by shades of green that covered the trails she walked from pulpit to pulpit, Lee’s heart proclaims the Word:
Walking until she could walk no more,
Her heart beating God’s love
For all her sisters.
When our feet grow weary and our voices shake, when gendering the pulpit overwhelms us and we fear we cannot go on, let us remember the mighty proclamations of Jarena Lee. When we gender the pulpit in the direction of justice, we ordain her spirit with gratitude for the many miles she walked and the countless sermons she preached. Thank you, Jarena Lee, for raising your voice. Let us now raise our voices.
Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber is Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Wake Forest Baptist Church at Wake Forest University. She has a PhD in Art and Religion from the Graduate Theological Union at UC Berkeley and is author of Embodying the Feminine in the Dances of the World’s Religions, along with numerous articles about the intersections among the arts, religion, and gender/sexuality. In 2013, she has two new books coming out: The Gendered Pulpit: Sex, Body, and Desire in Preaching and Worship and Dance in Scripture: How Biblical Dancers can Revolutionize Worship Today. She has been a clergy woman and professional dancer and artist since 1999 and she teaches a course as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. For more on her research, ministry, dance, or to purchase one of her icons, visit: www.angelayarber.com