DETROIT – A black pastor’s controversial eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral laid bare before the world what black women say they have experienced for generations: sexism and inequality in their houses of worship every Sunday.
In eulogizing the beloved artist known as the Queen of Soul, the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. declared that as “proud, beautiful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do – a black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man.” The backlash was immediate, given Franklin’s role as a mother and a pillar for women’s rights.
Franklin’s grieving family said Williams’ eulogy, which also included references to stopping black-on-black crime, was offensive because it did not focus on her. Social media lit up with criticisms of his remarks as sexist and misogynist.
For many black women, Williams’ eulogy reopened wounds and sternly reminded them that black churches remain male-dominated institutions, where old-school resistance to women holding leadership roles still is alive.
“Women are hurting about this issue,” said the Rev. Barbara Reynolds, an elder at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Washington, D.C. “It’s like we are still not equal. Women fight in every cause for everybody else, but we are not celebrated or even tolerated in sacred spaces.”
Women not only fill the pews in many black churches, they also serve as church nurses and ushers, and work behind the scenes. Some are trustees, keeping an eye on church finances and making sure bills get paid. Others are evangelists, or are ordained as deacons. But many are denied true leadership roles – and in some cases, women are asked to deliver sermons from the church floor, rather than the pulpit.
Some male ministers “actually deeply believe that men are supposed to be in charge,” said the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, assistant pastor for special projects at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a sociology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
“Their reading of the Bible does not have a vision of gender equality,” Gilkes said. “Black women are very conscious of how important they are to the survival, growth and continuity of the church. Very often, to become effective, prominent leaders, they have formed their own organizations and exercised that leadership outside the pulpit.”
Williams, pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, also had eulogized Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, in 1984. He prefaced part of his eulogy for Aretha Franklin on Aug. 31 by saying 70 percent of black households are led by black women.
Williams apologized later, but defended his choice of topics. He said he was trying to highlight the struggles that single mothers face and his words were taken out of context. But even during Aretha Franklin’s funeral, the absence of black women in the pulpit was evident. The front row was occupied by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and primarily other black male pastors. No black female pastors were featured on an early speakers’ list for the funeral.
“There are male leaders in some black churches that don’t allow women to preach from the pulpit and, if they do, it’s typically on special occasions like Women’s Day,” said the Rev. Horace Sheffield, pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship of Detroit.
“Some denominations are more stringent and less likely to affirm women than others,” Sheffield said. “That’s part of our Christian tradition and that has always bothered me. We can be discriminated on the color of our skin and we can discriminate against women because of their gender. It still exists by virtue of the fact that you have churches that don’t allow female ministers as pastors. It ... renders us in a lesser position to challenge discrimination in any form or any place when we’re part of it.”
About 70 percent of the 500 members at Sheffield’s church are women. Sheffield said two women serve as associate pastors. Some of the deacons are women and the head of the steward board is a woman.
He said the roles of women in black church leadership are changing, “but we’ve got to open it up some more.”
The Rev. Maidstone Mulenga, communications director for the United Methodist Church Council of Bishops, says having only men in leadership and pastoral roles is part of the theology taught in some churches.
“If it comes from a background that says only male preachers can be in the pulpit, then (the church members) will resist a female preacher – whether white or black,” Mulenga said.
Mulenga said the United Methodist Church is very supportive of female leaders in churches and has a number of female bishops. The church’s Baltimore-Washington Conference is led by Bishop LaTrelle Easterling, a black woman. But he said female black preachers have to work twice as hard as male black preachers.
“For a female black preacher it is almost like standing in the middle of the highway and getting hit by traffic from both directions because they are black and because they are female,” Mulenga said.
For predominantly black denominations, there are smaller gains. The African Methodist Episcopal Church currently has two women bishops.
The National Baptist Convention says on its website that it leaves the matter to its member churches because interpretations about who can serve in the ministry “tend to be particularly emotional and divisive.” Its most recent roster of state presidents, from January 2017, is all male.
The Church of God in Christ, based in Memphis, Tennessee, on its website identifies only black male pastors as members of its general board and its board of bishops.
Last year, the Pentecostal Assemblies of the World promoted two women to bishop and gave them responsibility over churches in Sierra Leone and South Africa. The presiding bishop at the time, Charles Ellis, told the Tennessean newspaper in Nashville that the two women, whose home churches are in the U.S., would “actually oversee and they will govern male pastors.”
Ellis’ church in Detroit hosted Franklin’s funeral.
But some male pastors and preachers wield so much power in their churches that they rarely are confronted, said Reynolds, of Washington, D.C., who was ordained in 1996.
“We don’t really challenge the pastors,” Reynolds said. “We either go home and don’t go back to church or some brave women start their own church.”