Here Comes Shepreaches: Organization Aims to Get More Black Women Into Pulpits

The Rev. Neichelle Guidry Jones washed Ramona Gant's feet during a Shepreaches gathering at a Hyde Park apartment in Chicago on Thursday. (Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times)
The Rev. Neichelle Guidry Jones washed Ramona Gant’s feet during a Shepreaches gathering at a Hyde Park apartment in Chicago on Thursday. (Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times)

Just before the Passover festival, the same point in the calendar when Jesus gathered his closest followers in the Upper Room, the Rev. Neichelle Guidry Jones knelt on the floor of a Hyde Park apartment here in devout imitation of her savior. She grasped a cloth and moved a ceramic basin into place and, in the manner that the Gospel of John described, humbled herself to wash the feet of the disciples.

The disciples were seven young black women who had answered the call to ministry, and Ms. Jones was preparing them to preach on Good Friday. With its image of a crucified Christ and its evocation of racial lynchings in this land, there is perhaps no more significant day for the African-American church as an institution.

Ms. Jones lifted a pitcher and poured a thread of water onto the feet of Ericka Elion, a seminary student. It coursed over the veins and calluses, the bony knobs and painted toenails, the imperfect tissue of fallible humanity. Then Ms. Jones delicately dried Ms. Elion’s feet. She repeated the ritual six more times, once for each woman.

As if stricken by the gesture, Ms. Elion gazed unfocused into the middle distance. The Rev. HaLana L. Thompson, the assistant pastor of a local church, clamped her eyes closed and gently swayed. Kentina Washington, the chaplain at a retirement community in the suburbs, doubled over with wordless sobs.

“It’s my prayer for them and what I know about their lives,” Ms. Jones said in the hushed aftermath of the ceremony. “It’s being present, being attentive, letting the spirit speak. It’s just wanting to be a blessing to my friends.”

Ms. Jones meant those words in concrete as well as ineffable ways. As the founder of a group of young black churchwomen, which she named Shepreaches, she aspires to ease the difficult path of African-American women into the pulpit. For the past two years, her signal event has been a Good Friday service with sermons by seven women.

This year’s preachers range in age from late 20s to early 40s. Some are ordained, others still in seminary, and their affiliations range across traditionally black denominations. What they share in common is that none have served as senior pastors in a field still dominated by men. A few had privately doubted their own right to the pulpit until Ms. Jones issued her call.

“I’d been preaching for more than 10 years, but being part of a movement gave me confidence,” said the Rev. Dawnn M. Pirani Brumfield, 37, who is the director of service and mission at the Urban Village Church in Chicago. “It showed me that I didn’t have to hide my gifts. In all my other church experiences, I’d served under men. I’d always been the assistant. What I want people to know is that women can do this work.”

In the tradition of black churches, the Good Friday service is called the “Seven Last Words,” with seven preachers, almost invariably men, delivering a sermon apiece based on one of Jesus’ final statements in the gospel narrative. In Ms. Jones’s version, which she titled “A For Colored Girls Gospel,” the women’s homilies would draw on Scripture to address topics like domestic violence, sexual abuse and poverty, as well as activism, agency and joy.

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SOURCE: The New York Times