The Gathering: A Womanist Church

Co-Pastors: Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais

Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais

Equity for Women in the Church collaborated with Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS) to present Scholars Week. Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp’s workshop, “The Gathering: A Womanist Pastoral Model,” got a standing ovation! Her workshop was indeed impressive, and especially helpful to Equity for Women in the Church and to New Wineskins Community as we continue to develop our ministries.

Rev. Sharp began her workshop by answering the question: “How did I get here?” She told her inspiring story of her call to ministry and acceptance of the invitation to co-pastor The Gathering: A Womanist Church. Currently, she is also fulfilling her call as she completes her Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation-Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School. She plans to teach and to continue her social justice work.

“A womanist is committed to the liberation of all people,” Rev. Sharp said. “Womanism is about care for everyone.” She quoted Alice Walker, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” As a womanist preacher and theologian she looks deeply at biblical texts through a lens of liberation. “Womanism” is “rooted in the experiences of black women solving everyday problems; is against all forms of oppression against all people; is situated at the intersection of race, class, and gender oppression; seeks to empower women by emphasizing their strengths, resourcefulness, ingenuity and creativity; exposes patriarchal oppression in the biblical text and names it evil.”

In founding The Gathering: A Womanist Church, Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, and Rev. Yvette Blair-Lavallais agreed to serve as co-pastors. They found inspiration for this pastoral model in Ecclesiastes: “A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (4:12, NRSV). Looking for a place to meet, they sent out emails to churches. That same day five churches responded that they would welcome The Gathering.

Rev. Sharp continued her workshop at MTS by answering the question, “What do we care about?” She listed The Gathering’s social justice priorities:

  • Racial Equity: eliminating white supremacy
  • Dismantling PMS (patriarachy, misogyny, & sexism): affirming gender equality and justice
  • LGBTQIA Equality: affirming and welcoming all

She went on to list The Gathering’s Missional Priorities:

  • Create worship experiences that address social justice issues through womanist preaching and action
  • Be an authentic and compelling faith community for people who feel a disconnect with the institutional church
  • Be a healing, learning, and growing fellowship for persons marginalized in society
  • Dismantle Patriarchy one womanist sermon at a time
  • Discover together how the ministry of Christ calls us to welcome all, really.

The worship services of The Gathering are one hour each Saturday, and they include:

  • Greet & Tweet
  • Weekly communion
  • Womanist preaching
  • Talk Back to the Text

Rev. Sharp continued to describe this womanist church that has three black women pastors and creates sacred space for self and others. Developing an egalitarian structure, The Gathering has what they call “ministry partners,” instead of “members,” who partner together in social justice work. The Gathering nurtures mind, body, and spirit in worship and in mentoring and leadership development.

This womanist church model is different from other churches in that there is no hierarchy and that three theologically trained black women share the load. Sometimes they are asked about who is really leading the church, because people have a hard time believing an organization can be egalitarian when all they have seen are hierarchical organizations. But the co-pastors of The Gathering believe that to fulfill their mission of dismantling patriarchy, they have to level organizational structure to develop an egalitarian church. The three co-pastors share in preaching, creating liturgies, pastoral care, administration, and all other pastoral responsibilities. To symbolize egalitarian ministry, they stand on the floor, instead of the platform, and involve ministry partners in leading worship.

The Saturday evening after Rev. Sharp’s presentation at MTS Scholars Week, I had the joy of going to The Gathering with my good friend and colleague Rev. Colette Numajiri, one of the co-leaders of New Wineskins. I’d connected with the community through the worship celebrations online, and had been wanting to attend in person.

One of the ministry partners, Winner Laws, welcomed us and guided us to the sanctuary where Rev. Sharp and Rev. Dr. Session warmly greeted us. Rev. Blair-Lavallais, they explained, wasn’t able to be there that evening.

It was evident from the beginning of the worship celebration that The Gathering walked the talk of being an egalitarian church, and that this alternative model of a non-hierarchical church works well. Worship began with Anaya Sharp, eight years old, giving the welcome in a strong, clear voice. Her mother, Rev. Kamilah Sharp, led the call to worship and opening prayer, followed by this litany led by Winner Laws:

Leader: blessed are you who are raging.
People: blessed are you who are mourning.
Leader: blessed are you who feel sick. and tired. and sick and tired.
People: blessed are you who have been organizing.
Leader: blessed are you who have been testifying.
People: blessed are you who have been hearing.
Leader: blessed are you who have been resisting.
People: blessed are you who are marching.
Leader: blessed are you who are weeping.
People: blessed are you who preach and know that divinity resides in despised, abused, violated flesh.
Leader: blessed are you who know deep in your bones that you are good. and beautiful. and beloved. and sacred. and worth. and believed. and held. and capable of healing beyond their wildest imagination.
People: blessed are we when we dare to dream of a world without sexual violence, without white supremacy, without misogyny, without police brutality, without anti-trans and anti-queer violence.
All: blessed are we when we labor together to make it so.
–from litany by Rev. Anna Blaedel

Colette and I with Winner Laws

Colette and I with Faith Manning

One of the most innovative and fun parts of the worship service was “Greet & Tweet.” Many services have a time for people to greet one another and “pass the peace.” But this was the first time I’d ever experienced a time to greet people, take selfies, and post them on social media. This is a wonderful way to spread the Good News of The Gathering!

Holy Communion was open to all. Rev. Sharp welcomed everyone to the table. She and Winner Laws, a ministry partner, served communion from the floor, not the platform, as everyone in the congregation moved forward to participate.

Minister of Music Faith Manning contributed her talents throughout the service, playing meditative piano music during prayers, communion, and between parts of the service. And her strong, beautiful voice blessed us when she sang a solo, “My God Is Real.”

On this evening Co-Pastor Rev. Dr. Irie Session delivered the sermon titled “Deliver Us from the Lies We Believe,” with Psalm 140:1-8 as her text. It was the first sermon I’d ever heard focused entirely on the evil of domestic/patriarchal violence.

Before her sermon Rev. Dr. Session prayed for guidance, beginning with “God Our Mother, Father, Creator, Restorer.” Rev. Sharp also included “Our Mother” in her prayers. They understand the importance of dismantling the foundation of patriarchy through including female names for God.

Rev. Dr. Session began her sermon stating that “The Gathering doesn’t worry about making people mad” by addressing social justice issues, like domestic violence. It’s evident that working for social justice is one of The Gathering’s missions.

Quoting Psalm 140:1, “Deliver me from evildoers; protect me from those who are violent,“ Rev. Dr. Session asked, “What does deliverance look like in a relationship with one person having power over another?” We need deliverance from the lies people believe about Ephesians 5, the “misogynistic interpretations” that give husbands power over wives.

“As a womanist preacher I have concern for all,” she proclaimed. “Violence against the vulnerable is not an individual, but a systemic problem. Black women are about three times as likely as white women to die from domestic violence. It is one of the leading causes of death of black women.”

Drawing from author bell hooks, Rev. Dr. Session called for using the term “patriarchal violence,” instead of “domestic violence,” because “domestic” makes the violence seem like an “intimate and private matter, overlooking the roots in male dominance. Violence stems from male domination and sexism.” Patriarchy makes it acceptable for the more powerful to dominate, to exercise power over others.

The Bible, she said, has been used as a “trap that keeps women in abusive relationships.” Survivors of patriarchal violence “believe lies” that come from the “misinterpretation of the Bible.”

Rev. Dr. Session pointed out that these lies also come from church fathers who taught unhealthy theology. Tertullian called woman “the devil’s gateway.” Augustine wrote that women’s only value came through childbearing. Origen taught that men should never listen to women. These lies, along with the lies from misinterpretations of the Bible, led to patriarchal Christianity that creates an unsafe environment for women and girls and silences them.

“The church is infected with the virus of patriarchal Christianity,” she declared. “Patriarchal Christianity is not the Gospel, not the Good News. When Scripture is interpreted to perpetuate patriarchal Christianity, it is not Good News. Patriarchal Christianity creates toxic masculinity, which leads to violence. God does not approve of patriarchy. God does not approve of any kind of abuse. Patriarchal Christianity that leads to patriarchal violence is based on lies. Patriarchal privilege, patriarchal violence, and patriarchal Christianity are evil. They are lies we have believed.”

Rev. Dr. Session concluded her powerful sermon by challenging us to stop believing lies, to speak out against these lies, to interpret Scripture correctly. For example, Ephesians 5 teaches mutual submission. “We can speak truth,” she proclaimed. “God created humankind, male and female, in the divine image.”

You can listen to the entire sermon and worship celebration online.

After the sermon during the “Talk Back to the Text” time, several people commented on how refreshing it was to hear a sermon proclaiming the truth about patriarchal violence and patriarchal Christianity. People in the online congregation also left comments, for example, “We need a collective deliverance…YES!”

The Gathering celebrated one year of ministry on Saturday, October 27. It was a glorious occasion with powerful sermons by the co-pastors and wonderful music by the Voices of the Gathering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Irie Lynne Session believes that her gifts are for teaching biblical texts in ways that help women discover and reclaim their unique voice and value. She brings “all of who she is” to every aspect of her teaching ministry. Her style is interactive, energetic and empathetic. Her passion is through the ministry of preaching, teaching and writing to empower and honor women, and to dismantle those forces that are grounded in patriarchy, that inhibit women from believing they are indeed GOD’s Masterpiece. She earned a Doctor of Ministry from Colgate Rochester Crozier Divinity School, specializing in Transformative Leadership and Prophetic Preaching. She holds a M.Div. from Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University and a B.S. in Social Work from Oklahoma Christian University. She serves on the Board of Equity for Women in the Church. She is the author of Murdered Souls, Resurrected Lives: Postmodern Womanist Thought in Ministry with Women Prostituted and Marginalized by Commercial Sexual Exploitation.

Kamilah Hall Sharp is a native of St. Louis, Missouri and resides in Desoto, Texas with her spouse Nakia and daughter Anaya. She is currently a Ph.D. student in Biblical Interpretation-Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University. Kamilah also holds a B.S. in Business Economics from Florida A&M University, a M.Div. from Memphis Theological Seminary, and a J.D from Indiana University-Bloomington. She is an ordained minister in the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and believes she was created to help and serve others.

Yvette Blair-Lavallais is a 2017 academic fellow of Princeton Theological Seminary’s prestigious Black Theology and Leadership Institute.  A licensed pastor, Yvette has served in ministry, teaching and preaching the Gospel at numerous churches and faith-based organizations. Most recently, Yvette served as an elder in the United Methodist Church. She is a Magna Cum Laude graduate of Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and she holds a BA in Journalism from the University of North Texas in Denton. Prior to full-time ministry, Yvette worked in corporate communications, non-profit, and served as a public relations specialist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. She is the founder of Her Sister’s Situation Ministry, and the author of Being Ruth: Pressing Through Life’s Struggles with Fearless Faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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