This morning I woke up wanting to write for my blog but couldn’t decide on a topic. I prayed for Sophia Wisdom’s guidance.
Not long after my prayer, a package arrived with Courtney Pace’s new book on Prathia Hall. Now I’ve never been one to open the Bible and believe that the first thing I saw was an answer to prayer. But the book fell open to page 172 in Chapter Seven, and these were the first words I saw: “Hall continued: ‘Yes, you heard correctly. I said she in reference to God.’” Now I knew that Sophia had called me to write today about my excitement upon receiving this book and to invite others to read it.
Those first words I read are from Prathia Hall’s 1998 baccalaureate address at Vassar College. Here is a longer quote from the book about this speech:
Hall spoke on Isaiah 44, emphasizing the students’ parallel with Israel, emerging from “a time of trouble” at the same time as feeling “the possibilities for transformation.” Hall introduced the divine feminine: “She does not grow faint or grow weary, God’s understanding is unsearchable.” With a disorienting reassurance, Hall continued: “Yes, you heard correctly. I said she in reference to God. A part of the strength for your journey should be the knowledge that the living God who does all that these verses promise can and must be mournfully and authentically imagined as our divine Mother and our divine Father.” Explaining the Imago Dei meant that male and female were both created in the image of God, she elucidated the significance of the divine feminine: “How we image God determines how we image people.” Seeing our common humanity across social barriers was the first step to eradicating “dominance and hierarchy as if they are sanctioned by God.” She praised the graduates’ accomplishments and challenged them to see themselves in common with all of humanity: “Now it’s your turn to join the struggles for social transformation, armed with your wonderful skills, information, and youthful energy.” She promised their success “because the Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth, She does not grow faint or weary.”
In the preceding paragraph Courtney Pace wrote that Prathia Hall also challenged the church to include divine feminine language:
As part of her womanist hermeneutic, Hall challenged the church to embrace feminine language for God: “If we continue to ignore the maternal and feminine in Scripture then we have a distorted view of humanity. . . . Do you speak of the divine in male terms only because it’s easier—you feel better and besides, it’s risky to do otherwise.” Regardless of emotional preferences for the familiar, Hall insisted that in order to be a liberating community, black churches must imagine God as feminine, and feminine as holy: “I must tell you—that this is not about our comfort level—I am just as uncomfortable as you are right now. But much is at stake. Our humanity and God’s divinity have been misrepresented.” Hall raised these prophetic challenges in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, putting her at the forefront not only of preaching about these issues within black churches but also within U.S. religion broadly. During her preaching ministry, liberation theology was a small subset of intellectual religion, but she brought it to the pulpit across the country, week after week, year after year, spanning races, denominations, and regions.
For many years I have read and written about the importance of including female names and images of the Divine. But I don’t think I’ve read any more persuasive words than Hall’s about what’s at stake.
Also, the chapter titles in Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Hall intrigue me:
“I See Africa Rising”
“Living in the Face of Death”
“In Jail for a Just Cause”
“Black, Preacher, Baptist, Woman”
“I’m 5’6”, but I Should Have Been Taller”
“The Living God Is Not a Bigot”
“The Baptist Church Is Going to Have to Deal with Me”
“One of the Founding Mothers of the New America”
“Who Had the Dream? Prathia Hall and the ‘I Have a Dream’ Speech”
For months I’ve looked forward to the publication of this book. I’m grateful to my friend Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace for drawing my attention to Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall many years ago. Courtney, a church history professor at Memphis Theological Seminary, also serves on the board of Equity for Women in the Church. For a while Courtney has been researching and writing about Prathia. At the 2017 Nevertheless She Preached Conference, Courtney gave a presentation titled “Subversive Sisters: A Herstory of Our Foremothers,” in which she included Prathia. In 2014, in an article in EthicsDaily.com, Courtney wrote: “Little did I know at the beginning of this journey that Prathia would become a spiritual mother to me, continuing to inspire me about the real meaning of life and faith.” Prathia “worked tirelessly for justice” and “transformed her suffering into prophetic proclamation.” She “turned ashes into beautiful breaths of life.” Prathia “empowered people to realize their giftedness and calling in spite of obstacles; her faith inspired others to find their own.” Courtney inspired me to write a hymn and a blog article about Prathia Hall.
Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall was just released on June 15. Courtney states that the book “explains how racism is perpetuated through unrepresentative government, white-owned capitalism, and heteronormative patriarchal structures.”
Freedom Faith is the first full-length critical study of Rev. Dr. Prathia Laura Ann Hall, a courageous civil rights movement leader and womanist theologian. “Freedom faith” was the central concept of her theology: the belief that God created all people to be free and assists and equips those who work for freedom. Courtney focuses on Prathia’s pioneer work as an activist and minister, examining her intellectual and theological development as well as her influence on Martin Luther King Jr., Marian Wright Edelman, and the early generations of womanist scholars. Rev. Dr. Hall was one of the first women ordained in the American Baptist Churches, USA, was the pastor of Mt. Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, and later joined the faculty at the Boston University School of Theology as the Martin Luther King Chair in Social Ethics.
I invite you to join my excitement and read Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall.
Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace is Associate Professor of Church History and Director of Admissions at Memphis Theological Seminary. Her research interests include race and gender, Baptist history, the Civil Rights Movement, and social justice in American religion. Her book Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall was published by University of Georgia Press. She has authored numerous journal articles, book chapters, book reviews, encyclopedia articles, and blog articles. She also regularly presents her research at academic conferences. She is ordained through the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and also works closely with the Alliance of Baptists and Baptist Women in Ministry. She is a board member of Equity for Women in the Church, a non-profit organization that promotes the acceptance and placement of women in ministry as well as interracial and ecumenical cooperation, and she is the founder and chair of the Clergy Advocacy Board for Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. She is frequently invited as guest preacher to churches across the country. She created popular podcast “Stole Sisters,” which features women preachers representing multiple denominations, races, and regions. Before joining the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary, she taught Religion at Baylor University, where she also served as Assistant Director of Student Success, co-managing the Paul L. Foster Success Center and overseeing New Student Experience, Academic Excellence Opportunities, and First Generation College Student Support. At Baylor, she earned the nickname “Dr. Success.”