Today at the Dallas citywide Dr. Martin Luther King Day worship service, there were no women preachers. There are many outstanding Black women preachers in Dallas, but not one was included in the service. In most of the MLK services I’ve attended, I’ve noticed this absence. Around the country today in MLK worship services, others are asking, “Where are the women?”
Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, co-pastor of The Gathering, A Womanist Church and board member of Equity for Women in the Church, not only noticed this exclusion, but she became the change she wanted to see. In addition to calling out the problem, she became part of the solution. Nevertheless, she preached! She often says, “If they won’t give you a seat at the table, create your own table.” Today she did just that. On short notice, she gathered a group at Central Christian Church, and she preached a powerful sermon.
Rev. Dr. Irie pointed out that not only are Black women preachers excluded from MLK services, but Black women leaders of the Civil Rights Movement are excluded from these services—women such as Coretta Scott King, who partnered with Martin Luther King Jr. in leading the movement. Rev. Dr. Irie proclaimed that just as Black women’s voices and actions were vital to the Civil Rights Movement, Black women preachers and all of us are vital to the movement of dismantling racism, sexism, patriarchy, misogyny, and other injustices in our world today. She emphasized the justice issue of healthcare for all in her sermon “A Specialist She Could Afford,” drawing from the Gospel story of Jesus’ healing the woman who had suffered hemorrhages for twelve years (Luke 8:43-48).
Rev. Dr. Irie’s sermon and our discussion afterwards, other MLK Day worship services, and my participation as a ministry partner in The Gathering have helped me see how I have been both oppressor and oppressed in church and society. As a white American, I share the sin of my race that enslaved African Americans, segregated them, and denied them freedom and dignity and equal rights. I especially feel the need of repentance of the sin of participating in the white Christian church that instead of following our mission of justice and equality has too often perpetuated injustice and inequality, by biblical misinterpretations and/or silence in the face of racism and white supremacy. Injustice exerts its most profound damage when wrong is supported in the name of right. When wrong becomes systematized, the very concept of justice is reversed. Dr. King wrote in Strength to Love, “Millions of African Americans, starving for the bread of freedom, have knocked again and again on the door of white churches, but they have usually been greeted by a cold indifference or a blatant hypocrisy.”
Rev. Dr. Irie Session and Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, co-pastors of The Gathering, along with Dr. Martin Luther King, have helped me see how I’m also among the oppressed. In Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The exclusion of women’s voices is an injustice. Exclusion and marginalization of women is a threat to racial justice and to any kind of justice everywhere. The church has too often perpetuated this injustice with biblical misinterpretations and/or silence in the face of sexism. Dorothy Cotton, who worked closely with Dr. King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, acknowledged the sexism that existed in the Civil Rights Movement, but she believed that had he lived longer, he would have come to see women as an oppressed class. The logical, ethical conclusion of MLK’s reaching, writing, and activism is gender as well as racial justice. Theologian Dr. James Cone stated: “As we blacks will not permit whites to offer plausible excuses for racism, so we cannot excuse our sexism. Sexism, like racism, is freedom’s opposite, and we must uncover its evil manifestations so we can destroy it.”
Just as MLK used love and non-violent resistance against racism, classism, and militarism, today I believe he would also work against sexism. That’s exactly what Rev. Dr. Irie did today. In the power of Love, she resisted sexist exclusion and created an MLK Day worship service where her voice and the voices of other women sounded the call to freedom and justice for all.