“The Bible teaches that we are made in the image and likeness of God; therefore, I must believe that there is a male and female expression of God,” Rev. Dr. Susan Newman writes in her book Your Inner Eve: Discovering God’s Woman Within. “God’s Spirit has often felt like a nurturing mother, and I want to honor God by living like a goddess. Claim your divinity and walk in it every day, because you are fearfully and wonderfully made.”
Growing up, Susan didn’t feel so powerful. Her father was an alcoholic who often abused her and her mother. “It was to the point that Monday through Friday at 3:00 p.m., when the school bell would ring, my heart would freeze inside of me because I didn’t know what to expect when I went home, whether my father would be there, how he would be,” Susan recalls.
Her mother, Lillian Mae Dabney Newman, took Susan to Goodwill Baptist Church in their home city of Washington, DC. In this church with Sunday School teacher Ms. Clara Powell, Susan found a safe place. “I sat there in her Sunday School class and looked in the face of this woman and saw the love of God,” Susan says.
At the age of twelve, Susan Newman became the superintendent of her Sunday School, because she knew more about the Bible than most of the adults at the church at that time. When she was the youth preacher at Goodwill Baptist, some of the deacons said to her, “Girl, you preach better than the pastor.”
No matter how well she preached or how much knowledge she had of the Bible, Susan experienced obstacles to her ministry. She joined Mt. Sinai Baptist Church in DC, where Rev. David Durham was pastor. “Rev. Durham was known not to believe in women preachers and not to support women in ministry,” Susan recalls. “He belonged to the DC Baptist Ministers Conference, an African American Baptist ministers’ conference, that wouldn’t even allow women to come to the meetings. If any man ordained a woman to the ministry, he was excommunicated from the fellowship and stripped of his standing.”
At a Holiness church, where she was singing with an a cappella group, Susan felt a call to preach. At first she thought she was mistaken, because of all the negative messages she had heard about women preachers. Susan was surprised that her mother was supportive of this call to preach. Then Susan went to talk with her pastor, thinking he would put a stop to it.
“Rev. Durham, God has called me to preach.”
“The whole church knew that when you walked in here quoting the Bible like you wrote it,” he said.
“But I’m a woman! Don’t you think I shouldn’t preach?”
“Susan, if God has called you, we’re going to do a trial sermon, and we’ll see the gifts and graces of God on your life.”
At the age of nineteen, Susan Newman preached her trial sermon. “When I finished preaching, the whole church was up on their feet,” Susan recalls. “They didn’t wait to have a church meeting the next week to vote to license me to the ministry. It was a unanimous vote. Rev. Durham had already gotten my ministry license at the Baptist bookstore. He had crossed out with a magic marker every ‘he’ and put ‘she,’ every ‘him’ and put ‘her,’ because all the pronouns were male.”
Although Rev. Newman had gotten a standing ovation on her sermon and a unanimous vote by the church to be licensed to ministry, she had few opportunities to preach. “I only preached at the 3:00 a.m. Halloween service,” she laughs and says. “There was no way I was going to preach at the 11:00 a.m. service. Women were not allowed in the pulpit unless it was Women’s Day.”
Later Rev. Newman writes in one of her books: “There is a sickness in the Black church, and it is the sometimes subsiding, but never dying, sexism. Women have been told we should be grateful that we are granted a Women’s Day, that women are allowed in the pulpit, that the woman preacher can preach from the pulpit rather than from the floor. We should not complain or even speak of any dissatisfaction. This reminds me of white America during segregation, telling us that we should be thankful for what they have afforded us, and that coloreds need to remember their place.”
After graduating from George Washington University with a double major in journalism and speech communication and a minor in religion, Susan began Wesley Theological Seminary, the only black female at the school. Because her pastor and the male officers of the church discouraged her from completing seminary and being ordained, and because she didn’t know of a Baptist church in Washington, DC, that would allow her in the pulpit on Sundays to do the required seminary internship, Susan dropped out after one semester.
With the encouragement of several other ministers and professors, Susan entered Howard University School of Divinity. She had found a church, Zion Baptist Church in DC, that hired her as seminary intern and allowed her to participate in worship leadership every Sunday, not just on Women’s Day. “But I was never asked to preach or do the intercessory prayer, nothing creative out of my spirit,” she recalls. And she had this exchange with the pastor:
“Rev. Veazey, do you want me to wear this robe?”
He replied, “Oh, that’s a nice dress you have on; wear what you have on in the pulpit.”
She thought to herself, “He doesn’t want me to look too much like a preacher in the pulpit.” When Rev. Newman finally got to preach for the first time on youth Sunday, she received a standing ovation.
After she graduated from seminary, Peoples Congregational United Church of Christ in DC ordained her and hired her as assistant pastor. Her ordination was especially meaningful to her because professors and ministers who knew her family participated. When she was doing research at seminary, she had discovered a book on outstanding African American preachers that included her grandfather and six uncles, who were all United Methodist ministers. She hadn’t known before that she came from a line of preachers because her father, the only child who was not a preacher, didn’t talk about them as ministers.
Several years later Rev. Newman became associate pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in DC. She was the first woman on staff at Shiloh Baptist. She recalls, “The Sunday I came to preach before the church voted on me, you could hear a rat piss on cotton, it was so quiet! I wondered, ‘What do you think I’m going to do in the pulpit, take my bra off and swing it in the air over the Bible?’ All the deaconesses and missionaries were sitting on the front row with their white uniforms on. They told me later that they were just sitting there praying that I would be so good the church would vote for me.” Again, Rev. Newman got a standing ovation on her preaching.
After completing a Doctor of Ministry degree at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, she accepted the position of religious coordinator for the Children’s Defense Fund, working with Marian Wright Edelman. Rev. Dr. Newman helped to plan the opening worship service, called a “Moral Witness for our Children,” for the 1992 Democratic National Convention in New York and the Republican National Convention in Texas.
A few years later Rev. Dr. Newman accepted the call to serve as pastor of First Congregational Church in Atlanta, Georgia. All the movers and shakers of the African American community belonged to either Ebenezer Baptist, Dr. King’s church, or to First Congregational.
Rev. Newman relates a story about teaching a Sunday School class for the officers of the church. She was excited, focused on teaching the lesson from the book of Romans on not conforming to the world but being transformed. Rev. Newman called on a trustee who looked like she wanted to speak.
“Sister, do you have something you want to say?”
“I don’t like your lipstick. From where I’m sitting in church on Sunday, it looks like you don’t have any lipstick on.”
“That’s next Sunday’s lesson,” Rev. Newman jokingly replied. “Do you have anything to say about Romans?”
After the worship service one Sunday, a member of the church commented on Dr. Newman’s shoes. “I had on a beige suit and beige pumps to go with my suit,” she says. “During the service I had on my black robe. After the service, I was standing shaking hands with people. One woman said to me, ‘Dr. Newman, we only wear black shoes with our robe in the pulpit.’ I said, ‘Well, did you hear the sermon?’ It was that kind of thing constantly. They felt free to comment on my dress, my style, how I looked. They would never do that with a man.”
When Rev. Dr. Newman had been pastor of the Atlanta church only three months, Jean Childs Young, wife of former mayor Andrew Young, died of cancer. Rev. Newman led her funeral service, along with Maya Angelou and Coretta Scott King.
Although Rev. Newman became well known and loved in Atlanta, the church did not follow her leadership. She was especially disappointed that the church voted against an adopt-a-school program, delineated in her book With Heart and Hand: The Black Church Working to Save Black Children. The church had been willing to call a woman, but it had become obvious that parishioners would not follow a woman’s leadership.
She left First Congregational Church to serve as Executive Director of Georgians for Children, a statewide child advocacy organization. When she moved back to DC, she worked with the Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Planned Parenthood, and the Virginia Department of Health. In DC she also served as senior advisor for religious affairs to the DC mayor and on the mayor’s HIV/AIDS Task Force. Currently she is a consultant with the AIDS Action Foundation.
During this time when she was serving in faith-based communities, Rev. Dr. Newman also interviewed with churches. Although her preaching drew standing ovations and Ebony magazine named her one of the Top Black Women Preachers in America, churches did not hire her as pastor. “The churches were not ready for a woman as a senior minister,” she says. “It’s very difficult as a black woman to get called to a church. There are churches that don’t mind your being the assistant, but they’re still not ready for you to be senior pastor.”
Rev. Dr. Newman delights in her current position as Associate Minister of Congregational Life and Social Justice at All Souls Church in DC. To keep her standing as a minister in the United Church of Christ denomination, Rev. Dr. Newman also preaches and participates in the ministry team at Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ. With the pastors of both churches, she worked to pass the DC Marriage Equality Law.
“These churches are social justice churches, intentionally inclusive in worship leadership and language,” she says. “The leaders of these churches use inclusive language as a model for laypeople. They hear us say, ‘God who is Mother and Father to us all.’ So I can be with these two churches that I feel are great models of the ‘beloved community’ that Dr. King spoke of.”
Consistent with her theology of the divine within us all, Rev. Dr. Newman often connects the human and divine feminine when she speaks about inclusive language and imagery. “It’s important for women to be in the pulpit,” she says. “I think it’s important for people to see themselves, that we’re all created in the image of God and that God is male and female, and that God is black, brown, yellow. I address God interchangeably as ‘He’ and ‘She,’ ‘Father’ and ‘Mother.’”
Dr. Newman also balances female and male references to God in her book Oh God! A Black Woman’s Guide to Sex and Spirituality: “If God did not want us to enjoy sex, She would not have made Barry White. If God did not want us to enjoy sex, He would not have made the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Smokey, Will Downing, the Dells, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes with Teddy Pendergrass, Jeffrey Osborne with LTD, Luther, Marvin, D’Angelo, Maxwell, Lenny Kravitz, Prince, and R. Kelly. If God did not want us to enjoy sex, She would not have let us ever hear and slow drag to ‘Stay in My Corner,’ ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ ‘The Love We Had Stays on My Mind,’ ‘If Only for One Night,’ ‘You Really Got a Hold on Me,’ ‘You and I,’ and ‘When Something Is Wrong With My Baby.'”
Dr. Newman comments on the power of language: “I think including female imagery of God is so powerful that even Jesus did it. In the parable of the lost coin God is the Woman sweeping the house. I think that was a very powerful thing that Jesus used female divine imagery while teaching even in that time. Words are powerful because our world is shaped by our language. The way we communicate and bring images to people through our language, through the words we choose, and through our images—that is powerful; that is what creates our mindset.”
Inclusive leadership and language empower marginalized people, Rev. Newman believes. “People of color and women have been marginalized by our dominant white male culture. I would love to get to the time when we would no more see in the news the ‘first black this,’ or ‘the first female that.’ Whether we were going to vote for Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton was a big thing for black women, because we wanted a woman but we wanted a black person too.”
“There is room at the table for everyone. Every voice should be heard; no particular voice is greater or more valued because of gender or sexual orientation or race. The kingdom of God is welcoming, and the gates of heaven are wide open. I often joke that a whole lot of folks are going to be very upset when they find out that God really is a heavy-set black woman in her mid-fifties!”
For more of Rev. Dr. Susan Newman’s story, see: https://wipfandstock.com/store/Changing_Church_Stories_of_Liberating_Ministers