At the opening worship service at the Nevertheless She Preached Conference in Waco, Texas, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell brought the words I needed to hear. The night before I had trouble sleeping. I lay awake feeling overwhelmed by all the suffering of women and others, wondering what I could do that would make any difference. Also, I’d been hearing from people in some of my activist groups that we needed more time for silence and meditation.
In her sermon, “The Contemplative Pastor,” Rev. Pennington-Russell encouraged us to nurture our spirits with mindfulness meditation. She said that after pastoring four churches for a total of 32 years, “contemplative practices are saving” her “daily.” She told about receiving a message that she was the best pastor the church had ever had and, on the same day, another message that she was the worst pastor they’d had.
My memory took me back to the first time I heard of Julie Pennington-Russell, and to the years before when I served as Associate Pastor of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Waco. My mother, a devout Baptist with deep Baptist roots, expressed delight that I had this opportunity to pastor, but she had trouble accepting the reality that no Baptist church would accept her daughter as a minister. She kept asking if I had gone to Calvary Baptist, right across the street from St. John’s, to inquire about ministry openings. At that time Calvary Baptist didn’t have women deacons or women in any leadership roles.
Ironically, ten years later Calvary became the first Baptist church in Texas to call a woman—Julie Pennington-Russell—as senior pastor. On her first Sunday at Calvary Baptist, 30 men in a conservative Baptist group from Mount Enterprise, Texas, picketed the church with signs that called her “Jezebel” and accused her and other working mothers of moral corruption and child abuse. That Sunday might have been the beginning of her contemplative practices that save her!
The first time I heard Rev. Pennington-Russell preach was at a Christians for Biblical Equality Conference in Dallas. She told her story about learning that the Bible teaches the equality of women in church and society. “And then more sky opened up,” she said. She continued to describe her awakening to the fullness of her pastoral gifts and her divine call, saying, “And then more sky opened up.” This metaphor of an opening sky described what I had felt when I witnessed Rev. Martha Gilmore’s ordination at Cliff Temple Baptist Church in Dallas, the first time I’d ever seen a woman receive this sacred blessing.
So I was excited to learn that that Rev. Pennington-Russell was delivering the first sermon at the Nevertheless She Preached Conference. Her words continue to calm and renew my spirit.
“Contemplation,” she said, is simply “paying attention and being present.” She challenged us to “be mindful of what’s in front of us if we want to know what God is up to.” She quoted Jesus’ words in Luke 21: “Look at the fig tree,” and you will know “your redemption is drawing near.” Contemplative spirituality is “not about getting it right,” but about bringing our attention back to the present, trying to “be fully present” in each moment.
Rev. Pennington-Russell said that contemplative practices help her especially in stressful times. She thinks of the mantra one of her pastor friends uses when she feels stressed or upset: “I’m still in contemplative prayer. I’m still in contemplative prayer.” I’m also finding this mantra helpful in these difficult days!
Rev. Pennington-Russell reminded me that activism and contemplation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, contemplation empowers our activism. Her preaching, writing, and other social justice work illustrate the power of her combined contemplation and activism. In a recent blog article, “Welcoming the Stranger,” she calls out Christians for our tepid response to welcoming the world’s most vulnerable children and adults—refugees who are fleeing danger to seek asylum within our borders. She cites a Pew Research Center study that found the percent of religiously unaffiliated people higher than the percent of Christians of every category who affirm our responsibility to welcome refugees seeking safety within our borders. “How we treat the foreigner and the stranger says a lot about our understanding of God,” she states. “The Bible has a lot to say about immigrants and immigration. The Hebrew word ger, the closest word to our concept of an immigrant, appears 92 times in the Old Testament alone. The Israelites were “illegal aliens” when they arrived in the Promised Land. It was famine and death (read: economic hardship) that compelled “undocumented” Ruth to migrate with her mother-in-law Naomi. Notably, Boaz didn’t deport her back to Moab. And Jesus himself tells us in Matthew 25: Every stranger you see, especially the least of these, is really me. He promised that one day we’d hear him say these words: Whenever you welcomed the stranger you were welcoming me. Whenever you turned away from a stranger you were turning away from me.”
Sometimes I wonder if meditation is a waste of time, a luxury when there’s so much social justice work that cries out for our time and energy. But Rev. Pennington-Russell’s sermon helps me remember how important contemplative practices are to keep us going in our activism.
“Be present in whatever moment you happen to be,” she encouraged us. “Be alive to this moment. Let go. Let be. Receive the Spirit in all things. Move out of the analytical mind to experience Mystery.”
Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell currently serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Washington, DC. Previously, she served as associate pastor and then pastor of Nineteenth Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, and pastor of First Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia. She earned her B.A. from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and her M.Div. from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California. Her messages have been featured on the television broadcast 30 Good Minutes, Day-1 Radio and at the Festival of Homiletics. She currently serves as a member of the advisory board for the religion department of Carson-Newman University and has served as a trustee for Mercer University, member of the board for the Center for Christian Music Studies at Baylor University, and member of the board of directors for the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good.