The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies

On Saturday, December 28, 2019, ministry partners and co-pastors of The Gathering, A Womanist Church met for our end-of-the-year vision night.  The Gathering has “ministry partners,” instead of “members,” who participate with the co-pastors in worship services, social justice ministry, and administration. The vision night was not a meeting like many year-end church planning sessions that focus on events; instead, it provided an opportunity for each of us to speak our visions for ways our church can advocate for social justice changes. Also, we focused on ways The Gathering can continue to reach more people with our mission of racial equity, LGBTQ equality, and dismantling PMS (patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism).

Because I had experienced the transformative power of womanist sermons at The Gathering, I suggested collecting sermons of the co-pastors, Dr. Irie Lynne Session and Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp, in a book. People around the table responded enthusiastically, seeing the book as a way to spread The Gathering’s liberating good news, and to provide funds to keep the church thriving.

Soon the concept for the book expanded to include, along with sermons, the origins of this unique womanist church, stories of people transformed in this community, and litanies for womanist worship.

We wanted the book to have as wide an outreach as possible, and we realized some people may not know about “womanism” and “womanist theology.” So we started with definitions.

Alice Walker, in her book In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, coined the term “womanist,” derived from “womanish,” a Black folk expression of mothers to female children suggesting being grown and responsible. Walker wrote, “Womanist is to feminist as purple is to lavender.” Womanism and womanist theology focus on the triple oppression of racism, sexism, and classism that Black women experience. Womanism and womanist theology center the life experiences of Black women while working for the wholeness of all people and all creation.

The Gathering, A Womanist Church tells the story of the birth and ongoing development of this womanist faith community. Rev. Kamilah writes of moving from Memphis to Dallas to pursue a PhD in Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School, and looking for a church where she could live out her call to preach and that didn’t place limits on her daughter, Anaya. They visited numerous churches, but didn’t hear “sermons that included social justice issues and that lifted women in the biblical text or in current times.” She and Dr. Irie decided they would “have to create the table where they wanted to sit.”  The Gathering is unique, the only church founded and identified as “womanist,” applying womanist theology to the full life and worship of a church. As one of the co-pastors of this new model of church, Dr. Irie realized she was in a perfect position to study womanist ecclesiology to understand more about how The Gathering could thrive. With a grant from the Louisville Institute, she explored questions such as: “How can a womanist ecclesiology empower Black clergywomen to partner in shaping communities that resist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy and liberate the oppressed?”

The book on The Gathering includes personal narratives of people transformed in this community. Alexandria McLemore, volunteer coordinator and ministry partner of The Gathering, writes:

I have never felt more affirmed in a spiritual dwelling in my entire life. Every single aspect of my personhood as a Black woman is continually rendered visible each week at The Gathering. Having Black women leading a womanist church in a white supremacist, sexist society is inspirational, aspirational, and subver­sive. Each church service I’m revived with a renewed sense of self and my role within the overall liberation of marginalized people. It’s as if I’m a completely new person. I’m so blessed to be a part of a revolutionary, spiritual movement.

Rev. Winner Laws, who started her journey with The Gathering as a ministry partner and later became minister of congregational care and spiritual support, writes about how the church affirmed her as she claimed her call to be a womanist preacher.

As a Black lesbian Christian woman, I refuse to be silenced about my sexual orientation. I know God loves me because She created me, and I love myself enough to know that my dignity and self-worth have never been in question because I know God knows everything about me. I feel affirmed and compelled to tell others in the community through womanist preaching of God’s uncon­ditional love for us all. The wisdom and knowledge shared through womanist preaching is life-affirming and liberating.

The book includes stories of other ministry partners: Diana Clark, Nommo Diop, Olivia Gray, Phil Lucia, Vontril McLemore, Rev. Ruth Schulenberg, and me.

The Gathering, A Womanist Church features the prophetic, liberating womanist sermons of the co-pastors. In some worship services Dr. Irie and Rev. Kamilah do what they call “tag-team” preaching, both delivering short sermons, one after another. Tag-team preaching il­lustrates their equal partnership, providing a model for an egalitarian com­munity. On the first anniversary of The Gathering, they drew from the text about the prophet Huldah (2 Chronicles 34) to preach tag-team sermons titled “Why Womanist? Why Now?”

Here’s an excerpt from Rev. Kamilah’s sermon.

 “I believe there were some things Huldah had seen, heard, and experienced as a woman prophet living in a society filled with what we now call PMS—patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism. Huldah had some insight. She could see some things that the men did not and sometimes could not see and had some experiences with God her male counterparts did not have.
I get that as Black women in this country, there are some things we’ve experienced that no man has ever had to endure, no matter their race. There are things that Black women endure that other women do not, and that is where womanism begins, but it is not where it ends. People will say it’s just about women or just about Black women, and that’s not true. Womanism is centered in the life experiences of Black women, but woman­ists are committed to the survival of all people. That’s right, ALL people. In that commitment we recognize that living at the intersection of racism, sexism, and classism our entire lives gives us experiences that allow us to often see things others can’t. We have conversations with God that others don’t. The issue is that for so long there have been those who want to reject our experiences as if our truth is a lie.
God still has a word of liberation, a word of hope, a word of love for you, and those words are coming through the bodies of womanists. God has been speaking through women throughout time. God spoke through Huldah, God spoke through Mary Magdalene, and God is still speaking. Are we listening?

Here’s an excerpt from Dr. Irie’s sermon.

What I think is most important is not why the prophet Huldah was consulted, but that she was the go-to prophet in a critical moment in Judah’s history. And, that her voice was heard and she was believed.
What would it look like if Black women’s voices were heard and believed? I use Black women in a general sense, understanding that Black women are not monolithic—we do not all think the same, act the same, believe the same, or theologize the same. So, generally speaking, what would it look like if the prophetic utterances of Black preaching women and their ways of interpreting the biblical text were taken seriously rather than marginalized? What if the church, the academy, and larger society made central Black women’s ways of knowing?    
Why Womanist? Because when we look back, it’s clear to us that the Black woman is and has always been the most disrespected woman on the planet.
Why Womanist? Why Now? Because we will get the RESPECT we deserve or we’ll leave the table—wherever it is.
Why Womanist? Why Now? Because when we look back, we remem­ber that God has fortified us with the strength, the tenacity, the internal equipment, and the ancestral legacy to Still Rise.
Why Womanist? Why Now? Because the church, the academy, and the larger society need Huldahs who have the ear of God. We need Huldahs who can interpret the words in the BOOK in a manner that elicits a resis­tance to every power and principality that keeps us from becoming the beloved community.
Why Womanist? Why Now? Well, why not?

We are indeed grateful to people who have affirmed our book. Here are excerpts from their commendations.

From the Foreword by Rev. Dr. Frederick Douglass Haynes, III, Senior Pastor, Friendship-West Baptist Church, Dallas, Texas

            “The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies tells the phenomenal and unfolding story of this radical, unortho­dox, powerful, compassionate, and loving community. This book is a page-turner that provides an enlightening primer of womanist theology, while testifying to the process of building a womanist church. This book is fire, and the sister authors are fierce. For those who are in ministry, this book will challenge you and inspire you to engage in radical ministry informed by womanism. If you have given up on the church because you’ve been wounded by the church, this book will offer you healing and hope.

From the Preface by Rev. Dr. Phillis Isabella Sheppard, Associate Professor of Religion, Psychology, and Culture, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Nashville, Tennessee

            “The Gathering, A Womanist Church is a space that embodies its public pastoral theology in song, protest, welcome, worship, and spiritual practices. It takes seriously the need to dismantle the idea that the faith community is to be found solely within the four walls of a building. A womanist public theology stretches itself into the local community and beyond—indeed, into the reaches of cyberspace. The book that Irie Lynne Session, Kamilah Hall Sharp, and Jann Aldredge-Clanton have written is a gift for those who take womanist theology and womanist care seriously. Their commitment to careful theological reflection and a welcoming eccle­siology is evident in their worship and their writing. They have made the vision of womanist church an embodied reality and, therefore, invite others to do the same. I hope others will too.

Dr. Karen Baker-Fletcher, Professor of Systematic Theology, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

            The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies is the first book on womanist ecclesiology. The authors systematically answer theological and ministry questions such as: ‘What is a womanist church?’ ‘Why are womanist churches necessary?’ ‘Why now?’ ‘How does one go about creating a womanist church?’ and ‘What difference does a womanist church make to church and society?’ The Gathering is committed to a non-patriarchal, non-misogynist, and non-sexist ecclesiology. The authors demonstrate that it is possible to embody co-equality in all aspects of ecclesial structure, from its co- pastors and partners in ministry to the community in order to empower all people. The authors share their scholarly knowledge and experiences of womanist church, biblical exegesis, sermons, and litanies to demonstrate that womanist church is a living reality and that the time for womanist churches to multiply is now.

Rev. Dr. Tamara E. Lewis, Assistant Professor, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University

            “This thought-provoking and inspiring resource details the genesis and development of The Gathering; presents research findings of other womanist-centered, cutting-edge religious organizations; and outlines the practical steps in establishing a womanist-based ministry. The authors demonstrate convincingly that Christian ministries steeped in the experiences of Black women embody the physical manifestation of liberation and womanist theological scholarship. Further, they show that womanist ecclesiology leads to the spiritual healing and transformation of those oppressed and downtrodden by white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal capitalist society. The Gathering, A Womanist Church portends the hope and future of Christianity for such troubling and challenging times as these.

Rev. Dr. Katie Hays, Lead Evangelist, Galileo Church, Forth Worth, Texas, and author of We Were Spiritual Refugees: A Story to Help You Believe in Church

            “When you try something really hard, and you feel God’s windy Spirit at your back, and it works, you want to shout it to the whole world: ‘Look what God will do! Alleluia!’ The women of The Gathering, with the Spirit’s help, have done something really hard, and so beautiful. This book is their alleluia, and all of us with ears to hear are blessed by it. Shout it from the mountaintops, sisters!

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