11 Women Shaping the Church | Sojourners

11 Women Shaping the Church

Every International Women’s Day, Sojourners has the honor and challenge of selecting the women who are most inspiring us in the ways they are leading the church, and through it, the world. This year’s group of women includes pastors and artists, professors and activists, lawyers and painters. Collectively, they are shaping the church into a more inclusive, daring, honest, and action-oriented community of believers. We thank them for it. Below, learn why their work is so important, and pray along with these leaders as you receive their blessings for 2019.

1. Austin Channing Brown

Austin Channing Brown is a storyteller committed to exploring the intersections of racial justice, faith, and black womanhood through her writing, lectures, and workshops. When she released her first book in 2018 I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, it shot to the top 20 of Amazon’s bestsellers list.

Follow her @austinchanning.

Why is your work so important right now?

I think the work of writing and speaking toward racial justice is no more important now than it has been in the past. I join the legacy of Sojourner Truth who spoke against the racial injustice of slavery. I join the legacy of Ida B. Wells who wrote against the injustice of lynching. I join the legacy of Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, Pearl Cleage, who wrote against the invisibility of black women. My desire is only to continue the legacy, right now in 2019, when black women are still fighting for our experience, our wisdom, our creativity to be seen and celebrated.

A blessing for 2019:

May we learn to honor the inherent beauty of blackness and all the ways it continues to change the world.

2. Rachael Denhollander

Rachael Denhollander is a lawyer, former gymnast, and the first person to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse. Over 250 former gymnasts followed her lead. She has gone on to use her platform and expertise to urge the church to better support survivors and work to prevent further abuse. In December, Sports Illustrated named Denhollander their “Inspiration of the Year.”

Follow her @R_Denhollander.

Why is your work so important right now?

There are countless survivors in our midst — silently watching, silently observing, learning from our words and actions exactly what we think of them. Too often, the message they receive in the church is that they are not important — or not as important as the reputation and financial security of leaders or institutions, not important enough to disrupt business as usual. My message for the church is simple: "How we respond to abuse matters." It will either be a demonstration of the gospel, of the self-sacrificial, courageous love of Christ that says, "You are worth everything," or it will drive survivors away from the church and reinforce a perspective that the church is full of hypocrites who are running a business. Christians desperately need to learn to "adorn the gospel" in this area, and I'm thankful that God has given me the opportunity to help in this work.

A blessing for 2019:

My prayer for the church is that we will repent where we have gone wrong without at the same time succumbing to the temptation to abandon the truth. I pray that as we collectively face our own failures and have our own paradigms called into question, that we would be driven further into God's wisdom, not away from it. A proper response to abuse can only be truly found in the determination to love others; my prayer is that love for God, love for our neighbors, and a determination to act courageously for the truth would surpass the temptations to love power, money, respect, or political influence.

3. The Very Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas, Ph.D.

Kelly Brown Douglas is a leading voice in the development of womanist theology. Her book Sexuality and the Black Church: A Womanist Perspective was the first to address the issue of homophobia within the black church community. She is the inaugural Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and also serves as the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral.

Follow her @DeanKBD.

Why is your work so important right now?

The very soul of our nation is a stake right now. And as dean, and a priest, I must raise my voice against the narratives, systems, and structures of injustice in our society that stand in opposition to God's Just Earth. Our nation seems to lack the moral leadership that would help it to live into the “better angels” of who we declare ourselves to be as a people committed to liberty, justice, and freedom for all. Instead, our administration holds a vision that fosters the criminalization of black people, the sexualization of women, the dehumanization of immigrants, and the nullification of transgender persons. This violent vision violates the very sacred humanity of God's creation and theological seminaries have a special responsibility to provide the kind of ethical leadership — not only in how we train students but in our public witness and advocacy — that can bring us closer to a Just Earth.

A blessing for 2019:

O loving God of freedom and justice, we pray that our hearts, filled with your life-giving Spirit, may be moved so that the barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we must live in justice and peace. (Adapted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer)

4. Kathy Khang

Kathy Khang is a writer, speaker, and yoga teacher who worked in campus ministry for more than 20 years. She is the author of Raise Your Voice and co-author of More Than Serving Tea. She blogs at www.kathykhang.com, and partners with other writers, pastors, and Christian leaders to highlight and move the conversation forward on issues of race, ethnicity, and gender within the church.

Follow her @mskathykhang.

Why is your work so important right now?

It may be 2019, but there is so much to be done — stories and perspectives to be shared and elevated to make sure women and girls are seen and valued in the church the way God sees and values us. I am also mindful as a Korean American woman, the generations I help hold and make space for are for my benefit and the blessing of the whole church. Representation matters.

A blessing for 2019:

Jesus will make a way for you — for us — just as he did for the bleeding woman whose faith healed her. We may be full of fear and trembling, but Jesus will make a way for our stories to be heard, told with our own voices, in places we have been told we do belong, our faith to be shared, to be freed from our suffering and to go and be in peace.

5. Pastor Gricel Medina

Gricel Medina was awarded the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from CBE International (Christians for Biblical Equality) for her advocacy for women at all levels of leadership in and outside the church. She is an ordained pastor to Word and Sacrament with the Evangelical Covenant Church and is the first Hispanic to serve two terms as the Chairperson of the ECC commission on Biblical Gender Equality (CBGE). Pastor Medina has written for several widely distributed Spanish and English magazines and devotionals.

Follow her @pastorgricel.

Why is your work so important right now?

Hierarchy teaching begins early within the home with different rules for females. It is alarming how domestic violence continues to rise in many of our communities. Violence and abuse cross all boundaries of race, ethnicity, culture, economic status, and educational levels. We see the subjugation of women at work, at home, and in the church. Education is the key for the church to see the correlation with patriarchy. A community where women are depreciated is one that threatens the solidarity of all humanity.

A blessing for 2019:

O God, may we never forget the many ways women have touched our lives.
The women who lament
The women who suffer with us
The women who sing songs of deliverance
The women who support us financially and build us up spiritually.
May the memories of so many bold women be indelibly written on the tablets of our hearts.
The women who breathed life into our souls with their words of grace and mercy.
Amen and Amen.

6. Sarah Ngu

Sarah Ngu is the co-founder of Church Clarity, a crowd-sourced database of local congregations that scores churches based on how clearly they communicate their actively enforced policies around women in ministry and LGBTQ inclusion, believing “people deserve to know the truth.” Sarah is also a freelance writer, podcaster, and a leader at Forefront Brooklyn church where she co-organizes Queer Communion.

Follow her @sarahngu.

Why is your work so important right now?

I'm the co-founder of ChurchClarity.com, a database run by volunteers that holds churches accountable for disclosing their policies on their websites for LGBTQ+ people and women in leadership. Every conversation has to begin from a place of clarity where everyone lays their cards on the table, which is unfortunately all too hard to find in an age where 'hip branding' can mask 'policy.' We do what we do because we believe in giving power from institutions to people. Where there is an asymmetry of information, then there is an asymmetry of power, which creates the conditions for bait-and-switch betrayal.

A blessing for 2019:

I pray for the health of the church at large, and that it begin with an honest reckoning of where it's at, where it's come from, what it has done, and where it needs to go.

7. Whitney Parnell

Whitney Parnell is a writer, songwriter, and the founder and CEO of Service Never Sleeps, an organization that works to empower individuals and communities to catalyze social justice through service and allyship. They have trained over 1,200 allies since 2017.

Why is your work so important right now?

We are facing symptoms of a long-existing virus of systemic injustice, yet they seem particularly dire and blatant today. We want to hold society accountable for addressing this virus with a sense of urgency, and we also want to empower people with tools to make a tangible difference. I’m encouraged by how many people want to be a part of the solution towards a world of shared humanity, and our work mobilizes that energy, equips individuals to be allies in their areas of privilege, and deploys them back out into the world as collective drivers of our bridge-building “love-in-action” motto. I also think it’s important that women of color are leading this charge, and centered for the valuable strengths that we bring to this work.

A blessing for 2019:

My prayer is that we will approach this year in consideration of the world we want to see decades from now. Thirty, forty, fifty years from now, when the next generation asks us what we did during this critical time in history, I want us to be able to confidently say that we put faith into action, fought for social justice by every means necessary, built bridges not fences, and led with love. That is the movement, and this is the time for us to commit to it fully so that we can build a world where we are all be embraced for who we are, and able thrive to reach our highest potential. That is the world of shared humanity, and I want the next generation to experience that dream world due to the work that we committed to at this moment.

8. Minister Lyvonne "Proverbs" Picou

Lyvonne Picou is preacher, speaker, poet, educator, creative social entrepreneur, and an Emmy-award winning media producer. Through her organization, beautiful scars, Lyvonne promotes healthy and safe conversations around religion, sex, and blackness, in order to, ultimately, address the silence in the black church around sexual abuse.

Follow her @lyvonnep.

Why is your work so important right now?

In this age of #MeToo, #ChurchToo, and #SilenceIsNotSpiritual, it is critical that we center the voices of black women in communities of faith. According to the Black Women's Blueprint, at least 70 percent of black women are sexually abused before they turn 18-years-old. Most black church congregations are at least 85 percent women — that means that at least half of black church congregations are sexually abused as children and we need to heal and end this pandemic zealously and systematically. In this zenith moment, the church is not exempt from a radical reckoning. Jesus calls us to serve, liberate, heal, and empower.

A blessing for 2019:

Mother/Father God, thank You for the gift to speak truth to power. May Your Holy Spirit rest, rule, and abide with and among us. May we see ourselves, and each other, the way that you see us: beautiful, holy, divine. Help us to Love the way you Love, that all of Your children — of all ages, may be safe, affirmed, seen, and made whole. In the name of everything that is holy, righteous, light, and love — Asé and Amen.

9. Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

Liz Theoharis is Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II that organized the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in US history. She is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. She has spent over the past two decades organizing amongst the poor in the United States.

Follow her @liztheo.


Photo by Steve Pavey / Hope in Focus

Why is your work so important right now?

When there are 140 million poor and low-income people living in the United States, when we have fewer voting rights today than we did 54 years ago because of racist gerrymandering and voter suppression, when 15 million families can't afford water, when 53 cents of every discretionary dollar goes to the U.S. military and less than 15 cents goes to education, health care, and anti-poverty programs combined, and when a distorted moral narrative of Christian nationalism blames poor people for our society's problems, pits us against each other, and claims there is scarcity when God created abundance, we know we need a Poor People's Campaign and a moral revival in the land.

A blessing for 2019:

I offer this blessing from Isaiah 58 —

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

10. AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez

AnaYelsi Velasco-Sanchez (she/her), born in Venezuela, is an IndoLatinx mujerista working to create and agitate her way through the Latin diaspora. With a decade of faith-based community organizing experience, she now works independently—pursuing justice in an intersectional and holistic way. She works as a consultant, justice educator, writer, and visual artist in both sacred and secular spaces. AnaYelsi is the founder of En Conjunto—a collective providing support, community, resources, and collaborative opportunities to people of color working independently at the intersection of justice and spirituality.

Follow her @brwneyedamzn.

Why is your work so important right now?

I, like far too many women of color, know what it is to see organizations built on the back of my wisdom and passion, only to be set aside when my presence is no longer comfortable for the majority. The disturbing truth is the movements and entities we have created in our pursuit of liberation and justice are often the same places that use and discard the very people they were created for and are sustained by. We have so deeply internalized dominant narratives, toxic patterns, and the effects of trauma that we end up replicating them and thereby hurting one another. It's cyclical and vicious and to counter it we must begin imagining a more holistic approach to justice — meaning not just a healing approach but also an intersectional one that works across movement lines and is defined by its accessibility and sustainability. If we cannot bring all of us along what are we doing this for? What is it worth?

A blessing for 2019:

Creator, thank you for continuously calling us back to what is just. Bless us with the persistence of the widow — unyielding in our pursuit for equity for all of your creation. Grant us the wisdom and bravery to know how and when to knock down doors and slide through windows. Bring us into relationship with others that can share the burden of insistence. We ask for revelation when it comes to how best to heal both ourselves and my community. Give us the wisdom and the discipline to create practices that help to sustain us as we go about the work to which you have called us.

11. Rev. Mariama White-Hammond

Rev. Mariama White-Hammond is the founding pastor of New Roots AME Church, which launched in October 2018 to "reimagine what church can be." She is an advocate for ecological and social justice, youth engagement, and Spirit-filled organizing. As former director of Project HIP-HOP (Highways Into the Past- History, Organizing and Power), she used the arts as a tool to raise awareness for social issues from juvenile incarceration to funding for public transportation. Rev. Mariama is also a fellow with the Green Justice Coalition, where she works with working class neighborhoods and communities of color to organize for climate justice. She speaks around the country calling for a movement the unites sustainability and equity.

Follow her @RevMariama.

Why is your work so important right now?

We are at a critical moment in history where the planet is telling us that we cannot continue living as we have. On one hand it can be really scary to imagine how we are going to shift away from our consumptive lifestyle. We need to space to lament the damage we have caused, the suffering that is before us and the struggle that will be required for us to change. However, on the other side of this crisis is the amazing opportunity to live more faithful, more sustainable, and more meaningful lives as we restore our relationship with God, with our fellow humans, with other living beings and future generations. With the help of the Spirit, this emergency can allow a better humanity to emerge. That is the good news that my soul needs, and I try to pass it on.

A blessing for 2019:

O Loving Creator, who knows us better than we know ourselves and who loves us so deeply it is beyond our comprehension. God, grant us the creativity to imagine a better world — a world not driven by fear or greed but overflowing with love and beauty. Lily of the Valley, teach us how to work collaboratively — finding the amazing possibilities when we recognize the dignity of each being. Spirit, fill us with the courage to be bold and powerful in our work for peace and justice in our lives and in our world.

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