The New Normal: Women Are Moving from the Church to Elected Office

News
By Hannah Critchfield 5-02-2017
Chemberly Cummings, being sworn in as member of the Normal Town Council. Photo courtesy Chemberly Cummings.

There’s much to be said about a town called Normal, much of which you’d expect. A lot of people work in insurance. Most people go to church. As you might have guessed, it’s pretty white. The annual Corn Festival each autumn is a big deal. If there’s a presidential debate coming up on TV, there’s a good chance most people don’t know about it, and if you do, you probably don’t talk about it with your coworkers or friends. A lot of the same stories get told in a place like this.

Here’s one you might not have heard: When Arlene Hosea’s mother came to Normal, Ill., in the 1930s, she could not use a public swimming pool unless it was specifically designated as “colored.” This month, her daughter will take office as a Normal Township Trustee — the first person of color to ever hold the position. Arlene, the recently retired director of Illinois State University’s dining services, is one of two black women to have run for office in the city’s local elections last month. The other, Chemberly Cummings, is also the first person of color to serve in her position — yesterday, she was sworn is as a member of the Normal Town Council.

You see, when women run, they win. Trends in this middle-America town are reflective of a national shift: Last year’s presidential election has led to a spike in women running for office. EMILY’S List, an organization that supports pro-choice Democratic women, says that more than 10,000 women have contacted them about running for public office since Nov. 8, 10 times more than reached out during the entire 2016 election cycle. And trainings are emerging all over the country in response — both Cummings and Hosea are alumni of Build the Bench, an all-day boot camp organized by Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) in February to prepare Democrats to run for local office.

And though there’s a certain sense in this part of America that religion and politics are to be kept separate, both Arlene and Chemberly spoke about the role faith had in motivating them to run.

In the fall of 2015, Chemberly was studying to get her master of divinity at a local seminary. But when she was unable to find two churches that would allow her to preach, a requirement for one of the classes she was taking, she decided to drop out rather than receive a failing grade. Discouraged, but with a passion for service, Cummings, a 34-year-old business architect, never doubted that she had a purpose.

When she heard that one of the two women on the Normal Town Council was stepping down, she began to feel it was her duty to ensure another woman held the seat. While getting signatures to be on the ballot, she learned she would be the first African American elected in any of the top three levels of local government (city manager, city mayor, and city councilmember) — then it became more necessary for her to win.

“It carried a lot of weight, what that legacy looked like,” she told Sojourners. “A lot of things are happening in your heart, because it’s exciting, but it’s also kind of heartbreaking at the same time. It’s 2017, and the township has existed for over 150 years.”

Now that she’s been elected, Chemberly continues to speak the truths she spoke in seminary, and wants all residents of the community to know she’s listening.

“I am here to make sure that every child of God knows that God is love,” she said. “I think we’ve lost that — political parties are using the Word of God as a manipulation of fear, but Jesus said, ‘What you've done for the least of these you have also done unto me.’ I strive to be a servant leader, because I’ve learned from the ultimate servant.”

Arlene Hosea’s path was a bit different. After briefly considering it, she had originally decided not to run, opting to continue serving on local boards instead.

“But then Nov. 8 happened, and for me it was devastating,” she said. “I am a descendant of slaves, so the rhetoric of the person we elected president didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t understand that, ‘Make America Great Again.’”

So she decided to run.

“I have to be honest; I really struggled with my faith because of this presidential election,” she said. “I think we all come to a point in our lives with crossroads, and this was mine — I had friends who said they were believers and still voted for 45.”

Hosea says it was Rev. William Barber II that kept her focused, reminding her of the faith her grandmothers had taught her growing up. A lifelong resident of the Bloomington-Normal twin cities, Hosea remembers her family providing meals for people who used to come up on the railroads.

“And I have to tell you,” she said, “I learned there were so many people in this community who were devastated when they woke up and found out who their president was, and they are the reason I got elected. It was a community effort. People who didn’t look like me, who aren’t my gender, and who didn’t share my faith surrounded me.”

Arlene said she is hopeful when she thinks of her five grandchildren, who are not growing up in a world where everything is separate and unequal.

“Martin Luther King Jr. left behind a blueprint; we can pick up where he left off,” she said. “This is what I hope for with my election — that people can look at me as a role model of what it means to be a representative of the whole community, and not just some of the community. I want to see every element of this community woven into the fabric of this community — and that includes people who are on the fringe of socioeconomic status.”

So here is a new story to tell, one of hope rising like high corn stalks in late summer: Women of color are preaching beyond the pulpit in Normal, Illinois. And people are listening.

Hannah Critchfield is a freelance journalist covering the intersection of religion, gender, and political movements and the Development Assistant at National Women's Law Center.

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