For women, a steep climb to the pulpit

Each Sunday, the Rev. Mary Moore stands in the pulpit at New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in south Memphis and preaches the Gospel.

When she dons her long, black robe adorned with white crosses, Ms. Moore does so with pride and determination. The path to the pulpit has been paved with chauvinism and ridicule from those, both inside and outside the African-American community, who staunchly believe women should not serve as ministers.

But because of groundbreaking black women such as Moore, churches around the United States are gradually becoming more receptive to their messages - as well as more tolerant of their race and gender.

"I didn't make the decision," says Moore. "The Lord made it for me, and I was being obedient to his calling."

And with more female faces in leadership roles, congregations are receiving spirituality with a feminine twist - more hospitality, greater openness, and a fresh point of view on the Bible.

For years many denominations, especially Southern Baptists, refused to support women in leadership roles, in part they say, because of doctrinal interpretations of the Bible.

"There is certainly a tide that is changing," says the Rev. Carla Hubbard, director of development and instructor of church administration at the Memphis Theological Seminary. "As more and more women become involved in ministering, the more we see churches that once closed their pulpits to females opening up and taking notice."

Memphis Theological Seminary officials say an estimated 15 percent of their 40 to 45 graduates each year are black women, compared with the few who entered during the 1960s and '70s.

IN THE past, women with desires to preach and minister were often afraid of coming forth. A number of churches still have strict bylaws preventing women from preaching in the pulpit, and many have faced intense sexual discrimination for their dreams of connecting with a congregation.

"From what I can tell, more women are allowing themselves to come forth," says Moore. "Many who have been called to the Lord in the past, know they have been called, but have been apprehensive about coming forth. My initial fear was, I don't want the ridicule. Now I think, women are more bold about acknowledging their wishes to minister even if they are not accepted."

Opponents of female preachers still exist. They often cite I Corinthians 14: 34-35 to support their beliefs: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience, as also saith the law."

Because of the verses' literal translation, many female ministers still face adversity when trying to gain equal footing in ministering.

Last November, the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association voted against allowing the Rev. Sybil Mitchell to join the all-male organization of about 400 men, including many influential leaders in the African-American community. Eighty-seven of them stood against her membership; 27 were in favor.

In previous interviews, the Rev. J.L. Payne, president of the ministerial association and pastor of Greater Mt. Moriah Baptist Church, has said, "I'd like for [women] to tell me where it says in [the Bible] they can [preach]."

The Rev. Gina Stewart, in March 1995, became the first woman elected to serve a black Baptist congregation in Tennessee's Shelby County. The blatant oppression of women in pastoring infuriates Ms. Stewart.

"A woman can teach Sunday school. She can be a speaker. She can even be the superintendent of Sunday school," says Stewart, now pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church. "But the problem comes when she says that she's been called to preach."

Moore completely agrees. She retells the story of showing up at a Baptist church one Sunday morning to preach after receiving an invitation from a member who hadn't consulted the pastor. The pastor didn't believe in female pastors.

Moore was allowed to deliver her sermon from the floor as if she were a speaker, but was not allowed in the pulpit. The pastor, in fact, ignored Moore and entered the sanctuary only after Moore stopped speaking.

"If women no longer were to be participants in church, what would you have? There wouldn't be ... a church standing," says Moore. "You can rest assured men aren't going to do all it takes to run a church."

For all the hardship, African-American women who want to preach the Bible do not let opposition from their male counterparts stop them. Many have left the Baptist church and organized their own churches, following in the footsteps of Dr. Barbara King, who founded the independent Hillside Chapel and Truth Center in Atlanta in 1971.

"Times are getting better," says Ms. Hubbard. "We are finding that there are places for female graduates when they leave here. African-American pastors are truly dynamic individuals who can so bless people in a congregation with their leadership."

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