Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

The Rev. Irie Lynne Session, the Rev. Dr. Kamilah Hall Sharp, and the Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton

on their book The Gathering: A Womanist Church—Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

The video recording is available to watch on YouTube here.

Introduction by Mary E. Hunt

Our WATERtalk topic today is a new book entitled The Gathering: A Womanist Church—Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies, authored by our guests Irie Lynn Session, Kamilah Hall Sharp, and Jann Aldredge-Clanton. The book was published in 2020 available from Wipf and Stock and other book sellers. We are delighted to welcome all three of you for what I am sure will be a rich learning experience for all of us. I hope participants had a chance to look at their web page and get a sense of this important and timely project.

Like all of WATER’s efforts, this WATERtalk is not simply an academic seminar. It is a way to learn in order to bring what we learn to the creation of a more just and equitable world. By learning about this model of ministry, unique and effective as it is, we can all get ideas for our own work.

I turn now to introductions and a warm welcome to our speakers.

Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session is co-pastor of the Gathering, A Womanist Church. She describes herself as a Spiritual Entrepreneur, and Chief Illuminator of DreamBig Courses, Coaching, Content, & Consulting. She holds a master of divinity with a certificate in Black Church Studies and doctor of ministry in prophetic preaching and transformative leadership.

Rev. Kamilah Hall Sharp is a St. Louis, Missouri native currently residing in Texas with her spouse, Nakia, and daughter, Anaya. She is a co-pastor of The Gathering, A Womanist Church in Dallas and a PhD candidate in Biblical Interpretation-Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School. Kamilah holds a bachelor of science in business economics, a master of divinity, and a juris doctor degree.

Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton, an ordained minister and author, is co-chair of Equity for Women in the Church, ministry partner of The Gathering, adjunct professor at Richland College, and co-leader of New Wineskins Community. Her books include Praying with Christ-Sophia, Changing Church, and Inclusive Songs for Resistance & Social Action. Many WATER people will recognize her from earlier WATERtalks, most recently the program about the book entitled Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends which she co-authored with Kendra Weddle. You can find that program on our website under WATERtalks: December 2020.

            These three authors say of their book: “A womanist church has great power to transform church and society, primarily because womanist theology centers the experiences of Black women while working for the survival and wholeness of all people and all creation. Experiences of the triple oppression of racism, sexism, and classism give Black women an epistemological insight into recognizing injustice and creating solutions that benefit all. The Gathering is unique, the only church founded and identified as ‘womanist,’ applying womanist theology to the full life and worship of a church. The Gathering, a womanist faith community in Dallas, Texas, welcomes all people to partner in pursuing racial equity, LGBTQ equality, and dismantling PMS (patriarchy, misogyny, and sexism), following Jesus in liberating the oppressed and lifting up the marginalized.”

Here is how we at WATER blurbed the book on our What We’re Reading page: “How exciting to see womanist ministers and theologians creating communities in which to live out their rich insights and commitments. This volume offers the practical aspects like preaching, the challenges of developing groups, and the fruits of this new, emerging approach to church. Hats off to them!”

This past weekend was the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership-sponsored conference entitled “The Hinges Upon which the Future Swings: The Living Legacy of Womanism As a Gateway to Our Future(s).”  It was an extraordinary event which I hope will get widespread coverage. The Gathering looks like one of those hinges on which our future swings.

Rev. Dr. Session, Rev. Sharp, and Rev. Dr. Aldredge-Clanton

Rev. Kamilah Sharp
The Gathering tells the story of the church, The Gathering, written by both the co-pastors and ministry partners

  • It’s important to tell your own story because if someone else tells your story, it might not end up looking like your story
  • To share what have learned and provide information on womanist ecclesiology
    • Dr. Irie found writings on feminist ecclesiology but not womanist ecclesiology
  • Partnering with God and each other to do this work together – in a nonhierarchical way
    • Important to tell story as a community
  • Womanist: “From womanish. A Black feminist or feminist of color. From the Black folk expression of mothers to female children, ‘you acting womanish,’ i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior…Responsible. In charge. Serious.” – Alice Walker from In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens (Harcourt, 1983)
  • Womanism isn’t just a discourse; it’s a way of life, a practice
  • Living out what one believes in womanism opened up world and affirmed life
  • Womanism is communal, including care for everybody
  • Black women’s daily existence lives in the intersection of white supremacy, sexist patriarchy, and racism – there is liberation for all people coming from this intersection
  • When Rev. Sharp got to Dallas to pursue PhD in Hebrew Bible, set on womanist project
    • She was looking for a church and couldn’t find one
    • At many churches women, were not allowed to preach or were going through transition/change of pastors
    • Couldn’t find a space that spoke to entire person
  • So Irie and Kamilah decided to have a womanist “Seven Last Words” Good Friday service, seven minutes by seven womanist preachers on the seven sayings of Christ from the cross
    • People loved it and wanted more but didn’t have a place to refer people to
  • Told by partner: “You should plant a church.”
    • No, Kamilah didn’t want to be a pastor and was in the middle of first year of course work
  • Conversation began on what a womanist space would and could look like
    • What are the things we care about and that people should hear about?
      • Racial equity: Eliminate white supremacy (one womanist sermon at a time)
      • PMS: Dismantling Patriarchy, Misogyny, and Sexism
      • LGBTQIA+ affirmation and equality
    • In this conversation, saw strengths in each other that worked well together and could do it as a team
  • Social Justice focus to bring about transformation wanted
  • “Okay, let’s try this”
    • One hour “Worship Experience” – a space, community, for people to come and enjoy womanist preaching
    • Found permanent nesting community/space
    • Decided to do it on Saturday to fit into the rest of church services, especially for people in ministry who want places to worship where they’re not working
    • Format: 1 hour Saturday service, weekly communion, womanist preaching, and a “Talk Back to the Text” time
  • Talk Back to the Text
    • So people can respond, ask questions, put wrestling and reflecting out in the open
    • Want people to recognize that asking questions and questioning God/the Bible is important
    • Became best part of the service that people love
  • Appealing to people hurt by church, so meet in fellowship hall to feel more removed from tradition; sat in circle to make it communal
    • People kept showing up (running joke, “Is this the week people won’t show up?”)
    • Out of necessity, had to move space to sanctuary
    • Worried people wouldn’t like that
    • But they loved it: even people hurt by church want to be in church
    • That’s when it felt like it “Became Church” – the first womanist church
  • Embraced online presence via Facebook Live
    • Already used to virtual service before Covid hit
  • A lot of members are pastors and ministers
    • They need a space to be fed, also, and have womanist preaching

Rev.  Dr. Irie Session
The Gathering is a model of womanist ecclesiology.

  • Once The Gathering became church, did a lot of thinking about the “theological underpinning of what we were doing”
    • Familiar with work of Letty M. Russell, Church in the Round: Feminist Interpretation of Church, as well as Introducing Feminist Ecclesiology by Natalie Watson, etc.
      • “But we weren’t feminists, we were womanists”
      • Couldn’t find any writing/material on a womanist ecclesiology
      • What does it mean and look like when Black womanist women who hold a particular perspective do church and are church?
  • Wants this to be a legacy, a way Black clergy women can create their own spaces
    • There are very few Black clergy women who are pastors of thriving, established, growing congregations
    • Should they be called to create a womanist space/church, The Gathering is a model
  • The Gathering as a strategy for resistance to White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy (bell hooks) – all the ways Black women are threatened in society
  • Grant from Louisville Institute – Pastoral Study Project grant
    • Goal: discover what it means to be and to pastor and to create a womanist church – what are the components?
    • Met with womanists who pastor churches that are out of the norm, non-traditional, that modeled the womanist tenants of radical subjectivity, critical engagement, traditional communalism, and redemptive self-love
    • Opportunity to travel to these churches and meet with Jacqui Lewis at Middle Collegiate Church (NYC), Maisha Handy at Rize Community Church (Atlanta), Lewa Farable: A Gathering (St. Louis), Melva Sampson with Pink Robe Chronicles
  • Practical Womanism – what doing at The Gathering: took womanism out of the academy and made it flesh and blood, living it out
    • Definition: “The performance of a womanist hermeneutic in the everyday lived experience of Black women in order to resist oppression in its myriad manifestations and to facilitate communal flourishing and wholeness for all people.” – Rev. Dr. Irie
    • g. concerned about equity and justice, so visited the Texas Capitol with concerns about voter suppression; gathering around and standing in solidarity with transgender woman in Dallas who was brutally attacked
    • Combine social justice with charity: Loaves and Fishes kitchen to provide home-cooked meals to people in downtown Dallas
  • A Constructive Framework – six characteristics of a Womanist Ecclesiology:
    • Artistically expressive: art takes a priority with intentional graphics and colors and expression: dance, poetry, music, etc.
    • Social Justice orientation in trying to affect systems of oppression
    • Communal Christology: salvation/transformation is communal; seeing Christ out in the streets and following a Jesus who is concerned with what is going on outside the temple; concern for survival of everyone
    • Organically trauma-informed: looks at what has happened to a person rather than what a person has done, looking at their whole life and approaching from a listening and learning perspective
    • Universal God: God is the God of all people, employing traditional African religion experiences
    • Womanist preachers as primary proclaimers: there’s a particular way that womanists interpret the Biblical texts that is necessary and transformative
  • A Womanist Ecclesiology: “ways of thinking theologically about doing and being church that take into account the norms, practices, ethics, wisdom, survival strategies, and lived experience of Black women which lead to the liberation and thriving of all people.”

Rev. Dr. Jann Aldredge-Clanton
The ministry partner stories in The Gathering:

  • “Though my reasons for going to The Gathering at first were to facilitate collaboration with other groups and to do justice work by using my white privilege to support the womanist mission, I soon realized I needed The Gathering for my healing and growth” from white supremacist culture. –Jann Aldredge-Clanton
  • “Womanism helps me live into my call in ways that are authentic and unique to my identity as a Black lesbian Christian preacher…I refuse to be silenced about my sexual orientation. I know God loves me because She created me.” – Rev. Winner Laws (now minister of Congregational Care and Spiritual Support)
  • “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.” – Alexandria McLemore, had quit going to church because had felt so excluded in other churches
  • “At The Gathering, it was so edifying for me to see scholarly, wise, and emboldened women crossing the border. Unapologetically Black women speaking truth to power from the pulpit was unbelievable.” – Vontril McLemore, mother of Alexandria, so excited that daughter was going to church with her
  • “The Gathering has helped me form my identity as a man and as an African. Meeting with these powerful women in discussion about the practice of racism and sexism, I realize that womanists are trying to reach men in a different way, as well as empowering women to be the best that they can be.” – Nommo Diop
  • “With time and repetition, this straight white man has come to understand better that the vision of womanism includes healing and wholeness for all people of any racial identity, of any or no gender, of any or no sexuality.” – Phil Lucia

Q&A Discussion

  • Important groups to also remember as needing a church: spouses of pastors, whose pastor is their spouse and they need another worship community, another source of pastoral care
  • Talk Back to the Text, as a way of countering traditional hierarchy of church
    • A way of womanist transformation
    • Brought the lectern to floor-level to be on the same level as the people
    • At first difficult to get people to open up since they’re not used to that model
    • Really have to know your stuff – people are asking real questions
    • Seeing people’s lives and seeing how what is said is connecting to their lives
    • Divinity schools and theological settings will learn from this
    • Made to feel so welcome that felt open to asking questions, and those questions so well-received and well-answered
    • Children also participating, empowering them to learn and ask their questions
    • “Huge relief to God”
  • Inclusive, ungendered language about God
    • Part of womanist ecclesiology
    • If do use gendered language, it’s balanced, both Mother and Father
  • Children and teenagers brought alongside
    • Sit in the same service, not separate
    • Experience more than would in a separate service
    • Invited and encouraged to participate in service and outreach
  • The Gathering is for everybody, and Black women have a particular link/lens/strategy that others don’t and that need to be listened to and followed
    • Black Lives Matter is the window into resisting oppression
    • We’re in an incredibly difficult moment in history
      • Praying for Chauvin trial decision, no matter what it will be, the outcome will shake us all
  • Came to The Gathering out of difficulty and disillusionment with the evangelical church: one of the pillars of The Gathering being come as you are, whoever you are
  • To Rev. Dr. Irie: Work as a spiritual entrepreneur intersecting with The Gathering ministry and vision
    • Being a spiritual entrepreneur is a strategy to be able to do this work
    • Can’t do this work full-time, so helping augment that income via her business: DreamBig Courses, Coaching, Content, & Consulting
    • Response to racial oppression experienced in secular, nonprofit world for many years – listened to God and excavated latent skills to make a living
    • Coaching, leading anti-racism training, adjunct professor to continue “to do the work my soul must have” (Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon)
      • “Having the soul my work must have” (Dr. Stacy Floyd-Thomas)
      • Holding in tension the social justice work that needs to be done and the imbalance of pay to the WOC doing that work
      • The importance of paying people for their work
    • Amazing the things women will do in order to do ministry
    • Believe and have faith that if we’re doing the work God wants us to be doing, we will have what we need
    • Dream is that this book is going to become a best-seller and help support The Gathering, spreading visibility
    • Ministry partners active in helping raise funds
      • “This is the work my soul longs for”
  • Other womanist churches starting around the country?
    • Part of the purpose of the book: spreading the word to help start other womanist communities
    • You can bring up your own chair to the table, but sometimes you just need a new table
      • Sharing with people how to build a new table
    • Gathering in St. Louis started a week after The Gathering in Dallas – saw us stepping out/up and took courage from us
      • Seeing what we’re doing is giving encouragement and empowering them to do something different and new
  • Noticed at the recent Cannon Center conference that there were active Muslim and Buddhist womanists – Do you know of womanist mosque or synagogue?
    • Kamilah: Engaging with womanist Muslim and Buddhist work as PhD student but not directly through The Gathering
  • How to be an ally to womanists
    • Use the word co-conspirators – working alongside with us
    • **Have to be able to let a Black woman lead and follow a Black women’s leadership**
    • Centering Black women’s experience but take other perspectives into consideration
    • Have to be ready to be uncomfortable/sit in discomfort
    • Use privilege to make others uncomfortable in bringing about change
    • Offer up skills that can be used
    • Hearing Black womanists preach every week is a transformative, healing experience
  • Vontril McLemore, from the chat:
    • Practical womanism will eradicate PMS! Flourishing and wholeness for ALL people through practical womanism!!
    • Thanks to all you privileged co-conspirators for your willingness to think and envision a fresh worship experience!! Our privileged co-conspirators are with us because they too are sick and tired of PMS!!
    • The epitome of Womanism: utilizing all you are to achieve soul-elevating results!!
    • The Gathering’s Ministers are intentional about living their purpose driven lives of service, while constructing the beloved community!!

Closing by Mary E. Hunt

Deep thanks to the Rev. Dr. Session, the Rev. Sharp and the Rev. Dr. Aldredge-Clanton for this look into a creative project that is bearing abundant fruit. Please consider getting and using the book The Gathering: A Womanist Church—Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies for your class or study group.

Thank you for joining. We wish you safe and healthy days ahead, vaccines when you can get them, and an enjoyable rest of your day.

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Related and Referred to Resources