April 2022 WATERtalk with Yolanda Pierce

“In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit”

with Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, April 13, 2022, 2 pm EDT

Video recording available here.

WATER is deeply grateful to the Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce for sharing her marvelous book IN MY GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE: BLACK WOMEN, FAITH, AND THE STORIES WE INHERIT, Broadleaf Books, 2021 (178 pages, $22.99). It is highly recommended for insights into Black women’s experiences and the faith of ancestors.

The Rev. Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the first woman to be named Dean of Howard University Divinity School where she is also a professor.


  1. Pierce started with a simple question: What if my grandmother was the greatest theologian I have ever known? The people who are most influential in the faith are often not represented in the people who write the theology. Her grandmother was the first person to teach her to pray and have faith, yet her grandmother was not represented in the “great theologians” she read in her formal theological education. This is not just about representation and who can do theology, but also about the way that many of us actually learned the traditions we have inherited.
  2. Her work was also influenced by the verse 2 Timothy 1:5, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also.” What kind of faith is it that it can remind Paul of other generations’ faiths as well?
  3. What is Womanist Theology?
    a. Pierce is particularly drawing on womanist theology as a theology of critique and protest, where emphasis is given to the imago Dei, and which does “grandmother theology.” This means working across the generations, drawing from the wisdom of the elders, and attending to the place that elders hold in the community. “Grandmothers” do not have to be biological grandmothers; this term encompasses anyone who brings generational wisdom to the community.
  4. Source Materials for Theological Work
    a. What are non-biblical sources for understanding how God moves in the world, particularly in the lives of Black women?

    1. Dr. Pierce draws on many sources, such as poetry, literature, cooking, quilting, and everyday life tasks such as doing laundry and caring for children. For example, she recalls looking in the refrigerator as a child and thinking that there was “nothing to eat.” However, when her grandmother looked in the refrigerator, she would use what she found to create a feast. This was her first experience of creation from nothing, long before she formally studied this theological concept.
  1. Spiritual Lineage and Inheritance
    1. Who do you number among your great cloud of witnesses?
    2. Who makes up your spiritual lineage?
    3. What inheritance will you leave to the next generation?
      1. Dr. Pierce notes that these questions of lineage and inheritance are particularly important in the aftermath of chattel slavery disrupting the handing down of generational history. Although she can only look so far back in her family tree, she can derive strength from her spiritual lineage and inheritance from recorded figures such as Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman as well. Also, in the Pentecostal church she grew up in, there was the office of Church Mother, and a Mothers’ Board. Calling these women “Mother” the way one might call a priest “Father” or “Mother” indicates their place in her spiritual lineage and their importance in shaping her faith development.
  1. Power and Agency
    a. What is the paradox of power for Black women?

    1. Dr. Pierce describes the paradox of power for Black women with these statistics: 85-90% of membership of African-American Christian churches are women, but women make up less than 15% of their leadership. However, although they lacked institutional power, women actually exercised the most power in the church where she grew up.b. Where do we locate sites of power and agency for Black women in religious spaces?
        1. Delores Williams, in her book Sisters in the Wilderness, refers to the “art of cunning.” Even without official power, women can still use their cunning to shift the discourse.
  2. Survival and Thriving
    a. Pierce lifts up the way Black women experienced forced migration from the South, and used the faith they brought with them to survive.b. She quotes Audre Lorde: “I have a real respect for survival. By survival I do not mean mere existence, which is the province of the walking wounded and the walking dead, but an active quality of living. Survival is the ability to consciously draw one breath after another, to move and to teach, and to find both the power and the joy relative to our lives. Survival means living with focus.”c. Black women found a way to not merely survive their traumatic past, but to thrive and find spaces of joy, often at church. 85% of Black women were employed as domestic workers, including Dr. Pierce’s own grandmother, and within these material conditions, they still found joy, peace, and love, and they taught them to the next generation.

    d. Delores Williams writes in Sisters in the Wilderness: “Faith has taught me to see the miraculous in everyday life: the miracle of ordinary Black women resisting and rising above evil forces in society, where forces work to destroy and subvert the creative power and energy my mother and grandmother taught me God gave Black women.”

    e. Literature often focuses on famous people: the heroes, the winners, the big names. For example, the recently appointed Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson will have many books about her, which is well-deserved. However, there are also ordinary women like Dr. Pierce’s grandmother, not highly educated or well-known, but extraordinary in their capacity to love and in their faithfulness and willingness to teach the next generation. It wasn’t easy – Dr. Pierce fought the legalism and restrictions of her childhood experience of faith. The cross-generational conversation is important. The grandmothers gave her grace in her youth, and she extends grace to them, looking back.


Q&A Discussion

  1. One colleague appreciated the quote “the art of cunning” from Delores Williams, which made them curious to hear an experience Dr. Pierce has had exercising “the art of cunning.”

Dr. Pierce replied with a story of a time she was asked to speak at a church. When she got there, the pastor of the church told her that they didn’t allow women in the pulpit; she’d have to speak from the floor. In response, she completely changed her remarks to reflect on Sojourner Truth speaking from the floor and what she accomplished. Walking out would have been one good response, but instead she used the moment to be cunning and wise. It’s not deception, but rather being artistic and wily to accomplish your goals. American Indian traditions often include stories of such cunning, as in stories of the fox’s wiliness.

2. One colleague appreciated the lifting up of the work of Delores Williams, one of the first womanist theologians, and an early colleague of WATER. Dr. Pierce said that she wants to highlight Delores Williams as a grandmother of womanist theology. Another colleague noted that Delores Williams was quoted in NYTimes coverage of the “Re-Imagining” conference as saying “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses” and subsequently vilified for her criticism of surrogacy in atonement theory (https://www.nytimes.com/1994/05/14/us/cries-of-heresy-after-feminists-meet.html).

3. One colleague commented on how her own grandmother also made her a minister and taught her faith at a young age, and referenced an address by Donyelle C. McCray, where she tells a story about Pauli Williams’s grandmother, who raised Pauli. She credits Pauli’s grandmother, Cornelia Smith Fitzgerald, for Pauli Williams’s preaching style – she would quote Scripture and rail at the neighbor for letting their cow into her garden. (https://ul.qucosa.de/api/qucosa%3A36312/attachment/ATT-0/)

4. One colleague appreciated the citation of sources beyond the traditional Wesley Quadrilateral and asked Dr. Pierce to comment further on her approach to source materials.

Dr. Pierce replied that what we often lack is Divine Imagination, rather than resources or tools. She seeks to reach more widely, more imaginatively for ways to name God, finding inspiration from ecology, environment, art, music, song, dance, rhythm. There are all kinds of source materials for theological work. When we expand our sources, we become more inclusive and more people have a stake in theological projects. Womanist scholars have always been interested in alternative spaces instead of narrowly defined traditional spaces.

5. One colleague commented that the flipside of the “art of cunning” is the “art of conning” – men usurp this power by saying “these are the channels you must walk to get from here to there.” She highlighted Dr. Pierce’s question, “What inheritance will you leave to the next generation?” These conmen that we see exercising political and social power are leaving a terrible mess for future generations to clean up.

6. One colleague noted that Dr. Pierce’s work resonates with her experience working in Latin America – theology is based in experience first. It is particularly relevant during Holy Week to note that women were the first witnesses to the resurrection because of their lived experience and ability to stay in their experience and not run away. Women bankrolled the early church. But their experiences and creativity are often dismissed in many traditions.

Dr. Pierce agreed, noting that many ordinary women cared for Jesus. There must be so many stories we don’t know because they involved women and so no one bothered to record them. Divine Imagination is a way to fill in these gaps.

7. The discussion of rules around girls’ and women’s clothing in Dr. Pierce’s book resonated with one colleague’s Catholic upbringing. In the book, Dr. Pierce discusses that the reason for these rules was not just purity and sexism, but to put other people on notice that these young women are cared for and watched out for by other members of the community.

Dr. Pierce elaborated that growing up, she thought these rules were ridiculous. Catcalling was common, but men would say of her, “Oh, she’s one of those church girls.” She was marked as someone who was cared about, someone with a community behind her, who is expected at church gatherings four days a week. Men are particularly predatory toward girls who they think don’t have a community and protection. Although she did rebel against the clothing norms after leaving for college, the protection of a community is really powerful.

Many women in the church had a lot of shame and stigma around abuse they’d experienced, but they had a keen sense of who was predatory within the church, as well. They didn’t have the language to speak forthrightly about this danger, but they were very intent on protecting the next generation from predators who were inside the church community.

8. One colleague recommended listening to the recording of a past WATER conversation with Judith Casselberry on her book The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism, which discusses how women in the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith organized themselves in horizontal groups to cut across the hierarchies of the men. (https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-labor-of-faith)

9. One colleague highlighted a recent letter from the grandmother/mother of two political prisoners in Nicaragua (https://www.confidencial.com.ni/opinion/la-carta-de-400-personas-de-fe-al-gobierno-de-nicaragua/ ), as an example of the importance of grandmothers.