Notes from WATERtalks: Feminist Conversations in Religion Series

The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism

A teleconference with

Judith Casselberry

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

1 PM – 2 PM ET

MEH Intro: Judith Casselberry is a scholar and musician as well as an Associate Professor of Africana studies at Bowdoin College. She teaches courses on African American women’s religious lives, music and spirituality in popular culture, music and social movements, and issues in Black intellectual thought. Her recent ethnography, The Labor of Faith: Gender and Power in Black Apostolic Pentecostalism (Duke University Press, 2017), employs feminist labor theories to examine the spiritual, material, social, and organizational work of women in a New York-based Pentecostal denomination.

Professor Casselberry received her Bachelors of Music from Berklee College of Music, a masters in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University, and Ph.D. in African American Studies and Anthropology from Yale University. She has held visiting appointments at Barnard College, Vassar College, New York University, Princeton, and Harvard.

She is co-editor with Elizabeth Pritchard of Spirit On the Move: Black Women and Pentecostalism in Africa and the Diaspora in the Religious Cultures of African and African Diaspora People series with Duke University Press. She has contributed to numerous journals and edited volumes including Transforming Anthropology: the Journal of Black AnthropologistsHarvard Divinity Bulletin, and Black Perspectives. In addition to research and publishing on organized Pentecostalism, she is working on a project examining the transnational Pentecostal roots of international music icon Grace Jones and their imprint on her performance aesthetics and identity.

Judith’s interest in links between lettered and performed scholarship comes from her career as an academic and performer. As a vocalist and guitarist, she currently performs with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely, and has enjoyed a career as an international recording artist with Casselberry-DuPreé and JUCA. She has shared stages with Sweet Honey in the Rock, Odetta, Elvis Costello, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and Mavis Staples among others.

We are delighted to have you grace the WATER airwaves and hope some day to welcome you to the office. Thank you for joining us

Judith Casselberry: Thank you so much, Mary. Thanks to all the staff at WATER for making this possible. I must say that Sisterfire is celebrating their 40th Anniversary this year and there will be an event at the Smithsonian Folk Life Festival in July. I will be there in spirit.

My book is an ethnography. I don’t come from the Pentecostal tradition, so I immersed myself into the world of the denomination of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. Feminist labor theories helped me shape what I wanted to understand through this study and helped me shape the book. I wanted to understand the ways that contemporary black Pentecostal women produce spiritual authority. The denomination is a male-headed organization; women comprise about eighty percent of the active membership Embodied spiritual experience is at the center of Pentecostalism and that’s open to everyone. By sheer numbers women dominate in this spiritual authority even though they don’t have denominational authority. So I looked at how these two things worked together, and how women produce their spiritual authority and the work that they do. This led me to thinking about this in terms of labor.

Labor scholarship has developed significantly in the last thirty years. Other types of labor have been analyzed, including emotional labor. That kind of theorizing helped me to think about the work they are doing beyond the material realm. They operate in a spiritual realm. Emotional labor, intimate labor, and aesthetic labor allowed me to tap into the work they do to produce their holy black personhood, which is their goal.

The first chapter lays out their tools of faith. What are the actual tools that they bring to bear on their work? I was able study that through a devastating event in the community when a young Sister died of a brain tumor. Divine healing is central to their faith, so looking at what work the community had to do to process her diagnosis and her death gave me a window into what tools they use to practice their faith– prayer, Scripture, sermons, church services–the actual mechanics of their religious practices.

The next chapter looks at the history of the denomination. This is the first sustained study of this denomination. Others have done studies of Pentecostalism, but most have been done around Church of God in Christ. I chose this particular organization because they have been foundational to many other denominations. They have a different theological grounding than Church of God in Christ. They are a oneness church, not trinitarian. They believe that Jesus is the incarnation of God in our bodies, so it was important to look as this denominational distinction. Also, they have links to the beginnings of Pentecostalism in the 20th century in the United States. Women were pivotal to how this tradition developed, so I wanted to map how black women were central to this movement.

I looked at how women organize themselves in horizontal networks that cut across the vertical male hierarchy of the church. Men are expected to move into titled positions, move through the hierarchy to become deacons, ministers, elders, bishops, etc. They move through a formal hierarchy. If women are elevated past Sister, they become Mothers; there’s no formal organization for Mothers within the church. The only formal organizations are the Women’s Council, and the ministers’ and deacons’ wives guild. Women’s auxiliaries were in place before the male hierarchy was firmly in place. Women had been working and running this church first, so when the formal male hierarchy was put in place it was done in a way that did not disrupt the women. They operated in concert. It was important to map how they organized themselves within the church in order to get the organizational work done.

In chapter 4, I talk about women’s work and I tap into the idea of emotional labor. I look at the work women do emotionally to maintain women-driven patriarchies. They have to continually work at letting men be in leadership. They’re often too aware of what needs to be done, but have to measure how they negotiate territory to get their spiritual work done.

I also look at altar work, which is important in this church. This is the work women do at the altar to help people transition from not being saved to being saved. The labor is bringing someone to Christ, to pray someone through. This work is labor intensive, physically and emotionally. I call this intimate labor. Intimate labor takes us a bit further than emotional labor. It helps us understand when a worker has not just emotional but bodily knowledge about the person they are working with. An altar worker has to understand when someone is getting tired of praying or when they are getting filled with the spirit. An altar worker must know how to help these people on this intimate journey.

I also talk about aesthetic labor. I use this to think about the energy women spend creating the liturgical space. How do they move through the space? What do their bodies tell us about the theology of the space and within that the aesthetics of presentation and of dress?

I think we have a lot to learn from women who are committed to religious worlds and religious organizations that black feminists and other feminists may deem on its face oppressive to women. So many women around the world produce religious spaces that are considered fundamentalist and I was really interested in making a space to have conversations with these women; I think they have a lot to teach us. I wanted to bring these women into our conversations about feminism and the world. Even though we may have disagreements about what kind of a world we may want to live in, I think they teach us a lot about how to think about family, structure, community. How to think about the amount of energy that we expend and how to validate that labor. How we shouldn’t take for granted labor that takes quite a bit of energy. I think they have a lot to teach us.

I entered this world as an anthropologist and purposefully didn’t talk about belief. I did not want to discount their sacred registers. I wanted to talk about the practice and the work, and that tells us more than talking about belief.

Mary E. Hunt: Thanks, Judith. This overview of your book was very helpful. You’ve done a wonderful job of synthesizing your own work. I look forward to our conversation.

Q: Can you talk more about the role of song in the intimate labor and the relationship of music as theology and how it relates to the body?

Judith Casselberry: One thing about Pentecostalism in general, but certainly this denomination, is that song is one of the most important vehicles for transmitting theology in the sanctuary. I would say the services are probably about 80 or 90 percent music. The sermon even becomes musical. Even the instrumental offerings have theological foundations of why they’re played when they’re played. Oftentimes, songs that women generate will be reiterated or will come back through the preacher in the sermon. So a woman might get up and sing a song if moved by the spirit, and the preacher will pick up this message and fold it into his sermon. So it’s an ongoing call and response, and women are prominent in this process. Most scholarship focuses on the preacher in the pulpit, so I wanted to focus on this democratized way that call and response drives the services.

Q: How does the level of influence on the younger generation differ? Is it gender based, the women may be imparting a lot to younger generations?

JC: There were a lot of children in the church from infants up to young adults. Children are involved in all levels of church activity. The hands-on work begins with Bible study classes, Sunday school, and moves through to special youth services. When they have Women’s Council services, the early part of the day is run by young girls. There is a constant hands-on both formal and informal training in the ways of the church and church life.

Q: I have a question about your move to try to sift out belief and ideology. Much hunch is that it’s impossible or problematic to do that, in the same way it would be to look only at belief and leave out embodiment. Is there a circumscribed belief or ideology that is allowed through the songs or practices? In other words, it would not be okay to sing about Mother Goddess. Is there an ideological framework that never goes away and can’t be divorced from all these practices?

JC: Yes, absolutely. When I was saying I didn’t use the term “belief,” I was stayed away from that term as an anthropologist. I think there’s a fraught history of anthropologists using the term belief that diminishes what’s actually going on. So I do talk about the theology and ideology that sets up the practices. So I didn’t avoid talking about these, I just avoided that term “belief” because of it’s fraught academic history.

Q: I have to admit, it was a little hard for me to comprehend what the sanctuary was like or to imaginatively enter into this space because of my limited experience. As I got deeper into your piece, I really wanted to spend some time with those wise, amazing women who worked around the altar. I was overjoyed by your detailed and nuanced honoring of the incredible strength and richness in the their work. So thank you. I would think that would be a huge legacy for the younger women in the church. And I’m wondering as women gain more power, if we’re evolving toward having more public dignity and power. I wonder if there’s space within the community for young women to ask questions within the church about the structure and the gendered roles?

JC: Yes, that’s a great question. Altar work became women’s work because women set it up this way. So younger women do come into altar work and this is intentional. Men do this work too, but if a man is doing this work, he’s a minister. If women are doing the work, it’s an intergenerational network. Women become altar workers through mentoring and intentionality by the older women. The ways that women are in relationship to expanding positions outside of the church is interesting.

There’s an interesting dynamic that goes on where many women in the church have positions of authority over men outside of the church. For example, one women I wrote about was a Vice President at Chase Bank. There are other women who hold high corporate positions, women with advanced degrees, both young women and old women. They make a distinction between what I identify as patriarchy that they support and patriarchy that they resist. In the world outside of church, they believe in meritocracy. This has to do with gender and race. So in the outside world they are very progressive in terms of race and class politics because there is no theological foundation for them in the outside world to adhere to models of male leadership. There is a theological and biblical grounding for submission to men of authority and their husbands in the church and home only. So they do operate in these two different registers of inside and outside the church. That doesn’t mean women inside the church don’t push back in different ways. It’s not that women don’t want ordination, but when they do, they mostly leave the church; they don’t stay in and push from the inside. I didn’t meet any women in the church that promoted women’s ordination. One woman said “We do enough we don’t need ordination. The men can do that.”

Q: What were some of the most important things that these women taught you?

JC: They taught me a lot. The first thing that I learned was about my relationship with time. I actually had to come to grips with certain temporal realities that I came in with, certain understandings about time. I think that the way that you have to experience time in these spaces is very different than what I was used to. For example, to be able to be in a service all day on Sunday from a morning bible study to the end of the service at 7:30. That really altered how I experienced time.

I also didn’t anticipate that there would be so much humor in this space. This was eye opening to me. We have certain preconceived notions about deeply religious spaces and assume that certain things aren’t present. They have so much humor.

The other thing I learned from them was what it means to be dedicated and committed. What it means to actually make a spiritual journey your life’s work. But I learned what it means to really spend your full time and energy working toward developing yourself and a relationship with a higher power, what that work is and what it means when that becomes central to someone’s life.

MEH: I have a question about economics. Who gets paid and by whom? Where does the collection money go and who decides? I also wasn’t clear about the women’s well being when it comes for economics. So much time is spent at church, but is it remunerated? Money is an essential aspect of labor and I just wanted to know what goes on here that helps or hinders indices of poverty.

JC: The work that women do is not paid with money. They will say that their reward for their labor is not monetary. They do this in addition to working jobs. Most of the women work outside jobs; a few don’t if their spouses are making enough money. Most ministers work also. So the money that’s generated from these churches really goes back into the church. The programming, missionary work, building costs, and money for the minister to go to conventions is where the money goes. In the home church that I worked in in Queens, the pastor had done a lot of investing in real estate to give the church a strong foundation to continue after his passing. So that was something that was important in that church. So the women work as volunteers and the pastors, for the most part, are working other jobs, so they’re not drawing salaries that are living wages.

WATER thanks Judith Casselberry for her wonderful presentation. We look forward to more of her writing and music in the future.

The next WATERtalk will be with Professor Nami Kim on Wednesday July 11, 2018 from 1 PM – 2PM, “The Gendered Politics of the Korean Protestant Right: Hegemonic Masculinity.”