By Pastor Kanisha L Billingsley,
“God looked upon the Sea of Souls and beckoned for me / As I approached the Potter’s wheel, I received my purpose /And with my purpose I was given gifts/ And with my gifts I was molded with strengths and weaknesses /Before I departed the Divine announced, “There is one more thing—you will go as a black woman…”
–excerpt from “My Naked Self: A One Wom[b]an Show” written by Rev. Kanisha Billingsley, M.Div., Th.M.
Unexpected is the first word that comes to mind when I am asked to define what it means to be a millennial woman of African descent in ministry. The reality that I am still blazing new trails in ministry as the first black woman to preach in certain arenas for particular events and the fact that black women are still making history as “the first African American Woman to [insert achievement here]” demonstrates the importance of the Womanist quest to dismantle social and spiritual oppression. Twenty-one years ago on May 24, 1996, I came home from middle-school and I wrote in my journal: “I pray that I never forget today because I think I realize part of my purpose here on earth. I think my purpose is to talk to people […] and to [lead] them to God (05.24.1996).” My then 12 year old self had the wisdom to capture the prompting within her soul. Despite not having experienced a woman as preacher or pastor, something within me assured me that my creation and commission to the Earth included a call to preach, teach, and pastor. I did not realize that my articulation of this experience as a call to ministry would be met with resistance.
Before I knew that I was a woman, I knew that I was black. My Granny, who was my paternal Grandmother, often engaged me in dialog about how the world would respond to my black body. “You have three strikes against you,” She warned, “You’re smart, pretty, and you’re black. Your smarts will take you places but only your character can keep you.” These kinds of black-preparatory conversations advanced my perception and wisdom well beyond my years. Those conversations would later help me to identify disparity in treatment that was rooted and grounded in both colorism and racism. However, I did not have the language to frame the tensions and resistance I experienced from male leaders within the black church. Looking back, I now believe my naiveté, as it related to misogynoir, allowed me to hear the call of God with certainty believing that God was indeed calling me—a young black girl who walked alone to the Baptist church.
Fast-forward through two seminary degrees, ordination, several wilderness experiences, and ten years of running away from the call to start a ministry, I am currently developing a womanist space for healing and wholeness or church if you prefer a more traditional identifier. Dream Life Fellowship is born out of my commitment to what represents the best of black church experience partnered with an intentional commitment to relational responsibility and interdependency. In fact, our mission is to create influential disciples and to empower transformative dreamers who liberate the world through greater works (John 14:12).
Whereas most ecclesial spaces are rooted and grounded in the theological claim of an original sin, Dream Life Fellowship is born out of the assertion of the original wholeness.
Whereas most ecclesial spaces are rooted and grounded in the theological claim of an original sin, Dream Life Fellowship is born out of the assertion of the original wholeness (Genesis 1: 31). As a faith community, we believe that we are born whole with need for human development but without spiritual affliction. And we define wholeness as the journey through which we live into who we are in God already. Wholeness is the process of becoming, creating, achieving and failing. This journey is often messy and sometimes miserable but our oneness with God, as guided by the lived experiences of Jesus and detailed in the Gospels, renews our strength.
I first began framing both my ecclesial and academic work from the perspective of the original wholeness during my first master’s degree. After encountering Dr. Raquel St. Clair’s seminal text Call and Consequences: A Womanist Reading of Mark, which introduces her hermeneutic of wholeness, and journeying through the writings of Howard Washington Thurman, I began asking, “What if we are whole—not perfect but sufficient and good without the slaughter of Jesus?” Several womanist voices guided me as I began analyzing the atonement theology I inherited as a youth including Drs. Canon, Townes, Terrell, Grant, Toure’ and Fry-Brown. Their works solidified the truth that remains ever relevant: Many of the –isms perpetuated within the black church are rooted in a literal reading of the biblical text, the abuse of Genesis 3, non-critical approaches to “Pauline” texts, and the dismissal of Jesus’ commitment to the well-being of women.
My academic curiosity led me to the question: What would it be like if folk were developed in a Spiritual space wherein the foundation is not original sin but original wholeness? And as I continue to journey with radical Dreamers, I am convinced that Millennial Womanism is a necessary tool for creating black church culture that takes seriously the physical, spiritual, emotional, and social needs of black women. If the black church is the home of black genius and social engagement, the Millennial Womanist is the necessary architect. We are tasked with deciding the best development option available to us: new build, remodel, renovate, or restoration. For those of us who are commissioned to pastoral leadership, we may find that launching a new ministry best suites the work we must do. Others of us will find ourselves remodeling church spaces that are open to the pains of growth and change. And then there are those of us who will do the difficult work of renovating spaces by gutting out borrowed theological anthropology that was never intended for our freedom while restoring the glory of our African heritage that can truly guide us in/to God’s love and a higher consciousness.
As we go, let us remember: Borrowed theology cannot liberate us!
Kanisha Billingsley is a scholar, creative spirit, and a visionary. She obtained a Bachelors of Arts degree in Communications Studies from Samford University. Kanisha received both a Masters of Divinity and a Masters of Theology concentrating in Homiletics from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. Her academic performance and continued commitment to ecclesial ministry led to her selection as a Leadership Fellow for The Office of Black Women in Church and Society, a Lilly endowed Program at The Interdenominational Theological Center. Most recently, she was selected as a 2015 fellow for the Black Theology and Leadership Institute at Princeton Theological Seminary. And she is currently serving as a fellow in the 2017 cohort for Parker J. Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal: Courage to Lead for Young Clergy & Community Innovators.
In addition to launching Dream Life Fellowship, Kanisha published her “fear-breaker” book: You Are God’s Dream-A Collection of Life Giving Affirmations. She also wrote and produced a spiritual-theatrical experience: My Naked Self: A One Wom[b]an Show. Her inspirational blog series: A Life Giving Moment, is now an empowering book scheduled for release in fall 2017.
Pastor Kanisha is on a life-giving journey with her supportive husband Chris C. Davis.
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