By Gabby Cudjoe-Wilkes,
To be a millennial woman of African descent in ministry and religious studies, is to be a woman who is not starting from scratch. As the daughter of a black woman preacher, the younger sister of a black woman preacher, and a ministerial staff member of a black woman co-pastor; I have had the honor of knowing intimately, the journeys of black women who preach (as Traci Blackmon names it). I am well aware, that my existence stands on the shoulders of women who have gone before me and entered spaces where they were not welcomed. To be a millennial woman of African descent, is to be born of a rich history of women who have cultivated faith traditions, made ways out of no ways, held families together and kept the doors of their respective churches open whether they have been leaders in the church by name or not. To be a millennial woman of African descent in ministry is to continue the work of my fore-mothers; not just the generations immediately before me; but to continue the work of women like Jarena Lee, Sojourner Truth and others.
When I talk to preaching women who are twenty and thirty years my senior, I’m often told by them that they somehow, some way, stumbled into preaching. For many of them, it was a second career calling – not necessarily something that they always knew they would do. Unlike preaching men of the same age, who speak of feeling “called” to ministry at the young ages of 15 and 20; preaching women who have gone before me, tend to name that it was not until their thirties or even forties, that they began to preach and to pursue theological education. While this is not everyone’s story, it is a common story. Many of these women, explored their theological call alongside having already taken on the duties of being a mother, wife, career-woman, and more. Their journey was one that required multi-tasking and was typically informed by a multi-disciplinary approach to preaching and scholarship. These women not only multi-tasked, but they created their own platforms and conferences to uplift and inform their fellow women in ministry. They were trailblazers in their denominations and in the academy; naming that there must be a theological underpinning that addresses, as Delores Williams would name it – the tridimensional reality of being a black woman in America. The intersectionality of race, gender, and class would always be the lens by which the black woman saw the world. These brave women offered their voice in the midst of countless male preachers and professors who were speaking for them. These women decided to speak for themselves.
This is the legacy that we, millennials inherited. As a result, younger women took notice of their fore-mothers in ministry. Younger women saw that it was possible, for them to preach and teach. As a result, millennial women have populated seminaries and divinity schools across the nation; many of these women receiving their theological education right after their undergraduate training. We have seen millennial women approach the ministry and the academy as career paths; ensuring that they have mentors; Masters’s and Doctoral level theological training; salaries that they can live on; ordinations; professorships; and more. Millennial women seek not only gender diversity, but leadership roles for women. We seek, not just one or two spaces for women, but numerous opportunities for women to lead in a compensated fashion in the church, academy and society. Not visiting professorships alone, but tenure, decision making power, and more.
This is the work of the millennial womanist. She is building on the legacy of her fore-mothers but she is seeking to do things her way now that she is “in the room.” With this legacy, comes a certain element of confidence and awareness that the millennial womanist is unwilling to turn off. The millennial womanist has had the same theological training as her black male counterparts, often-times outnumbering them in the seminary classroom. She is equally qualified if not more, than her black male colleague, to serve the church and the academy; yet she is often faced with black women and men who still give priority to men in these positions; simply because they are male.
Millennial womanism suggests that the black woman who has been trained for her work, will not allow herself to work for anyone who refuses to minister to or teach about the voices that have been silenced in the bible, in our communities, and in our world. Furthermore, the millennial womanist will not allow any employer, colleague or spiritual mentor to silence her, because of her gender or her boldness. She expects fair and equitable compensation for her work and refuses to work in spaces of exploitation.
I stand in the tradition of womanists who came before me, and I am committed to seeing the overlooked voices of women in our society to be heard. In my work as an associate minister and divinity student, I am committed to amplifying the voices of my sisters. I am committed to quieting my own voice, so that the diversity of my sisters can be uplifted. Though I am married to a black male preacher, I am committed to hearing the voices of women as distinct from their male clergy partners. I am committed to paying attention to what God has to say to those women who are living in the wilderness of their lives, struggling to survive. I am committed to preaching sermons that liberate, not ones that bind. As a result, wherever I go, I now ask this question – where are the women and what are their stories? I can find out all I need to know about an individual, institution, corporation, or organization, by finding out how they treat their women. And because I am a millennial woman who is not starting from scratch, I must open up even more space, for the women coming behind me.
Minister Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes serves on the pastoral staff of The Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of New York. She is bi-vocational; working also as a brand strategist and events specialist. She has worked as a publicist for gospel music artists such as Mary Mary and Jonathan McReynolds. Gabby holds a B.A. in Public Relations from Hampton University, a M.A. in Music Business from New York University, and is currently pursu-ing her Master of Divinity at Yale University. She is the 2016/2017 President of the Yale Black Seminarians and the 2016/2017 Yale University John Magee Fellow for Social Justice & Public Change. She recently led a 7-person delegation to the city of Flint to advocate for clean water and environmental justice.
Gabby is the 2016 recipient of the Guy R Brewer Religious Leadership Award and was recently featured with her husband in an April 2016 Essence Magazine article on love and ministry. She is a contributing writer alongside some of the nation’s leading faith leaders, to the newly released book (2017): Mr. President: Interfaith Perspectives on the Historic Presidency of Barack H. Obama. She resides in Harlem, NY with her husband. Follow her @GabbyCWilkes
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