For black women at church, it’s more than the Aretha eulogy
DETROIT — A black pastor’s controversial eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral laid bare before the world what black women say they have experienced for generations: sexism and inequality in their houses of worship every Sunday.
In eulogizing the beloved artist known as the Queen of Soul, the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. declared that as “proud, beautiful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do — a black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man.”
The backlash was immediate, given Franklin’s role as a mother and a pillar for women’s rights.
Franklin’s grieving family said Williams’ eulogy, which also included references to stopping black-on-black crime, was offensive because it did not focus on her. Social media lit up with criticisms of his remarks as sexist and misogynist.
For many black women, Williams’ eulogy reopened wounds and sternly reminded them that black churches remain male-dominated institutions, where old-school resistance to women holding leadership roles is still alive.
“Women are hurting about this issue,” said the Rev. Barbara Reynolds, an elder at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Washington, D.C.
“It’s like we are still not equal. Women fight in every cause for everybody else, but we are not celebrated or even tolerated in sacred spaces,” Reynolds said.
Women not only fill the pews in many black churches, they also serve as church nurses and ushers, and work behind the scenes. Some are trustees, keeping an eye on church finances and making sure bills get paid. Others are evangelists, or are ordained as deacons. But many are denied true leadership roles — and in some cases, women are asked to deliver sermons from the church floor, rather than the pulpit.
Some male ministers “actually deeply believe that men are supposed to be in charge,” said the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes, assistant pastor for special projects at Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a sociology professor at Colby College in Waterville, Maine.
“Their reading of the Bible does not have a vision of gender equality,” Gilkes said. “Black women are very conscious of how important they are to the survival, growth and continuity of the church. Very often, to become effective, prominent leaders, they have formed their own organizations and exercised that leadership outside the pulpit.”
Williams, pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, had also eulogized Franklin’s father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, in 1984. He prefaced part of his eulogy for Aretha Franklin on Aug. 31 by saying “70 percent” of black households are led by black women.
Williams apologized later, but defended his choice of topics. He said he was trying to highlight the struggles that single mothers face and his words were taken out of context.
But even during Franklin’s funeral, the absence of black women in the pulpit was evident.
The front row was occupied by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and primarily other black male pastors. No black female pastors were featured on an early speakers’ list for the funeral.
Shirley Caesar, a gospel music legend and senior pastor of Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, sang during the service, but also seized the moment to squeeze a little preaching in. Most of the individual singers were prominent female performers.
“There are male leaders in some black churches that don’t allow women to preach from the pulpit and, if they do, it’s typically on special occasions like Women’s Day,” said the Rev. Horace Sheffield, pastor of New Destiny Christian Fellowship of Detroit.
“Some denominations are more stringent and less likely to affirm women than others,” Sheffield said. “That’s part of our Christian tradition and that has always bothered me. We can be discriminated on the color of our skin and we can discriminate against women because of their gender. It still exists by virtue of the fact that you have churches that don’t allow female ministers as pastors. It … renders us in a lesser position to challenge discrimination in any form or any place when we’re part of it.”