Preaching as an Outsider

February 18th, 2019
This article is featured in the Preaching from the Margins (Nov/Dec/Jan 2018-19) issue of Circuit Rider


In 2013, we saw the rise of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter (BLM). By the fall of 2017, we saw the rise of the hashtag #MeToo, although its inception came in 2006, long before its climb to the forefront of the media. In between both of these hashtags were the cries of #SayHerName, which is a part of the campaign of the African American Policy Forum.

The monikers were not just pithy sayings, social media capital, or signifiers of “woke” status. To the contrary, the hashtags claimed a particular type of shorthand for the violence and invisibility rendered to black bodies, not exclusively black women, as these violent acts intersect with the historical, social, economic, racial, and gendered location of women of the black labyrinth in North America and beyond. In short, the undervaluing of and disregard for black life and black women’s lives in particular lead to the grotesque treatment or ignoring of black women’s lives. Our ignoring such atrocities is being called to task.

The aforementioned hashtags represent movements created and led by black women. Two of the movements were quickly coopted and credited to people who were not black women. #BlackLivesMatter was started by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. The very compilation of their trifecta exemplifies the labyrinth of black identity in the US. Two of the women self-describe as queer-identifying, and one of the women comes from a Nigerian immigrant family. Despite the founders’ identities, BLM was quickly misaccredited to men of the movement.

Likewise, #MeToo was dubbed by Tarana Burke in 2006, intending to draw attention to survivors of sexual violence experienced by women of color and those belonging to lower socioeconomic classes. The movement was quickly credited to white, wealthy women of Hollywood, to the extent that the creator herself was not included in the cover photo for Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year campaign entitled “The Silence Breakers,” which paid homage to #MeToo. Black women being cut out of their own herstory and the rewriting of history are not new practices.

"Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider" (Abingdon Press, 2018). Order here:

Each hashtag, even their attempted cooptation, underscores both the fragility of black women’s lives and the sin of systems that afford black life to constantly hang in the balance at the discretion of others. What is most intriguing is the fact that faith communities were not at the forefront of these social movements, or their actions were often met with suspicion. The fault is none but our own, as faith communities are often culpable of rendering the same crimes in our houses of worship. We’ve committed these sins in ways that make it impossible to tell if we have let the crimes of the world seep under our door or if our crimes have seeped out into the world.

The question that begs to be answered is: how does our religious discourse reinforce or disrupt such ideas around black personhood and black womanhood in particular? A more important question is: how do we listen to those in the forced positions of marginality? How do we proclaim and declare faith in ways that disrupt such death-dealing assumptions?

#MeToo, #SayHerName, and #BlackLivesMatter call the pulpit back to a faith-filled responsibility that attends to the deepest ills of society, and in their best practices, faith communities call the world to task about its crimes against the creation of God. However, before faith communities can move outward, we must first look inward to the places where we ourselves have stumbled on the gospel. We must look inward to the places where we discredit the belonging, credibility, and personhood of black women on a regular basis.

Personhood and Pulpit Personas

I am reminded of our crimes from the words of colleagues, students, encounters with random strangers, and those I know well. Doing or not doing whatever some think they mean by black preaching or even women’s preaching is risky business. Black women are always subject to the assumption made by other people that they have the power to accept or reject black women’s ways of moving about in the world. White students have walked up to me to report what my white colleagues have told them, such as, “Professor XYZ said the sermon you preached in chapel was good, but it wasn’t like your last sermon; and in the last one you did black preaching.” The perceptions of listeners are often warped by gendered and racist stereotypes of both performance and one’s personhood or lack thereof. These biases are not limited to white spaces and white bodies, neither are they limited to good or ill intention.

“I don’t like women preachers.” A senior and well-respected woman in the community spoke these words directly to me as I exited the pulpit. She was one of several people who enveloped me in curiosity, encouragement, and prayer during that time of ministry in Los Angeles. The congregation was historically traditional and African American. The community had never ordained a woman and did not afford women the opportunity to preach proper, although women did plenty of preaching via testimony and speaking. Therefore, “women preachers” did not exist much around those parts.

This well-intentioned church mother followed her short and sharp statement with a slight grin of approval, saying, “But I like you. You don’t sound like a man, but you don’t sound like a woman either.” Somehow I had managed to accommodate her subconscious and yet-to-be-named assessment of an appropriate balance between femininity and masculinity, for bodies that looked like mine and offered their voices from pulpit spaces.

I have yet to decide if I feel more offended, flattered, or indifferent about her complexly androgynous description of my pulpit persona. Regardless of my personal feelings, the words were a genuine account of her experience. Her words also illustrate the connectedness between marvel and offense when we attempt to account for the presence of black women in relation to preaching. Questions of the ability, place, and authority of a black woman to name something significant on behalf of a community are often the backdrop for the delight taken in the word experienced and proclaimed. Internal discord surfaces within us when an unexpected something happens: “I don’t like women preachers. But I like you.”

In these instances, as listeners, we now have to reconcile our experience with our latent assumptions. And as those who proclaim, we have to sit with the reminder that people do not readily believe our voices belong at the table; our status is often that of forced outsider.

Excerpted from Ingenuity: Preaching as an Outsider by Lisa L. Thompson. Copyright © 2018 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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