As evangelical organizations and white pastors speak out with new urgency to declare “black lives matter,” many have in mind the deaths of black men. The high-profile murders of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia and George Floyd in Minneapolis have spurred a global outcry and shifted something within the church.
But in this new iteration of evangelical reckoning with systemic racism and police brutality, there has not been the same attention toward black women—namely, 26-year-old Breonna Taylor, who was killed in March by Louisville police who entered her home unannounced in the middle of the night looking for suspects who were already in custody. The officers responsible have not been charged and are still on the job.
Her story is significant because she is not the only one. In death, Taylor joins an unfortunate sisterhood, including Atatiana Jefferson, Rekia Boyd, Kathryn Johnston, Sandra Bland, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones, to name just a few black women and girls killed by police violence.
The absence of Breonna Taylor from evangelical conversations about racial justice is indicative of a broader issue. Despite being the most religiously devout Christian demographic in the country, black women are underrepresented in almost every significant public facet of evangelical life, from black heroines in church history to black authors in Christian publishing.
In this moment, we are already starting to see an initial spike in attention toward female black voices. But the church cannot make meaningful progress toward racial justice without sustained, intentional efforts to acknowledge black women, our powerful witness, and our contributions to the body of Christ.
Overlooked but Seen by God
Scan the bookshelves for Bible studies written by African American women, and you will typically find two authors (Priscilla Shirer and Jackie Hill Perry).
According to InterVarsity Press editor Edward Gilbreath, “For many years, publishers did not believe there was a market for such books.” Yet, according to the American Bible Society, African Americans are more avid Bible readers than other ethnic groups, with 69 percent turning to Scripture multiple times a year compared to a smaller number of whites (44%) and Hispanics (52%).
Black women often serve as the spiritual center for our families and regularly rank among the most devout demographics in the country. According to the Pew Research Center, black women are most likely to believe in God with absolute certainty (83%), pray daily (79%), and attend church weekly (52%).
“I watched my mom, like a lot of women in the churches I grew up in, raise money for the church and serve as the cornerstone of their churches, their communities, and their families, yet they are denied formal leadership roles,” said Stachelle Bussey, a minister and founder of The Hope Buss, a nonprofit organization based in Louisville.
In evangelical leadership, black women may be brought in for diversity initiatives but not empowered as decision-makers.
“I often find myself feeling as though I need to defend my knowledge, expertise, and leadership ability in both Christian and secular settings due to the pervasive gender and racial prejudices that still exist,” said Shantel Crosby, a leader with Be the Bridge Louisville and a grant administrator in the Louisville mayor’s office.
Kristina Button, a writer for The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, said black women are “relegated to certain stereotypical roles and not given the opportunities to lead in roles we feel called to lead in.”
Black women who have branched out to start ministries on our own risk having our efforts looked over or co-opted. Recently, a well-known male African American pastor launched a racial reconciliation ministry with a name similar to Be the Bridge, popular nonprofit founded by Latasha Morrison.
Morrison was circumspect in discussing the situation, but reiterated that African American men have a special duty to lift the voices of African American women. “Impact over intent,” she said. “Your intent may not be to erase black women, but the impact of certain actions is erasure, and part of uplifting black women is listening to us when we say we feel erased.”
The erasure of black women in the church has a long history, evidenced by the absence of African American women from sermons and Sunday school lessons, even as leaders make efforts to reclaim the legacies of civil rights heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Fred Shuttlesworth.
In the proportion of evangelical lessons that reference women at all, we are more likely to hear about the faith of Elisabeth Elliot, Corrie ten Boom, Hannah More, or Ruth Graham than Jo Ann Robinson, Autherine Lucy, Ida B. Wells, or Fannie Lou Hamer.
Even among the women of the Bible, we celebrate the stories of Sarah and Deborah, but what about Hagar, Shiphrah, Puah, and Jael? The depictions of most women in the Bible rarely reflect the reality that all women in the Bible were “women of color,” said Kristie Anyabwile, author of His Testimonies, My Heritage: Women of Color on the Word of God.
The first person to name God in the Bible was an Egyptian woman named Hagar. She called God El-Roi, “the one who sees.” The story of Hagar reminds women of African heritage that they, like Hagar, are seen and valued by God.
A Change Gonna Come
It is easy to get discouraged and feel as though not much has changed since Sojourner Truth boldly asked a group of mostly white suffragettes, “Ain’t I A Woman?” But a change may be on the horizon.
The Gospel Coalition (TGC) just launched a podcast for women called Let’s Talk, where two of the three women co-hosts are black: Jackie Hill Perry and Jasmine Holmes. The audience for TGC is predominately white women, although it has made strides to increase diversity among its writers and conference attendees. In positioning two black women as authorities in Scripture and theology, TGC is helping to expand the imaginations and expectations of its audience of what black women in the church can be. The show ranked No. 1 on the Christian podcast charts its first day.
Moody Publishers recently named Trillia Newbell as an acquisitions editor, making her one of the few black women employed in that role. “[At Moody], I have not had to fight my way to the table—I have a seat and a voice. That kind of freedom and support is important and encouraging as I prayerfully consider authors and topics,” said Newbell, herself the author of a half dozen Christian titles.
Last week, following a nationwide push to read and learn from black authors, both Austin Channing Brown and Latasha Morrison had books hit TheNew York Times best-seller lists.
Cindy Bunch, associate publisher and editorial director for InterVarsity Press, credits the success of Brown’s I’m Still Here for opening new doors for African American Christian women in publishing. “Brown’s [success] has both spurred on publishers to seek out these voices and has encouraged many authors to submit book proposals. We have a long way to go, but I am hopeful that recent events will continue to create space for African American women to write.”
In his painting “Beyond the Myth of Benevolence,” artist Titus Kaphar reveals the portrait of a black woman hidden behind the portrait of Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. In an interview about the painting, Kaphar describes the work as symbolic of the “many black women whose stories have been shrouded by the narratives of our deified founding fathers.”
The church has also failed to fully reveal and celebrate the unseen black women, whose work, sacrifices, and suffering have been woven both into the foundations of this country and church. But even where the church fails to see and value us, “we are seen by the only who matters in the fullness of our humanity and [we] have no reason to be ashamed because God fearfully and wonderfully makes us in our embodied blackness,” says theologian Ekemini Uwan.
By exposing the unseen black woman and her labor, Kaphar exposes the myth of the benevolence of slavery. A myth that pervades much of evangelical public life is that it is benevolent to expect black women to conform to the narrow frames set out not by Scripture, but by men. Yet even those who do conform find their contributions overlooked and undervalued. I realized that the narrow confines were a myth—a distortion of Scripture and a tool to deny my calling.
There was a time when, as a black woman, I felt like I had to make myself fit into spaces to be seen. I worked hard to be softer, to smile more, to shrink so that others would not be threatened or made uncomfortable. Doing so was in some ways a rejection of the good gifts God had given me. It is a much harder, lonelier road to choose to live into your createdness, to occupy all the space God has given you. And yet, we must walk like our foremothers before us.
Ida B. Wells and Fannie Lou Hamer had a testimony the world needed to hear, and even when the church refused to listen, they kept speaking. There is a generation of black female leaders with a divine calling and a testimony that the church of today needs to hear. God hears our cries, God sees our pain. I believe he will answer our prayers.
Black women matter to God, and therefore they ought to matter to the church.
Kathryn Freeman is a master of divinity student at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary. She is a writer, lawyer, and the co-host of the Melanated Faith podcast.