September 20, 2023
Exciting. Invigorating. Encouraging. Empowering. A safe place to breathe. A safe place to be. A sanctuary to “Be You” — that was the atmosphere of the national meeting of The Black Clergywomen of The United Methodist Church. Black Clergywomen gathered in Washington July 31 – Aug. 2 to embrace this year’s theme of “Be You.”
The caucus was birthed out of Black Methodists for Church Renewal to encourage, support and empower Black clergywomen across the denomination. Open to those in all stages of the process — elder, deacon, provisional elder, provisional deacon, licensed local pastors and seminarians — the group has also been a haven for clergy sisters who are a part of other Methodist denominations such as African Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal Zion and Christian Methodist Episcopal.
This group is a place where Black women can proclaim to the world, to the church, to their family and to themselves that they are not Superwomen. They do not have to live into what Cheryl Woods-Giscombe calls the “Superwoman Schema,” the societal pressure to always present an image of strength, suppress one’s emotions, resist being vulnerable or being dependent on others, succeed despite limited resources, and prioritizing caregiving over self-care.
The Rev. Martha Orphe, an ordained elder in the Louisiana Conference on incapacity leave, stood up after the opening plenary, “Breathing in Healing and Hope During Life ICU Experiences,” and testified to the cost of being a superwoman. As she stood in front of the microphone, everyone could see her oxygen tube in her nose and the backpack that carried her tank. She told the women that if you do not want her “companions” — “Oscar the Oxygen, Sammy the Scooter, Willie the Walker and his cousin Wally the Wheelchair, and Sticky the Stick” — to be with you all of your life, you must take care of yourself.
She explained that she had given everything she had to the church following Hurricane Katrina. She helped to clean out 47 churches. She did not have the time to grieve the loss of her mother, who died one week after Katrina, nor her sister, who died one week after Rita. She worked serving God and the church for 36 years until one Sunday, she passed out under one of the pews and was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, a disease the affects the lungs and the lymph nodes. She cautioned us to take care of ourselves so we would not experience the same fate.
The executive team of the caucus understood that many Black clergywomen were wearing a Superwoman cape that was really too heavy for them to carry. Therefore, they were intentional about emphasizing four areas of focus for this event and for the quadrennium:
- Leadership development
- Financial wholeness
They brought the aforementioned to life through strategic partnerships with Gammon Theological Seminary, Wespath, the Mid-Atlantic United Methodist Foundation and licensed therapists, as well as Touch, the Black Breast Cancer Alliance.
The women understood that this meeting was also an opportunity to engage in advocacy. They understood the power of their collective voices. The caucus voted to join with the Commission on Religion and Race and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women in a letter addressed to the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops calling for justice and requesting transparency leading up to the trial of Bishop Minerva Carcaño.
In addition, they voted to move forward with plans to create an endowment for transportation scholarships for African women who desire to further their education at Africa University in Zimbabwe but lack the means to travel to the school.
This was an intergenerational event where women of all ages and stages of ministry were invited to fellowship, worship together and encourage one another. Women who serve in areas of the denomination where the population of people of color is limited were able to see women that looked like them and shared in their experience. They had access to district superintendents and even six of the seven Black women serving as bishops were there. This was truly a joyous time.