During my second year of theological studies I had a personal and vocational crisis. I began seminary to fulfill my call to ministry that came when I was 12 years old, the same year I began my menstrual cycle. This latter point is very important because it meant that I knew that God knew I was a young girl. My home congregation affirmed me. No one told me that I could not be a pastor because I was a girl. But, in my second year of seminary, for the first time in my life, people who looked like me questioned my call to ministry. African American male students raised this question and their evidence was found in the bible and church tradition. They were clear that women could not be ordained.
This first experience of sexism was not only extremely painful; it was disorienting because I knew the texts to which they referred: Genesis chapter 2 –“woman was made from man’s side” and so was secondary; Paul in letters to the Ephesian 5:22-24; I Cor 11:3; I Timothy 2: 11-15 basically said that the man was head of the household and women were to be quiet and obedient to her husband. I felt as though I had been check mated by these men, because I believed the bible was authoritative as was tradition. But, I could not let go of my experience: what about God’s calling of me at the age if twelve. My world fell apart. How could I put together “the word of God” with the “my call by God”?
I decided to do a search for a use-able past and in so doing found an answer that has been incorporated into my life to this day. My embodied strength, wit, and proclivity to speak truth to power is a result of my close relationship to a woman born into slavery, and only freed because of her agency to pick up her bed and walk when her promised freedom was denied.
Her slaveholder named her Isabella and like most enslaved black women she did not control her body. She bore 12 children all of whom were sold into slavery so the plantation economy could grow and flourish. Even with all this as part of her everyday life, Isabella remembered the God her mother introduced her to, whose presence was found in the night sky that held the stars connecting her to that divinity and to her mother. Throughout her life she was never alone and in time Isabella heard a call from God to preach.
This God welled up in her on the day of she had expected to be freed from slavery but was told that she had to work several more years. She could not believe that her Christian slaveholder, who she held regard for, would do such a thing. This betrayal and her assurance in the God of her mother is what propelled her under the cover of the awesome dark night to take leave for her assignment to preach God’s word of truth and deliverance. Betrayal led to freedom granted by God and it was not a theoretical freedom but, one of physicality–meaning that her embodied self was freed by God. She packed a few provisions, walked from the plantation, and asked God for a new name. She no longer wanted the name given to her by the slaveholder.
She desired a new name to signal that she was no longer enslaved and held as property. God answered, “you shall be called Sojourner” and hence forth she no longer answered to the name Isabella.
Living into her new name, Sojourner followed Jesus’ pattern of walking from town to town across this country preaching the good news, offering hope, asking questions, and standing with vulnerable people. She was both an abolitionist and a woman’s rights advocate. Like the prophets and Jesus, she brought a message she was compelled to preach grounded in the truth of the Triune God. She raised questions about God presence in the activities of Christians who practiced chattel slavery and later spoke about women’s equality with men. She responded to anyone who attempted to limit the authority vested in her by God to preach about the relationship between and among those with structural power and those without such power.
When people wanted to know her “full name,” Sojourner asked God “to give her a handle for her name” and the response from God was “Truth.” This new name, Sojourner Truth, sealed her divine identity and added strength to her gait as she missioned from place to place. It was unusual for a black woman–to freely walk and preach God’s word, but who else could it have been more fitting than a black woman–one who had been scorned and abused, spit upon and reviled and discounted by the authorities of her day (read her famous ‘Ain’t I a Woman’ speech here).
This woman Sojourner Truth is my spiritual mother. I have been to her grave site and she continues to mentor me always steering me in the direction of God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
So why do I mention this now?
Have you been watching the news this past week?
The president of the United States of America denigrated three African American women reporters in one week – women who were simply doing their job by asking appropriate questions on behalf of the American people to hold him accountable.
Are you aware that two Muslim women were elected to Congress, despite the way that as candidate and president used his power to discriminate against Muslims?
Did you note that two Native women were also elected to Congress, just weeks after voting privileges were essentially stripped from Native communities in North Dakota, also won seats in Congress, and one in one of the most conservative states in the country?
Sojourner Truth is perched, among the great cloud of witnesses, hiding in the invisible brush that separates her world from ours – and looks upon all of us, strong black women and Muslim women and Native women, approvingly nodding her head with contentment and pride.
She calls us to remember Hagar, the Egyptian, who with her son Ishmael was sent to die in the wilderness, but was saved by God, she names and told that her son would become a great nation (Genesis 16 and 21:9-20). She encourages us to recall the Syrophoenician woman who was scorned and mocked and clapped-back because she knew the life of her daughter was on the line (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30). And of course, we harken back to Mary Magdalene – who witnessed the Crucifixion and was the first person to see Jesus post-resurrection, (although the disciples did not believe her) and was supported by Jesus despite the despicable things people said about her being a prostitute of which there is no evidence in the Gospels (Matthew 27:55-61, 28:1-10; Mark 15:40-47, 16:1-11; Luke 8:1-3, 24:1-12; John 19:25, 20:1-18).
And they’re all there, waving us on.
So we needn’t, and shan’t, fear.
Not then, not now, not ever.
Dr. Linda E. Thomas has engaged students, scholars and communities as a scholar for thirty-one years. She studies, researches, writes, speaks and teaches about the intersection and mutual influence of culture and religion. Her work is rooted intransitively in a Womanist perspective. An ordained Methodist pastor for 35 years with a Ph.D. in Anthropology from The American University in Washington D.C. and a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Dr. Thomas’s work has taken her to South Africa, Peru, Cuba and Russia. She has been recognized as an Association of Theological Schools Faculty Fellow as well as a Pew Charitable Trust Scholar.