WASHINGTON (RNS) — In a ballroom in the nation’s capital, with many dressed in gowns and heels, Black women were hailed for the work they do in ministry, known and unknown.
“There are women here who have labored 20, 30, 40 years and nobody ever said ‘Thank you’; tonight we’re saying thank you,” said the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, the co-leader of the R.E.A.L. Black Women in Ministry THRIVE initiative. “We’re saying thank God and we’re saying thank you.”
The Friday (Dec. 2) evening gala at the National Press Club marked a continuing effort to provide Black women ministers with affirmation and acclamation through a program that pairs five dozen women in mentee-mentor duos. The initiative’s R.E.A.L. acronym stands for relationship building, equipping and expanding, access and leadership and legacy development.
The Rev. Gina Stewart, who became in 2021 the first woman president of a U.S. Black Baptist organization, said in a keynote speech that the initiative and the dinner showed the work of Black women in ministry had not gone completely unnoticed.
“It’s not difficult to be in a body suit like this and be overlooked, despite your gifts, despite your commitment, despite your anointing, despite your years of service, despite the fact that you show up when others don’t,“ said Stewart, president of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, who was recognized as a trailblazer during the gala.
“Sexism, misogyny and patriarchy are deeply embedded not just in the church, but in the culture and in society. But tonight, Ambassador Cook and the R.E.A.L. Black Women in Ministry send to us a resounding affirmation that God sees us.”
The Lilly Endowment has given two grants, a $1 million initial grant in 2019 and a $500,000 sustaining grant in 2022, to support the initiative that is linked to Harlem’s Union Baptist Church, where Johnson Cook — who later became the U.S. international religious freedom ambassador — was ordained 40 years ago.
The Rev. Brian D. Scott, the church’s current pastor and the co-leader of the initiative, said at the event that he viewed the women in the room as the people who can lead the church into the future.
“I pray that God uses you to do what the elders say: ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,’” Scott said. “Would you go back and take a spark from this and build a fire when you get back home?”
Throughout the event, the women were encouraged through speeches, song lyrics and poetry.