Friday, January 22, 1999

Women’s role in
church topic of Black
History Month talk

By Mary Adamski


The 1960s civil-rights movement affected Christianity in America, in everything from form of worship to social activism, and black churches are still reverberating from the change, says an African-American scholar.

"One of the most significant changes ... is in the growth of a black middle class and the role of women in that expansion," Cheryl Townsend Gilkes told a University of Hawaii crowd of about 200 Wednesday. Gilkes is a sociology professor and director of the African American Studies Program at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. Her lecture was sponsored by the UH president's committees on diversity and the status of women to mark Black History Month.

"Since the 1960s, church attendance in white churches dropped, but not in black churches. What dropped was men choosing to go into the ministry," she said. At the same time, women achieved higher levels of education and employment, and went beyond their traditional background leadership role in churches to the more visible role of ordained ministers ... but not without internal struggle.

The leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, and other churchmen in the rights movement led to "a rearticulation of black masculinity ... we have men saying the church is the only place we have leadership, we don't want women to be ordained.

"In the Baptist church, which still constitutes the majority of the black church, the struggle around women's roles has become a congregation-by-congregation struggle," said Gilkes, also a Baptist minister.

Early in the civil-rights movement, black religion took a gender-related twist with the rise of the Black Muslim organizations such as Nation of Islam. "The organization of black religion became so gender-divided that more black males preferred Islam while the woman preferred traditional black Christianity," she said.

A modern phenomenon in American religion is the emergence of megachurches with membership in the thousands. Gilkes said that while African Americans compose only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they make up 25 percent of mega-church congregations.

The preaching style of King, who was "the first African-American Baptist preacher seen by most white Americans," has been widely adopted by white ministers since the 1960s, she said, and "white charismatic churches have appropriated the ecstatic trapping, the ecstatic worship practices" of black churches. The changes are seen, not just in pentecostal churches, she said, but in Catholic, Methodist, United Church of Christ and other mainline religions.

"The movement sparked the rediscovery of black culture ... and the re-invention of the black church as center of cultural and social activity," she said. "With the insistence on black pride ... we find even the elite and middle class black not being ashamed of traditional ways of worshipping."

Gilkes, who teaches a class on the "black elite and middle class," said it is difficult to get affluent African Americans to talk about their successes.

"The church became a place where the old elites and the new upwardly mobile black middle class can meet and negotiate certain aspects of leadership, where the old can communicate certain values, certain elegance, that would never happen in the social world. The church became a place where your humanity gets reaffirmed ... a place to counteract the kind of dismissal and denigration that goes on for everybody no matter class."

"The contemporary black church is in a pattern of changing gender relations, experiencing cooperation and conflict at a time when African American attainment of education and employment has fostered an increased interest in social problems and church involvement in issues of black men, such as joblessness and criminal justice."

"In the gendered world of the church ... men are starting to get organized and are using (the traditional organizational role of) women as model."

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