The Pulse of God: An Odyssey of Empowerment

Joan Cooper Burnett

Being an African American woman has empowered me to empower others. Overcoming the racism of growing up in the segregated South, then overcoming sexual harassment and racial discrimination in higher education, corporate America, and the church, have given me clarity about this life and a calling to encourage other women. The challenge I’ve faced has always been bigger than gender – it’s race, then gender – but in the end I don’t rely on a particular “ism” or agenda. My confidence is in the God who keeps and sustains me.

After graduating from Yale Divinity School, I served as the first African American senior pastor at a predominantly Anglo Baptist church in New England. Before offering me the position, the search committee wanted to know the “ramifications of calling a black pastor.” I was told there was a fear that “the church might become black,” and the worship style would change if they hired me.

An Embarrassing Reality

When we hear talk of women in ministry, the focus is usually on gender bias. We don’t generally discuss the racism that women of color experience in church leadership. I guess it is an embarrassing reality when believers profess the gospel, “the good news,” but are not producing the gospel. Although I knew it would be a turbulent road to take, I prayed, “God, if You are the One opening these doors, I want to keep walking through them.” I accepted that pastorate and served there four years, paving the way for another African American pastor to serve there. I did what I had the power to do and turned the rest of my cares over to God. I learned the importance of loving from the heart and the true meaning of offering the grace I freely receive.

Yes, women experience discriminations. We’ll always face people (women and men both) who object to who we are or argue what we should be doing. But our lives are greater than the opinions and speculations of others; our lives are more than the sum of their parts. When you know God, feel the pulse of God, hear the voice of God, have a relationship with God, you aren’t moved by what others say or do. 

I want to be clear, I’m not simply saying, “just put your trust in God and everything will be okay.” God is a spirit, so God works through us. We are to put our faith in action. There are times when our faith in God will cause us to stand up for what we believe and put everything on the line. “The ultimate measure of a wo/man is not where s/he stands in moments of comfort and convenience,” wrote Martin Luther King Jr. in Strength to Love in 1963, “but where s/he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

The experience of being black in America has given me the tenacity to fight for justice, but also the compassion to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, a burning desire to save the children and liberate women. I find this compassion in the teachings of Jesus. There are no Twelve Steps of recovery for a society that needs to own up to its prejudices, no seven steps to happiness in a society desperately searching for it. The primary thing must be love. As Jesus said, on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets – to love God with everything you’ve got, and to love your neighbor as yourself. When you truly love, you won’t have trouble working out the rest.

I come from a family where women are educated; my grandmother was a math teacher, my mother is a Tennessee state representative. All three generations suffered at the hands of Jim Crow laws and cruelty, but as black women we are agents of purpose and power, culture and community, playing a major role in African American life and in the life of the church. It’s a well-known saying in the African American community: “If it wasn’t for the women, you wouldn’t have a church.” In the black community, but in the larger world too, women are the ones who make things happen. I feel the contributions of my foremothers every day: we all stand on their shoulders.

A Message of Liberty

I grew up in Memphis, went to college in Tennessee, graduate school in Boston, spent twenty-two years in business, attended YDS and have since served as a senior pastor and college chaplain. As the years have unfolded, my vocation has been made clearer to me. The message I hope to convey to women or men, students or professors, is a message of liberty, the freedom from every sort of oppression, the freedom of living in God. 

That message of liberty applies to college campuses, where a spirit of secularism so often tries to tyrannize and silence the faith of young people. I often remind my colleagues and students, “No one should be in fear or feel intimidated to say she or he is Christian, especially in America.”

That message of liberty applies to young girls who look like me, who are demonized as welfare mothers or sexualized as objects, and whose lives are devalued with scorn and disregard. That message of liberty applies to women everywhere whose lives are devalued or made into objects of men’s pleasure.

The message of liberty also applies to black women in ministry who still face resistance from church leaders and pulpits: may you connect with your rich history of faith and achievement, and find that voice to do what God has given you to do, never oppressing others or allowing others to dictate who you are or what you may become. You have been given your charge, now go ye therefore being and making disciples of all nations.

Women have always been with God, embracing special roles in ministry. They have been faithful. They testified faithfully in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament. At the empty tomb, they were there. In churches today, they are there.

Sisters, walk in the public dignity and the supreme authority given to you by God as Deborah leading the people to victory. Stand in the integrity of Vashti and say no, refuse unjust commands when others ask of you that which will not edify God. Continue in the courage of Esther bringing the ultimate triumph of truth and justice, defending others. Pray and fast as Hannah, seek the wisdom of God as the Queen of Sheba, operate in the faith of Mary the mother of Jesus, and worship in the spirit of the woman with an alabaster jar filled with costly ointment.

This century, I believe, we will witness a turning: women will be placed in power, and God will be pleased. 

The Rev. Joan Cooper Burnett ’04 M.Div., ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches USA, is Protestant chaplain at Wesleyan University, in Middletown, CT. She is also founder, president, and CEO of G-GIRLS, Inc. a faith-based non-profit corporation formed to foster healthy development and enrich the lives of teen girls and women.