As a child, I sat in the pew of a typical Southern Baptist church, hearing strong male voices reading the Scripture, leading the hymns, preaching the Word. As a teenager, I began to notice that those male voices were never broken by lighter female intonations, that the godly women who taught me in Sunday School never prayed, much less preached, in the vast holiness of the sanctuary. I began to look around me and realize that everyone looked alike; the black children with whom I went to school never darkened the doors of our church. I did not understand then why my church seemed so segregated, so exclusionary. After going to seminary and hearing similar testimonies of the Southern Baptist students around me helped me realize that my church was not the only institution holding desperately to the patriarchy of the past, living out the perfect fifties sitcom within its hallowed walls. Yet I still could not figure out why, when the world around them had changed and grown, progressing ahead of much of the oppression of the past, so many churches had remained frozen in a time when white men ruled society, government, and especially church.
Having been reared in a loving, Christian home, I came to know Christ at an early age, earlier even than seems possible to me now. I heard about Jesus from my kindergarten Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Foster. She talked about Jesus’ love and about the sin of humanity and though I probably did not understand everything she told me, I remember feeling both gratitude for God’s love and remorse at being a sinner. I have a clear memory of kneeling by my bed one night—I could not have been more than five years old—and crying, asking Jesus to forgive me. It is actually the first clear memory I have from my childhood. As I look back on it now I understand how remarkable it was that God reached out and showed me love as a small child and that I embraced that love even before I could read the Bible. I consider it an immeasurable blessing that God has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember.
Since I grew up in an army family, we moved several times before settling in Fort Hood, Texas, the largest military base in the world. It was there that I made my faith in God public, during Vacation Bible School at Memorial Baptist Church of Killeen, TX, and I was baptized at that church in 1987 at the age of ten. Church was always a part of my life, so much so that I often tell people that the church raised me. I have always loved hearing and reading Bible stories, even as a teenager, and the Baptist churches that I attended in adolescence helped plant in me a love for the teachings of the Bible and a desire to know more and understand more about God. I think I always felt a persistent tug toward ministry in the church. When I led Bible study groups and went on Mission trips during high school I sensed that God had gifted me in the areas of teaching and ministry. However, because the Southern Baptist tradition does not embrace the equal gifting of men and women, I never knew exactly where I would fit in ministry. The options that were open to me—children’s ministry or missions work—never clicked as the calling God had for me.
In college, I began to feel that God was leading me to study the Bible in a more formal way; I thought that God was calling me to go to seminary. Some of my fellow students at our Christian college heard that I was considering going to seminary, and they decided it was their duty to remind me that seminary was a place to train pastors, and since women could not be pastors, there was no reason for me to go. It is difficult to point to the most significant spiritual event in my life, because my life has been a continuous series of spiritual events through which God has slowly and adeptly molded me, but I think that the moment I was told that God did not want me to be a minister was a huge moment for me. I heard the words and I understood how the men who spoke them could read the Bible that way, but I sensed something was wrong with their interpretation of the Scriptures. I was sure that the Holy Spirit had spoken to me and called me into the ministry and was prodding me to go to seminary and even though that calling did not seem to be compatible with what Scripture said, I was going to follow the Spirit and work out what the Bible said about that along the way.
In seminary, I began to read the Bible for the overarching story that it told about God and humanity. I learned that the way I had been taught to read the Bible—merely picking out verses here and there and piecing them together into an unorganized system of belief—did a great disservice to the message of the Bible. There was a bigger idea behind the stories and principles of the Bible that was greater than the sum of their varied parts. God loves us. We live in rebellion. God sent Jesus to bring us into a close, communicative relationship with the Triune God. God has gifted people for many different works of love and service. The Holy Spirit helps us learn about those gifts. And finally, God calls the most unlikely people. Regardless of whether Paul said women should not have authority over men or should keep silent, the bigger message of the Bible was that in Christ, there is no male or female, and God used women to do all kinds of ministry during Jesus’ life on earth and in the earliest years of the Christian church. I knew that God wanted to use me to do whatever it was that the Holy Spirit led me to do. And though I was scared because I knew it would not be easy, I was ready to go where the Spirit led and do what God would call me to do.
God revealed the call on my life slowly but purposefully. The people who had the most influence on my spiritual journey were my religion professors. Though I learned much from the ministers under whom I grew up, the Christians who truly modeled a servant lifestyle and the sacrifice and love of Christ were my professors. They gave tirelessly of themselves in order to teach others how to interpret and appreciate the Bible then, in their spare time, they prayed, comforted, and encouraged their students in all of their life challenges. It is their influence that awakened in me the desire to teach and preach. My worldview was shaped because of how they taught me to read the Bible. I have come to understand through their instruction that the Christianity that Jesus initiated is a lifestyle of love and sacrifice, not a list of rules that exclude people who do not follow them from the kingdom. Now I believe God wants me to do for others as my professors did for me…teach people how to read and interpret the Bible so that they can carry out the purposes of God in this world faithfully and completely.