The path to ministry appeared to pastor and chaplain Kanisha Billingsley before she was a teenager.
Born and raised in Lanett, Alabama, she felt early on a calling to preach and to lead people to God – whatever their faith backgrounds.
“I am a spiritual leader regardless of the spiritual tradition,” said Billingsley, who is currently on sabbatical from her Atlanta-area church plant, Dream Life Fellowship.
Billingsley left no stone unturned in preparing herself for the call. She preached her first sermon as a teen, and later studied communications at Samford University in Birmingham. She earned master’s of divinity and master’s of theology degrees – concentrating in homiletics – from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology.
She also entered a clinical pastoral education program, which she completed. She currently is embarked on residency in health care chaplaincy – in her words – “for personal development.”
Billingsley shared more about her calling and ministry with Baptist News Global. These are her comments, edited for clarity.
Please describe your church life growing up.
I actually have a rather diverse spiritual background. My mother was Jehovah’s Witness. My godmother, who helped raise me, was Mormon. And at the age of 10, one of my friends invited me to attend her Baptist church. And it was there that I found my spiritual community. I would walk from my grandmother’s house, rain or shine, to go to that church.
Has that religious diversity helped you as a pastor and chaplain?
It definitely prepared me for this path I am on, which is ecumenical and inter-denominational. It gives me a lot of range because my image of God is not narrow or confined.
When did you first hear your calling?
I was 12 years old. I immediately started being intentional about Bible study and took notes during the preaching. I took on a student mindset.
And when did you preach for the first time?
My first invitation to preach came from pastor Magby at Weeping Mary Baptist Church near Lanett. I had gotten my permit to drive and I drove to that congregation. I wrote my first sermon without any assistance. I got up there to preach and it was like my body was on fire. I understood in that moment the weightiness of it. I was 15.
When did you get your first church?
That didn’t come until 2015 when I launched Dream Life Fellowship. I was 32. All of that time before I was assisting other people and facilitating their visions and ministries and planting churches. I saw it all as development. In college I understood the church I would lead would be the church that I started.
Did you experience a lot of push back as woman in ministry?
Did I? Absolutely. Oh my goodness, I could really talk for years about my experience as a woman in ministry and the ways in which I have been treated connected to me being black and a woman – and the ways in which people respond to the divine feminine energy. We live in a culture that hates women; in a culture that thinks the divine voice is masculine. It’s hard for people to shake that.
I once preached a Seven Last Words service and a male preacher walked up afterward and said to my husband, “how could you be married to a woman that powerful?” And his wife was standing on the other side of him. It’s forgetting that women are also created in God’s image.
Where are you in your chaplaincy?
I am the chaplain for women’s services at Emory University-Midtown, in Atlanta. I work in the mother-baby units and in neonatal intensive care unit, the NICU. I did my internship 2011 at Grady Memorial. I was assigned to the emergency department and to a unit serving individuals with HIV/AIDS. Last year I had the opportunity to apply for residence at Emory University at the Midtown location.
How much focus do you give to staff as a chaplain?
Often, we don’t think of the ways in which death impacts the doctors and nurses. But we are all impacted when the result is not what we prefer. We prefer babies to be born healthy and to go home with their parents. But sometimes they are born without breath or too prematurely. I find myself navigating with staff who are struggling with compassion fatigue.
How does your current work compare to your previous experience in an emergency room?
Both are hard. Both take a toll on you. You come out of both with some measure of post-traumatic stress syndrome. But when babies die, we begin to wonder: where is God in this? When there is an innocent that dies, there is a hope that dies. There is this awakening about how life and death are Siamese twins. But when you are dealing with babies who die it ruptures a part of one’s God construct.
How do you minister to parents and staff in those situations?
I say the body is a beautiful, complex organism that works in ways that we cannot fathom and sometimes, unfortunately, the body breaks down and ceases to produce the results that we prefer. Its complexity is subject to the simplest, smallest changes. It’s fragile in its complexity.
Do you encounter a lot of bad theology around God and death?
It’s bad theology to tell someone your baby died because God knows what God is doing. No, your baby died because we may not know why.
I hear it all the time. The church has not taken the time to deal directly with death. We have not taught people sufficiently about death. We teach this God who gives pardons from death because that’s what generates money.
I find that in my role as a chaplain I spend a lot of time giving people permission to be angry at God and to say four words women never say: ”I am not ok.” It’s giving people permission to say I don’t understand why this is happening to me. That freedom to tell their whole truth is a part of their healing.