On Jan. 22-25, the National Baptist Joint Board Session convened in Memphis, Tenn.
The Joint Session is a meeting of the four predominantly African American Baptist conventions in the United States — National Baptist Convention USA, National Baptist Convention of America, Progressive National Baptist Convention, and National Missionary Baptist Convention.
The purpose of the meeting was to reconnect a national social and political force to address urgent and critical issues facing African Americans.
Gina Stewart, senior pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church and president of Lott Carey, was invited to preach at the historic gathering in her hometown. According to many reports, she was the first woman ever to preach at a gathering of National Baptist Convention USA.
The leadership of the 15 million Baptists represented by these four conventions are significantly divided over the role of women in ministry and senior pastor roles — an issue that has dominated much discussion and garnered significant attention in other Baptist circles in the past two years as well.
Stewart’s sermon on Tuesday morning, Jan. 23, was titled, “What Shall We Do with Jesus of Nazareth?” based on Mark 15:1-15 and Matthew 27:19.
Like Jesus challenged the hypocrisy of the religious leaders in his day, she powerfully called on those present and watching to stop using spirituality as a smoke screen: “If you are prejudiced, say you’re prejudiced. If you’re sexist, say you’re sexist. If you’re a racist, say you’re a racist. If you’re homophobic, say you’re homophobic.”
In the midst of Jesus’ trial when Pilate asked, “What shall we do with Jesus who is called King of the Jews?” Stewart pointed to Pilate’s wife as the one voice who would stand up and speak up for Jesus. Calling Pilate’s wife’s name, Claudia, Stewart implored those gathered to be more like Claudia, to speak up for Jesus and against injustice and abuses of power.
“If you are prejudiced, say you’re prejudiced. If you’re sexist, say you’re sexist. If you’re a racist, say you’re a racist. If you’re homophobic, say you’re homophobic.”
The historic nature of Stewart’s sermon and its powerful prophetic content quickly caught the attention of thousands of people who began viewing it online and sharing it with others.
Joslyn M. Henderson, director of worship arts at Christ City Church in Washington, D.C., shared about the significance of Stewart’s sermon: “Growing up in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, where women preaching was the norm, Rev. Dr. Gina M. Stewart’s bold proclamation of God’s word at this historic assembly of four Black Baptist conventions was deeply meaningful. Despite only one convention recognizing women’s calling to preaching, her impactful message about Jesus challenging religious norms moved me to tears. In a personal moment, as someone deemed ‘too vocal’ recently, her sermon resonated profoundly. I recommend every Christ follower to watch and learn from Rev. Dr. Gina M. Stewart’s prophetic preaching.”
Martha Simmons, creator of the Women of Color in Ministry Project and curator of the Preaching and Preachers Facebook broadcast, offered this statement about the powerful resistance of Stewart’s sermon: “The sermon was significant because it was a public showing of the power of a woman preacher as she stood in one of the bastions of patriarchy — a gathering of the four Black Baptist denominations.
“The tradition of prophetic preaching in Black churches has been plagued by sexism and patriarchy; it has been halted by misogyny and internalized whiteness. Dr. Stewart used her sermon to depict that the incompleteness of the body of Christ — the bastions of patriarchy — is not suitable with the gospel. A fundamental message of the gospel is that it relishes equality; all persons are equals.
“American Christianities sacralize white patriarchy and misogyny, acceptance of which is also an indictment on the imagination of Black churches and stains Black male preaching. Her sermon embodied a critical resistance to these practices and galvanized women and men who want to stop the war on women in churches.”
Justin Wyatt wrote about the importance of this moment for National Baptists moving forward in Vinegar Hill Magazine: “The National Baptist Convention USA Inc. finds itself at a pivotal moment. Dr. Stewart’s sermon and the reactions to it illuminate the critical choice facing the organization: continue in its traditional patriarchal ways or evolve to embrace a more inclusive and just approach. This decision is crucial for the survival and relevance of the convention in a society that increasingly values equality and diversity.”
Bianca Robinson Howard, Orange specialist for Black church partnerships and director of parent ministry initiatives, is overjoyed with how this “first” for National Baptists will pave the way for more women in ministry: “Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart, who has been the first many times over in her ministry, continues to pave the way for so many women behind her. Someone had to be first, and God sent the right one for the right time. And it was time! Past due but on time for all that is happening with women in ministry in this season. It was exciting to see more glass ceiling being broken.”
Robinson Howard also added her hope for the future stating, “I believe this monumental moment will change the Black Baptist church experience forever.”
Meredith Stone serves as executive director of Baptist Women in Ministry.