AFRO Exclusive: Women Clergy talk

Bishop-Elect Paula Clark, the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, and {AFRO} Managing Editor and Publisher the Rev. Dorothy Boulware and the Rev. Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, spoke on “{AFRO} Live” about their personal faith journeys, the pandemic pivot and keeping God first despite challenges. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. Editor

The year 2020 was tough, but God is tougher and stronger than any pandemic. To usher in 2021, “AFRO Live” featured four clergywomen who spoke about COVID, coping in a crisis and Christ.  In a robust hour-long conversation, Bishop-elect Paula Clark, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, and AFRO Managing Editor Rev. Dorothy Boulware and AFRO Publisher and CEO Rev. Dr. Frances “Toni” Draper, spoke in detail about their personal faith journeys, the pandemic pivot and keeping God first despite challenges.  

Douglas, thankful for her physical health, equated her overall well-being to the strength of the nation and world.  “I am reminded during this time by the wisdom of mothers that you’re only as happy as your saddest child or you are only as strong as your weakest link.  And I relate that to the situation which we find ourselves in.  I am only as well as the most vulnerable that are in our society today, disproportionately those looking like us.  And so it is, in this regard, that it is to the most vulnerable that we as a Church, particularly those who claim to be Christian, that we are called to serve.  And it is only when the most vulnerable can begin to enjoy the justice that is well-being, that indeed we are all well,” Douglas said passionately.

Clark, who was recently elected the first Black and first woman to serve as the Episcopal Bishop of Chicago, had to cope with the beast of COVID-19 firsthand, when she contracted the virus in early March. “God is good, and so I’m good and I’m excited about all the possibilities that God has for us in 2021,” the Bishop-Elect said optimistically. 

Considering the novel nature of the time, Boulware talked about God pulling her through the challenges this pandemic period presents. “I have experienced a lot over my lifetime, I think the uniqueness of 2020 is that there has been so much unknown,” Boulware said.  “So my greatest blessing is to have been anchored in the Lord and when it felt some days the ground was falling out around us, because there was so much newness and so much strangeness, and sickness and so much death, my anchor held, and so that is where my safety net comes from. That’s where I feel safe in the middle of it all.” 

Despite the distinct challenges presented in 2020, Draper said that God’s unwavering nature has brought her great comfort.

“I have to say that He is the same God yesterday, today and forevermore and so he will sustain us through. I believe that the Lord allowed 2020 to happen to get the Church’s attention,” Draper said.  “So I believe, like Charles Dickens wrote, 2020 was the ‘best of times and the worst of times’ and there lots of lessons to learn.”

In a time where so many people are sick, dying and separated, some people question the place of God and Church.  The clergy emphasized, while COVID is not a divine disease, this time is indeed a call to action, specifically for the Church.  

“It is something that has occurred, not because it was divinely sanctioned, but occurred because it is what it means to be human in this world,” Douglas said.  “It is, to us, a time of reckoning, holding us accountable to how, in fact, we have gotten to this point, that a human phenomenon, global phenomenon, can reveal such inequities in our society and impact people in such a disproportionate way- and that’s the sin.  The sin of injustice, that is inequality, that COVID has revealed.” 

“I think God is saying, ‘Look we’ve got to lean on each other.’  We really have to,” Draper said.

“We don’t have room or time for this denomination, that denomination, that religion. We better do interfaith work as we’re looking towards the work of justice, and we better be locking arms with people. Think about the Civil Rights Movement.  It was a Movement of faith, but it was a Movement of faiths- different faiths,” Clark said, echoing and emphasizing the need for collaboration to address challenges of inequities.  “So we, as people who love people of all faiths, have to remember that it’s not a solitary work.  This work is the work of the people of God who have committed their lives to justice, fairness and equality- and we can’t do it by ourselves,” the Bishop-Elect added.  

As Pastor of Freedom Temple A.M.E. Zion Church, Draper said this time has pushed her in her personal faith journey and ministry.

“This time has stretched my faith… Can I still preach Jesus in the midst of this?  Is the message still relevant- which it is- in the midst of this?  Can I give people, and can I, myself, have hope in the midst of all of this that’s going on now,” Draper questioned before offering up an answer.  “It’s about giving credit and glorifying the One who gives us the strength to do what it is He’s called us to do.”

Boulware explained how solitude and silence have been gifts despite this COVID storm.  “I put myself at God’s feet and I sit in silence waiting for God to speak to me again.  That’s a magical mystical, wonderful opportunity for us to be reborn in God. When these things happen they are opportunities for us to be reborn in God, to re-know ourselves,  re-know the world as God begins to speak to us in a different way.”

Clark, who used her experience of being uplifted in prayer throughout her discernment and calling to the episcopate, said COVID-19 strengthened her understanding of faith in community.

“Faith is an evolving thing, but one thing I have really experienced this year is that faith in community matters.  The prayers of the righteous availeth much and being bathed in support matters.  I know a lot of people think that they can turn on the T.V. and listen to ministers online, but nothing replaces the community of God praying for you… What COVID has taught me is that you better be in a community of praying people,” Clark said.  “Faith is a community effort, and having people who are walking alongside and praying for you makes all the difference.”