Historic Sermon by Gina Stewart at Joint Black Baptist Meeting Draws Cheers, Controversy - Word&Way

Historic Sermon by Gina Stewart at Joint Black Baptist Meeting Draws Cheers, Controversy

(RNS) — The Rev. Gina Stewart has been known for breaking barriers in Black Baptist circles.

In 1995, she became pastor of Christ Missionary Baptist Church and the first African American woman to be elected to a Black Baptist congregation in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 2021, she was elected the first female president of the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Society, marking the first time a woman gained the highest post of a Black Baptist organization.

And in late January she became the first woman to preach at the periodic joint meeting of four Black Baptist denominations.

The Rev. Gina Stewart addresses the National Baptist Joint Board Session on Jan. 23, 2024, in Memphis, Tenn. (Video screen grab)

Her presence at the National Baptist Joint Board Session on Jan. 23, attended by thousands of Black Baptist clergy and laypeople, came with much call and response as she spoke, even as rumors and controversy surrounded it.

After many in the room cheered her on and stood as she preached, the session featuring her sermon temporarily disappeared from the Facebook page of the National Baptist Convention U.S.A. Inc. Some claimed there were attendees who chose not to be present when Stewart spoke.

As she opened her remarks, Stewart acknowledged three of the four denominations’ presidents and then the fourth, NBCUSA President Jerry Young, “in absentia” because he was not on the stage with the others.

Asked about her latest historic moment, Stewart, who was traveling Monday (Jan. 29), described in a statement to Religion News Service her “awe and gratitude” about the opportunity to preach and the interest the sermon drew — more than 250,000 views on her church’s Facebook page alone as of late Monday.

“This moment amplifies the shared stories of millions of women who daily rise against the crushing weight of patriarchy, misogynoir, and other interlocking systems of oppression that seek to diminish the value of women and marginalized communities,” she said.

“January 23rd opens the door for critical discussions about Jesus and justice, offering a chance to champion women by rethinking our theologies and reshaping our pulpits, workplaces, and platforms into more equitable spaces as we continue the long quest for gender equality and justice.”

To some, the interest in Stewart’s sermon and the criticism from those who chose not to attend it demonstrated either the long-standing autonomy of Baptist churches — some with women pastors — or the continuing resistance to acceptance of women in the pulpits of Black Baptist churches.

In remarks later in the four-day meeting, Young emphatically denied that he opposed Stewart’s preaching presence at the meeting and said he intended to visit her to tell her so.

“I did not protest her sermon; I did not boycott being here,” he said, according to a separate video clip posted on Facebook. “I support her and Baptists are autonomous — you do what you want to do at your own church.”

In an interview Tuesday, Young said he spent most of the four-day meeting solving disputes over the process to determine the candidates for the office of his denomination’s presidency who will be voted on later this year.

“A lot of the misunderstanding is, I believe, related to the fact that not only was I absent, that I was involved in those meetings, and then, of course, the sermon removed from the website,” he said, referring to the denomination’s Facebook page. “Obviously, that itself apparently led some folks to believe that there was something nefarious going on, but I assure that was not the case” on the part of the denomination.

On Thursday morning his denomination’s Facebook page included a post that said the morning service that featured Stewart’s sermon “has been maliciously removed from our page. The video was NOT removed by any of the administrators or the officers of the NBCUSAINC. We have reported the issue and are awaiting the results of the investigation.”

Jerlen Young-Canada, media and press relations director for NBCUSA, said in an interview that videos of the session featuring Stewart’s sermon, as well as other sessions, were aired live and then disappeared for reasons yet to be determined.

“No one on our National Baptist media team have removed videos,” she said.

David Peoples, president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention Inc. who invited Stewart to preach, said the video of her sermon “was always up and never came down” on his denomination’s platforms.

He also confirmed that Young concurred with the invitation.

“All four presidents, all four conventions, we agreed for her to come,” said Peoples in an interview, adding that he considered her sermon to be “moving and inspiring.”

He said he was not personally aware of anyone who chose not to attend the session featuring Stewart because she was preaching. Noting that all four presidents preached during the meeting, he added, “I’m not taking it that people boycotted me because they didn’t hear me preach.”

Young said he could not say whether people did not attend a session because a woman was preaching but he estimated that as many as 500 people were away at the same meeting he attended at that time.

Peoples said the historic sermon by Stewart was not the only notable moment of the National Baptist Joint Board Session’s third meeting — after previous gatherings in 2005 and 2008 — which also featured leaders of the National Baptist Convention of America and the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America.

“We’re also proud about dealing with issues and empowering our people, dealing with voter registration, dealing with legislation that’s on ballots across the country that affect the least, the lost and the left out and marginalized, particularly those in the Black and brown communities.”

In her sermon, Stewart spoke of the courage of Claudia, the wife of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who after having a dream, sent her husband a message to leave Jesus, an “innocent man,” alone.

Stewart described Jesus, who was ultimately crucified under Pilate, as someone who got in trouble for breaking traditions and caring for the marginalized.

“Jesus had a whole theological conversation with a woman at a well who was coming to look for water,” she preached, “and then commissioned this woman to go and run a revival in the city and the folks got saved. Jesus is in trouble. I said, he’s in trouble because he actively sought out and engaged with individuals who were often excluded by society.”

Some PNBC-affiliated clergy watched the sermon online from afar, and at least one, the Rev. Otis Moss III of Chicago, incorporated some of it in his next Sunday sermon cautioning against, as Stewart put it, “using your spirituality as a smokescreen” instead of admitting to racism, sexism or homophobia.

“It was masterful,” said Moss, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ and a lifetime member of the PNBC. He said he was told “there were individuals who did not attend” it but he considers Stewart to be “one of the most gifted preachers of this generation — period.”

Bible scholar and retired professor Renita Weems said she’s witnessed past incidents of women being cheered and criticized when taking new steps in their established preaching careers. She cited the example of Bishop Yvette Flunder, a Black lesbian whom Weems and others invited to speak during an annual lecture series in 2015 at American Baptist College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Weems said not much has changed in almost a decade at the denominational level of Baptist life.

“The needle has not moved,” she said, “at all as it relates to sexism and gender discrimination in the Baptist church.”

Young, who has led a Jackson, Mississippi, church for 40 years that has never had women pastors, said the autonomy of the churches can be viewed as a strength and sometimes a weakness.“The National Baptist Convention has no authority to instruct a particular local church as to how it will or will not deal with that issue,” he said. “It’s a local church issue.”