Photo by Prostock-studio on Envato Elements
“Contend O Lord, with those who contend with me…”
October 10, 2023
Many male clergy routinely disrespect women, including fellow clergy, through words, actions, and thoughts.
I remember a couple years back sharing a picture of my sorority sisters and myself via Instagram with a pastor, who is a member of my sorority’s brother fraternity, who I was working on a collaboration with. Because I did not know him well, I chose to share the photo on Instagram rather than via text. “Why you gotta make a pastor think impure thoughts?” he wrote back in my DMs. I was in my first year of divinity school. I shared what happened with a friend who encouraged me to not let the pastor’s comment slide. In a text, I wrote that his comment was inappropriate and mentioned that he has no idea the amount of mental gymnastics women have to go through both online and offline in hopes of feeling safe in our bodies. We are either too this or too that; not enough this or not enough that. Society and the church want to convince us that it is always our fault, that we should have and could have done something differently. Men are never culpable.
Ironically or perhaps not so much, the dress I wore in the photo was the same dress I wore when visiting this pastor’s church one Sunday with a friend. It hit me that the intrusive gaze I felt in service that day was indeed the wandering eyes of the pastor, who yes, is married with children. And perhaps not so surprisingly, this pastor did not take accountability for his comment in my DMs, instead trying to play it off as a joke. Where accountability could’ve been a path forward, instead the lack thereof rendered the collaboration null and void. Had I been a member of the church, I would have had to decide if I were to stay in the congregation suffering silently, leave the church, risk ostracization or stigmatization by church members or leadership—an all-too common truth-telling tax—or risk not being believed at all.
About a month ago, I froze on stage after moderating a conversation with an author for a non-profit. For a moment, my hand was stuck in the clasp of the handshake of a man, who remarked in front of the audience that my intellect was almost as fine as I was. What started out as a compliment turned into a reductive, sexualized slight that I won’t forget. I wore a dress that I was proud to be wearing. One of my mentors in ministry donned it over the summer and I loved it so much I had to get one of my own, in my favorite color — purple. Hers was green. And here I was, steeped in discomfort because this man, a clergy and board member, decided to speak what was wholly unnecessary to vocalize. My memory of wearing this dress for the first time is now stained by sexism. Without much hesitation, I wrote a note on a piece of paper to him telling him that his comment was inappropriate; that women, and especially Black women, deserve better; and that I believe he knows better.
Many male clergy routinely disrespect women, including fellow clergy, through words, actions, and thoughts. None of this is by coincidence or happenstance, nor does it happen in isolation—it is both by design and a perpetual product of society’s, including the church’s, refusal not just to explicitly acknowledge sexism and misogyny but far more critically, to do the dire work of repenting and addressing these ills in ways that do not require women to “to do the work.”
While I did not hesitate, the ability to immediately address degrading sexism came from alchemizing years of instances when I downplayed, discounted, disregard, dismissed, or denied my own feelings. I passed it to my friend, who passed it to him, since we were seated at the same table. When the lunch concluded, he made his way over to me to apologize, saying that as soon as the words left his mouth, he was asking himself “what the hell he was doing,” that he was embarrassed, and that his wife was going let him have it when she got home, to which I responded, “as she should.” Yet his apology centered himself and did not name the ramifications of his conduct, signatures of the patriarchy. Was I not also embarrassed? Was his wife not also embarrassed? What about a public apology?
“Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me! Take hold of shield and buckler, and stand up for my help!” I invoke the words of Psalm 35 (AMP) as a call for God to move on behalf of women, asking God to contend with the men, and those who stand by watching, saying nothing, who show us that they do not regard us as wholly beloved and called by God. Though the language may appear strong, it is nonetheless fitting for the reality of the daily battles women must fight to keep on keeping on. Yet keeping on is not the abundant life, the life of thriving Christ prescribes for us in John 10:10.
Black women are constantly caught in the web of historical hyper-sexualization and respectability politics, with an added layer of oppressive scrutiny because of dominant, weaponized renderings of Christian womanhood. In this nation, Black womanhood, in and outside of the church is fraught with enduring stereotypes—the mammy (the ubiquitous, enslaved then “freed” subservient caretaker), the Jezebel (the immoral sexually deviant subwoman), the matriarch (the do-it-all-have-it-all-together solo head of house), the First Lady (the preacher’s wife who is enduringly good yet not good enough to be the preacher, though she preaches regularly in pulpits of her own making), the StrongBlackWoman (the woman who suffers and overcomes daily while counting it all joy)—all of which womanist theologian Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes describes in detail, including their historical roots, in her book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
None of this is by coincidence or happenstance, nor does it happen in isolation—it is both by design and a perpetual product of society’s, including the church’s, refusal not just to explicitly acknowledge sexism and misogyny but far more critically, to do the dire work of repenting and addressing these ills in ways that do not require women to “to do the work.” Make no mistake—writing the text, sending the email, demanding the meeting is work and work that falls on women who’ve been disrespected, diminished, or denied the fullness of their God-given dignity. As Dr. Walker-Barnes writes, “In the face of a theological worldview that encourages unmitigated submission to suffering, African American women have little choice but to resort to stoicism—the suppression of emotion—as a coping strategy…Where is the space for lamenting the suffering of African American women in a theological and societal context that teaches them that their contemporary suffering is divinely ordained…?”[i] Stoicism and silencing often sit in the same pew.
I am transported back to July as I sat listening intently to the words of Minister Candace Simpson, who served as Co-Chaplain In-Residence for The Children’s Defense Fund’s annual Proctor, now Hall-Proctor Institute on the hallowed grounds of the Haley Farm. “Women are being shamed for having bodies and occasionally moving them. No one says anything about the men who actively objectify young women…what a predictable world we live in,” she said, doing the dual work of explaining a sexist scene in Tyler Perry’s movie, “Madea’s Family Reunion” and a persistent real-world reoccurrence.
As women, and if I may emphasize, Black women beginning in our girlhood, we are taught that our kneecaps are naughty, our thighs fleshly temptresses, our bosoms brazen bullies to men who couldn’t possibly be culpable of thinking impure thoughts, speaking impure words, or engaging in impure deeds. We are taught that it is our fault that the bodies God created for us challenge men to deny themselves and pick up their own crosses, rather than casting it off on us. This theological and societal context is dangerous daily, should not be shunned, and cannot be allowed to persist. It makes women scapegoats for the patriarchy, even when the patriarchy professes the Holy Trinity, is ordained or involved in the church.
I remember Minister Simpson’s meditation because she went on to name a reality that I felt was embodied on the farm in ways I have not felt at other ministry conferences, churches, and spaces, and one that could and should be an embodiment of beloved community that is literally safe and sanctified. It is a reality that is possible, not somewhere off in the distance of five or ten years, or in the lifetimes of future generations. I did indeed feel comfortable in my skin, showing skin, in body that God gave me, doing my best to honor who God made me to be by wearing what I feel comfortable and confident in, trusting that how I show up is pleasing to God, rather than trying to dress to appease respectability politics, curry to the patriarchy, or “cover up” the temple of the Holy Spirit that I wake up daily in as a Black woman.
“I hope that each of us feels safe and free on this farm. Wear what you need to wear. BE free. Be comfortable. Stay cool,” Minister Simpson said. “And if anyone makes you feel uncomfortable for whatever you are wearing, or the body you have, even on this land, come see us. This goes for any age, any gender, any body. You deserve to feel safe on this land. I’m saying this because the way we prevent harassment is by making it clear that this ain’t what we came to this land for. Amen?”
Minister Ryan Lindsay Arrendell is an Emmy-award winning journalist, preacher, writer, and entrepreneur. She believes in storytelling as a powerful tool for healing and change. Whether she’s in the pulpit, the streets, the classroom or on the stage, Ryan Lindsay leads with love to connect with those around her.