Black Women, Faith, and Sexuality

An Interview with Rev. Dr. Paula Hall

Pastor, Scholar, Program Manager

Describing the Work

I’m a womanist for sure. I have a womanist Biblical interpretation and a womanist theological foundation. If you understand womanist thinking from the beginning when Alice Walker wrote her book and then when all of the scholars like Renita Weems and Patricia Hill, Emile Townes, Cheryl Sanders, all of them, when they started, one of the key things that separates womanists from feminists, in my perspective, is the community. We’re always very community-focused because we are always bringing people in who have been forced out. When I had the opportunity to do my DMin, I was looking for a project that was kind of like that, that would use this intersectionality to talk about if we’re not bringing people in, then we need to bring people in. So, I’ve taken the classes here [at Howard University Divinity School] on the Black Church, Sexuality, Black Church History, and then again, I think I mentioned during the class [a session of the forthcoming United Church of Christ curriculum on the Black Church and Sexuality], the transformation of shame. That was the big push for me. And then once I understood, and then of course all the pastoral care classes we had to take, once I understood the impact of how we shame people who are from the LGBTQ community and how there is nothing positive that comes out of that, I was like, we have to find a way to help these churches that don’t know how to do that. How do I change this traditional, exclusive, alienating environment that we’ve created? How do we instead reach out and let everybody know, you’re welcome here?

So, the first thing I thought was how much I made my own changes. I’m not going to perpetrate or fraud or act as though I was always this liberal thinking all my life. I wasn’t until I came to school. For me, education is the key to everything. So that’s what made me say I’ve got to come up with a curriculum where any Black Church could take the class, read through it, understand it, and ask us questions. The leadership can read through it and then present it to their congregations in ways that they can hear and then take it from there and hopefully change some hearts in the meantime and then start engaging the LGBTQ community a little at a time to bring them in so that the people in the congregation can now put to work what they just went through in this class and see how embracing and bringing people in is so much better than pushing people out.

And shame has so much to do with that because we people of the global majority are so accustomed to our stuff being jackleg, or our stuff being other or unorthodox that we’ll do anything to make people see that we are the norm. We do things like everyone else. And what I would love to do in the midst of that learning how to open up their hearts and their minds and their ministries to the LGBTQ community is also to help them release this thought or this prevailing message that comes to us all the time that we’re somehow less because we’re brown. We’re not. White people’s ice is not colder. They don’t have the key to how to worship God. They are fumbling around just like we are. So, there’s no right way; it’s the way that we connect to God that’s the way. But if we don’t help people get there, either they’ll be turned off by the continued exclusion of people in the church or they will adopt that mentality that excludes and be the opposite of what we’re supposed to be as a body.

So, if that’s the case, that we were birthed out of rejection, how could we ever reject? But if you don’t challenge people by helping them to remember their own history and the way we came to be, then it’s easy for them to just continue on doing what they’re doing now.

So my professor, Dr. Harold Trulear, says when you’re looking for your project for your DMin, don’t think you have to solve the whole world’s issues in your one little project. Find a niche that perhaps people are not paying attention to or they’re purposely ignoring, or they don’t even know needs attending to and focus on that niche. For me, when I went onto the UCC (United Church of Christ) site and there are pages and pages of resources for white congregations, and of the full pages, six of the links were people of color and none of them approaching this the same way that I was. So, I said, okay, this is my niche. I’m going to zoom in on this. And what I was so fortunate to do was that my pastor had already developed a Black Church and Sexuality Bible Study just for our church, so where hers left off, mine picked up. So, we were able to work together and do that one presentation that you were already able to see [a presentation of the Black Church and Sexuality curriculum developed for the UCC].

The Process of Unlearning/Learning

We were all members of a local Baptist church in our neighborhood, and the pastor at the time was at our school here at Howard, and he started bringing in people that were looking for churches to connect to. One of them was my current pastor. She was the first woman to be ordained at that church we were at. Until that time, there were no women in leadership, which was taxing for me, but they were very good at youth, very good at men, and I had two sons. So, I said as long as they are benefiting from being in church with them, I’m going to stay here. So, she came, and she was the one who really questioned some of my preconceived prejudices in terms of the LGBTQ community and the Church. And I was like, “what do you mean? The scripture said abomination. It’s right there.” And she’d say, “Okay, now what does that mean? When they wrote the scripture, what did they mean by that? Did they mean the same thing we mean?” Of course, it shook me up because I hadn’t thought of it from that perspective, and I was like, “maybe they didn’t.”

And it was about that same time, with she and I having these regular conversations, that I started here at school as a student. And the more I stayed in class, the more I learned, the more I understood, we’re doing this all wrong. There’s nothing in this text or there’s nothing about this God, this Savior, that we’re claiming that should be telling people that they can’t come to God. I don’t understand that. And I had to learn it myself. The more I was exposed to the reality of the text and the subtext and the context and the more I understood that this is not about excluding anybody, it’s always about including all people, the more I understood that there is no orthodox way to do this and that if there is an orthodox way it’s probably old and played out and we need to come up with a new one. So, I would say every class that I took that I then applied to my understanding of how the Black Church deals with sexuality, the more I understood, the more I felt compelled.

And I finally got to this DMin work. This is what the church needs. We need some step-by-step for Black churches to be able to help the people remember where we came from, how we started our own churches, and what that looked like, that we were rejected which was what helped propel us to get our own, outside of hush harbors and the things that we were already doing that white folk didn’t know about. So, if that’s the case, that we were birthed out of rejection, how could we ever reject? But if you don’t challenge people by helping them to remember their own history and the way we came to be, then it’s easy for them to just continue on doing what they’re doing now. If they really recognize how we started and how important it was for us to have our own to recognize and welcome all people in, then why would they change? You have to help them see that that’s a part of our history that we can’t deny and that we shouldn’t be doing things that contradict that.

There are things in our history, the misogyny and the power plays within the pulpit, those are shameful things, don’t get me wrong. But excluding those things, those things are always going to be internal, but they don’t have anything to do with excluding a person, other than misogyny, they don’t have anything to do with excluding a person based on who they love. For real! That’s why we’re going to kick them out? So, if we don’t help people get to that, I don’t think we’ll be able to change it, even if they start to understand as older leadership that you’re going to lose vulnerable people unless you start to embrace the people that you have already declared as “abominations.” If we don’t help them understand that this is the opposite of what I believe God would have us to do, I believe the point is, story after story, that we can point out in the scriptures, specifically the bridegroom’s ceremony, that the elite were invited to that didn’t show up and he started bringing in everybody. That’s the one we need to be paying attention to, the whole bringing in everybody part. And free people from anger, mistrust, excluding and alienating people because I believe that’s a spirit that’s on them if they continue with it. Reject that. Reject it but reject it because you understand this is your history and understand how we are connected.

For African American congregations, what we need to do is get over that whole idea that we’re somehow less. We’re not less, but if we don’t tell ourselves we’re not less then we’ll just continue to act like what the rest of the world tells us is right and we’re wrong.

Don’t do it because Paula said so. Do it because you recognize that your big mama didn’t turn anyone away. When the girl who got pregnant, and they never talked about the boy, when the girl got pregnant, it was Big Mama who brought her in and told her God still loved her, and that she could still be a part. And if that’s what she did, that’s what we should do to everybody. That was kind of my journey. That there was nothing available in the UCC. Once I got to the point that I felt like I had enough information and had enough access to the information to be able to create some kind of step-by-step for Black churches because I think that the best way is for our culture to make that kind of change is to recognize where we came from. One we go back and do that whole Sankofa thing, looking back where we came from. I think that will help them to, and then particular with the shaming and name-calling that went along with being enslaved, reject that. If we reject slavery, then we should reject everything that goes along with that.

So that was my whole process of getting that information together and of course being honest, watching people who are gay, navigating coming out in the church. My daughter, who at the time had gotten married to a dude none of us liked, but hey, she married him and then they got divorced. And then she fell in love with this wonderful, beautiful woman. So now, I’m watching it really personally, so now I’m watching my daughter as she navigates this and she goes church hunting and sees who’s going to accept and who’s not going to accept. And I’m in school while she’s going through that and it’s giving me more and more ideas on this is an issue we need to tackle. And if the only way to do it is to write it and get it out in a way that pastors could, best case they call myself, Sherry, and Dr. Hopson to teach it to the congregation, but if they don’t want to do that, then they’ll have something in their hands that they can follow along, and if they stick to it they should be able to communicate it to the congregation in a way that will hopefully move the hearts of their congregants.

Challenges or Barriers

Since this had not been written before, this was brand new, right? My pastor had already developed the whole essence of God. Who is God all about? Because in her mind, she’s a psychologist, she makes everyone go back to the bare bones. We say we love God. What do we love about God? What is the essence of God? When we say that God’s essence is about love and community and loving on each other, respecting God and doing the things that it takes to make a community, then where does it stop, and why do we stop it? If we say that that’s what we believe about God, then how do we treat these people differently than what we say we believe God would have us to do?

So, she did the essence of God. She did an initial look at Leviticus. She did reading the Bible and the whole idea of it’s not meant literally. First of all, it wasn’t written in English. That’s first. And we’re not supposed to be reading it as if God just took a pen and then possessed a writer to write this stuff down, but people were writing as they were moved, so we can help people to understand that the Bible is not to be read literally and that we’re supposed to be looking at it in the context in which it was presented, and who God is, and let’s talk about basic sexuality 101. Where we talk about what does orientation mean? What does gender mean? Because people don’t know. They just don’t know. And of course, that’s an honor/shame thing too because I can’t let you know that I don’t know ’cause then you’ll think that I’m less, and I have to hide that shame thing.

So, she developed that part, and I picked it up from Black Church history and Black Church sexuality and then the beloved community. What does that look like? And what does it mean? This honor and shame thing that drives all of us. So, it was hard to find information to use as source documentation for it. Luckily, here at the School of Divinity, maybe about 8 years ago, the dean, Alton Pollard III, got a grant from Lilly Foundation to do this grant they called Equipping the Saints. And his portion of it, there was a whole panel of faculty members that participated, but he did the portion on LGBTQ and being inclusive. So, the report from the grant, I used a lot of. And of course, I used a lot of Kelly Brown Douglas. I used a lot of other writers that were putting out information that helped me understand how I can get this information across to a congregation. So, I’d say my biggest stumbling block was available resources because there weren’t a lot.

Don’t be discouraged by people who are telling you, you’re heretical, you’re unorthodox, so was Jesus. So, you’re in good company.

Because we’ve been talking specifically to UCC congregations and only the ones that want to talk, I haven’t gotten any negative feedback. My family, that’s a different story. Not my immediate family, my kids and my husband, but my parents, and older members of the family are gasped. They’re like, what are you saying? You know that the Bible says. I’ve gotten more pushback from them, and I’ve been able to talk to them and explain. Some of them have come to accept. Some of them just stopped arguing with me because I could back up what I was saying and maybe they couldn’t. I would say that was more family than pushback I’ve had within congregations. Now, I haven’t been exposed to pastors that are clearly not interested in becoming open and affirming, and I expect that if we had a conversation, there are very different understandings and very different theological backgrounds for our position, but I would love to talk with them about it and present, not saying that my way is the only way because there are 25 million others way to do whatever you want to do but this is one way that you might be able to introduce it to your congregation. I would love to have those conversations. Maybe one day.

Navigating the Academy and the Church

So yes, the same pastor, the same woman I was telling you about that was the first ordained woman at the old church we were at, she and her husband, myself and my husband, and four other people decided in the midst of being at the other church, we started a separate Bible Study that was just for us because we weren’t getting enough from the teachers that were there. And out of that whole Bible Study process, we created our own church, we created Beloved Community Church. So, from the beginning, we were open and affirming. Whether we understood that or not, the pastors did, and I think did a great job helping us, and the school helped too, but helping us become that kind of church that whoever came in felt welcomed. And my pastor was an adjunct faculty here at the School of Divinity and she’s full faculty over at George Washington, so this has been seamless for me. Whatever I’m thinking about in class and all the ministers but one at Beloved Community are Howard grads, so they were all my editors. I’m writing papers and sending it out to the leadership to get their comments back. So there has been no conflict. It was welcomed. My research, doing what I do here at the School of Divinity, doing what I do at church, and doing those ministries has been very positive.

I had the opportunity, my New Testament professor, was in a working collaboration with New York Avenue Presbyterian downtown because they have a McClendon series where they bring in speakers from around the world and academia to come and teach. So, one of the things is they like to keep current on what’s being taught, so they ask the professors here, send over somebody who is a current student and let them come teach at the school. He sent me, and I went for five years, and long after I graduated, because they liked me. So, I went and that was the most challenged, I was. It was a white church, so I’m explaining to them why I developed this curriculum for African Americans and the leadership there was very welcoming and very encouraging. I had a little class that I worked with specifically. They were a much older group that what I expected, and some of them were not as receptive, and I was okay with that. I made it plain. I must have said it 25 million times, this is my interpretation of this. If you don’t agree, I’m not angry with you. I’m not upset. I’m not offended because all of us could be wrong. We don’t know. So, when we meet God face to face, that’s when we’ll find out you were right on target every time or wow, girl, what made you think that? Until we meet God face to face, we could be wrong, so let’s give each other a little grace and let’s see what’s wrong with this. Why wouldn’t we do it? Why wouldn’t we welcome people? I said for African American congregations, what we need to do is get over that whole idea that we’re somehow less. We’re not less, but if we don’t tell ourselves we’re not less then we’ll just continue to act like what the rest of the world tells us is right and we’re wrong. And so, I listened to what they had to say, but I didn’t’ find any merit in it, so I just smiled at them and went on back to my own church. So, I haven’t had any pushback, not vocationally, from church and being in the academy at the same time. It’s been very positive.

Advice For Those Hoping to Do This Work

So, don’t be discouraged, that’s my first bit of advice, if you don’t find all of the sources that you need. Some of the sources you may have to create. Just by your own scholarship and your own ingenuity and seeing how that can work with this. So don’t be discouraged if you don’t have those sources, either you’ll make those sources or make do with the sources that you find. Don’t be discouraged by people who are telling you, you’re heretical, you’re unorthodox, so was Jesus. So, you’re in good company. Don’t be discouraged by it. And the other things is, remember that what you’re doing is going to change somebody’s life for the better. The more you work on this and the more information that you’re able to produce and, you know, create for others to read and for others to benefit from those communities are better off because of what you did. Keep that in mind. Because even when you’re being rejected and people are telling you you’re going to hell because you’re supposed to being saying such and such and their definition of what your ministry is supposed to be, just understand the impact.

So, we finished the first kind of draft of that presentation that we gave at UCC. I went to Rev. Blackmon, and she was like, “This is good. I need for you guys to do this,” but she wanted us to meet with all the LGBTQ pastors in the UCC so that they would be aware of what we were trying to do primarily because Sherry and I are allies. And so, we did. We met with the LGBTQ pastors, and we presented, and they received it so well. They thought, “yes, this is great.” Their only beef with us was that in the presentation, we didn’t have any representation from that community which is why both of us thought immediately and asked Dr. Hopson to join us. And because he’s so brilliant and because he’s part of the community, that rounded us out and I think satisfied those pastors. So, be open because sometimes people can say things, and they’re right, you need to do that. We needed to include people from that community when we made the presentation. That was a great move, and it was because of the feedback we got from that community. So be open and be discerning because sometimes people have other things going on that you’re not aware of, and they’re telling you something that may sound great but after you do a little digging, you’re like ah, but you move on to the next thing. So be open, and don’t be discouraged and understand the impact of your work because the impact of your work is that you’re bringing freedom and inclusion and welcome to a community that has been nothing but ostracized and excluded whether it’s the LGBTQ community or Black women, both. And we need to be cared for.    

1 thought on “An Interview with Rev. Dr. Paula Hall”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s