From The Pulpit: The Names We Must Speak In Church

by Ashley DeTar Birt

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of preaching at my home congregation in Pittsburgh, PA. As it was the first Sunday in Advent, I knew that my topic would have something to do with looking to what the Biblical text said about the return of Jesus to inform us about waiting for His birth.

As the date grew closer, the non-indictment of Darren Wilson also meant preaching against violence, injustice, and police brutality against brown people. 

Knowing the importance of speaking names, I sought to recall some of the victims of racist violence: Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown. The deaths have been so numerous that it was easy to pick out a few men to mention.

When it came to the female victims, however, I could only come up with one off the top of my head: Renisha McBride. Even then, I had to look for more information her to make sure I had my facts correct. I didn’t even try to think of an LGBTQ person. Even as a queer woman of color, I knew I couldn’t name one off the top of my head.

I am not alone in this ignorance, and this is a problem. It is a problem that it took an article going viral for many of us to know that women like Aiyana Jones, Rekia Boyd, Yvette Smith, Tarika Wilson, Kathryn Johnson, and so many others have lost their lives at the hands of the police just like Eric Garner and Mike Brown have. It’s a problem that Duanna Johnson and CeCe McDonald, both transgender women, are not household names all across America. It’s a problem that most of us don’t know that Rashawn Brazell and Mitrice Richardson both went missing and were found dead under horrific circumstances. It’s a problem that Dionte Green was supposedly killed by a “straight” man meeting him for sex but law enforcement doesn’t want to consider that it might be a hate crime, and it’s a problem that his death has barely started a conversation.

It’s a problem that harassment and violence disproportionately affect women and queer people of color, yet their stories rarely make national headlines.

The Church, of course, is very familiar with this problem. In addition to failing time and time again to talk about race in a nuanced and faithful way, it is terrible at talking about female or queer-identified people. Sadly, the ways we worship don’t often create spaces to lift up these issues. It’s a rare Sunday when someone preaches on a Biblical passage about a woman, especially someone besides Mary.

Churches either use specific texts out of context to condemn queer sexuality or fail to talk about the Bible and sexuality altogether. We quote Martin Luther, John Calvin, perhaps even James Cone or Howard Thurman, but female and queer theologians hardly come up. How can we talk about the stories of black women and LGBTQ people when we don’t even talk about the Biblical stories and theologies of women and LGBTQ people in our churches?

It doesn’t have to be like this, of course. We can speak the names of women and LGBTQ people who are affected by violence from our pulpits. We can lead by proactively putting women and queer people into the spotlight.

We can create spaces for these stories by transforming how we look at the Bible and reconsidering whose theology we lift up in worship and Bible study.

 We can discuss passages and people such as:

  • The woman in Judges 19 and what it means when victims remain nameless
  • The story of Sodom and Gomorrah and how the sin of Sodom is not homosexuality, but rather inhospitality and rape (which, you may notice, is condoned when it comes to Lot’s daughters)
  • The Ethiopian eunuch and how God loves and calls those who don’t fit into sexual or gender binaries
  • The theology of Dolores Williams and how women of color are often turned into sacrifices
  • The theology of Patrick Cheng and how our assumptions of God and faith need to be queered and shaken
  • The theology of Marcella Althaus-Reid and how shifting our attention to the lived experiences of the marginalized can create liberation

For some, these suggestions may seem obvious. The fact remains, however, that many churches don’t preach these verses or teach these theologians. Even when churches do bring attention to the suffering of these marginalized people, it is often done through the stories of presumably straight cis-male figures.

It is our responsibility as pastors, church members, scholars, and Christians to raise up the importance of all God’s children.

We need to speak the names and tell the stories of the fallen, but we also need to create a world in which those stories can be heard. A reminder of how dangerous the world is for women and LGBTQ people of color should not be the prompting for speaking out for the first time. Churches need to be prepared to listen to these names and stories because they’ve heard female and queer stories before.

We need to honor our women and LGBTQ people of color family, both by honoring the dead and inspiring the living.