By Janene Cates Putman
Janene writes: Rev. Courtney Pace, Ph.D., is assistant professor of church history at Memphis Theological Seminary. She has a Ph.D. in religion from Baylor University (2014), a Masters of Divinity in theology from George W. Truett Theological Seminary (2007), and an Honors Bachelor of Science in computer science engineering, with minors in mathematics and psychology, from University of Texas at Arlington (2004). She researches social justice movements in American religion, particularly race and gender. She is the author of Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Halland numerous peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, book reviews, and encyclopedia articles. She is an ordained Baptist minister and the proud mother of Stanley. She is also the creator of the Stole Sisters podcast, which features women preachers of all Christian traditions.
*This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. My questions are denoted by my initials (JCP); Dr. Pace’s answers are indicated by her initials (CP).
Listen, understand, and change
Janene: Congratulations on your new book Freedom Faith: The Womanist Vision of Prathia Hall. Tell us how you came to write this.
Courtney Pace: Thank you! My book emerged from my doctoral dissertation. I knew that I wanted to write my dissertation on something at the intersections of race and gender. Homiletician Tom Long, in a brief conversation while he offered a guest lecture at my institution in Fall 2008, mentioned Prathia Hall, including her alleged origination of “I have a dream,” and suggested that I consider her. Google searches revealed not only that there was no academic work on her but also the potential contribution of such research. I began a nearly decade-long investigation into her life and ministry, including archival research, oral history interviews, immersive research, and mining primary and secondary sources from the civil rights movement. Together, these sources offered pieces I could put together to flesh out her life story. After finishing my dissertation, I gained access to Hall’s papers and was able to significantly expand my work on her later life and ministry, and particularly her preaching.
Janene: Have you gotten any pushback from the African-American faith community because of the fact that you’re a white woman?
Courtney Pace: An overwhelming majority of my work on this project was met with encouragement and support. There were some, however, who did not believe a white scholar should research any Black topic. White people have perpetuated such terror upon Black people and communities, and white women have perpetrated such betrayal against women of color generally and Black women specifically, and not just in the past, that it was completely rational to vet narrators. I hope my work has done justice to Prathia Hall and that it is her voice, not mine, that shines.
I hope white scholars will be challenged by my work to see how they may perpetuate what they profess to oppose. Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper says that the anger of a Black woman is a gift; if she is sharing her anger with you, she believes you can hear it and that you can change. Often, white people respond to such sharing with defensiveness, centering themselves. To white readers, when someone tells you they are experiencing oppression, it does not matter whether you meant to do it or not or perceive it to be happening or not; you still did it, and it’s real to them. The most important thing in that moment is to listen, understand, and change. Also, celebrating the historical civil rights movement should challenge us to examine our own times for systemic injustice. Our commitment to contemporary justice movements should be as deep as our appreciation for historical activism.
Janene: I’m fascinated by this part of your work. You are the founder and chair for the clergy board of Planned Parenthood of Tennessee and North Mississippi. I had no idea there was such a thing. What kind of work do you do there?
Courtney Pace: When I worked at Baylor (Waco, Texas), I was a member of the Clergy Advocacy Board of Planned Parenthood Greater Texas, which I hoped to continue doing with the local affiliate in Memphis, Tennessee. I met with the president/CEO of what was then Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region to discuss clergy support, and she welcomed me to create a clergy advocacy board, which launched in 2016. We crafted a group of interfaith leaders who could be advocates for reproductive justice in our area and who could offer pastoral support to the clinic, its staff, and its patients as needed. Since its inception, we have made public statements in support of affordable and accessible reproductive health care, published articles, aided fundraising, offered training for staff, and strategized for expanding the kinds of messaging received by Planned Parenthood patients. One of our board members serves on the clergy board for the national organization, which helps us coordinate our local efforts with larger campaigns.
We each have the freedom to live according to our convictions
Janene: As a theologian, where would you say faith and reproductive justice meet?
Courtney Pace: Thankfully, there are many insightful arguments for why reproductive justice is part of Christian orthodoxy.
The simplest reason to support reproductive justice as a person of faith is that if we believe each person is made in the image of God, we must trust that they are capable of discerning the best choice for them. People choose whether or not to become parents and when for a variety of reasons, and each of us deserves to make those decisions according to what we believe is best for us and the future to which God has called us. A helpful analogy is the dilemma between treatment or palliative care in patients with severe diseases. Sometimes, patients opt for palliative care to enjoy a higher quality of life for a shorter amount of time rather than participating in medical treatment that may give them a lower quality of life for a longer time. Families often don’t understand when a loved one chooses to die rather than seek treatment, but ultimately, it is the patient’s decision what treatment or care they receive. Reproductive health care requires the same freedom for patients.
Another reason to support reproductive justice as a person of faith is the separation of church and state. When church and state are combined, both are corrupted. Americans have long recognized that the purest form of government takes place within a secular state, where individuals have freedom to practice religion according to their personal convictions. Different faiths have different ideas of when life begins. Rather than legislating a particular religious view over another, our laws ensure that reproductive medical care can be safely and affordably accessed by those desiring such services. From sex education to STI/cancer screenings to birth control to fertility treatment to abortion to maternity care, reproductive health care is vital to the wellbeing of our communities. Some may make different choices about their bodies and their reproduction than others, and we can celebrate that we each have the freedom to live according to our convictions.
Supporting reproductive justice as a person of faith is critical when we consider issues of the common good. Though one mother carries and delivers the baby, the baby’s life will have an impact on many lives and limited resources. An unexpected pregnancy can devastate an unprepared mother/family financially and emotionally, and they may opt to terminate the pregnancy because it would be death-dealing. Some choose not to have children for reasons of environmental sustainability. Some have careers that do not permit the kind of investment in parenting they value. Whatever the reason, choosing to keep or terminate a pregnancy is a major decision, requiring navigation of a multitude of dynamics and factors that affect significantly more than just the mother and the child. Opting for self-limitation in support of the common good is a noble act, a loving act, and a faithful act for those who choose it.
Finally, supporting reproductive justice as people of faith is critical in the struggle against systemic oppression, including racism, sexism, and classism. Loretta Ross’s and Cherisse Scott’s research and advocacy have been critical to my understanding of the connection between racism, sexism, classism, and opposition to reproductive justice, and I highly encourage readers to explore their work. White, evangelical, heteropatriarchal notions of gender roles, rooted in perpetuating the Lost Cause of southern slavery and patriarchal domination, compound their oppression of poor women and women of color. Wealthy women will always have access to abortion because they can afford whatever it requires. Restrictions on access to abortion primarily impacts its accessibility to poor women and women of color, which effectively guarantees that there will always be an underclass of poor women of color. In other words, restrictions on access to abortion enslaves poor women of color to exploited labor for the sake of caring for their families, defuturizing them from economic mobility. Additionally, as the demographic landscape of America shifts to a white minority, abortion restriction functions to support white birth rates, literally at the expense of black and brown futures. Any advocacy for reproductive justice must be coupled with advocacy against systemic forms of racism and classism. Until we are ALL free, no one is free.
If you are struggling with what I’m sharing, let me thank you for staying with me and considering a new perspective.
The divine project of liberation for all people rooted in the love of Christ
Janene: What would you say to a person who opposes abortion on grounds of faith?
Courtney Pace: For those who believe abortion is sinful and wish to see it needed less, you have a constitutional freedom to hold such a belief; however, it seems that there should be a resulting commitment to sex education throughout the developmental span of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood; affordable and accessible health care, including contraception; and a supportive community of adults deeply invested in young people.
For those who genuinely believe that their opposition to abortion is rooted in a value for life, I challenge you to examine the quality of life into which some are born. Will the parent(s) have time, money, and other resources to invest in the child and not to the detriment of other children and/or themselves? Will the child have a reasonable hope for a bright future? Will the mother have a reasonable hope for a bright future? Perhaps some opt not to become parents because of how much they do value parenthood and respect life.
Finally, let us remember the fullness of the life to which we were called, to embody the love of Christ for the world. In the midst of police brutality against young black and brown bodies, terrorism against LGBTQ persons and especially trans women of color, sex trafficking, drug addiction, global warfare, climate change, under-resourced educational systems, predatory economic systems, children dying from malnutrition and lack of access to clean water, etc., let us reorient ourselves to the divine project of liberation for all people rooted in the love of Christ.
Take responsibility, speak the truth, and make things right
Janene: What part can/does faith play in justice activism?
Courtney Pace: Prathia Hall taught us that the purpose of churches is to mediate the struggles of the people for justice and liberation. She meant this for Black churches, but the proclamation applies for all of us, if we will be open to seeing the truth about oppressive dynamics. Many Christian denominations have perpetrated oppression, using religious justifications. Whether members of those traditions knew it was happening or not, it happened. Indirect complicity with injustice is still complicity with injustice. Now is the time for taking responsibility, speaking the whole truth, and making things right.
Hall’s preaching addressed sexism and homophobia within Black churches and systemic racism, sexism, and classism within American churches period. She also preached about personal relationship with Jesus. For Hall, the two had to work hand-in-hand. Salvation was neither exclusively about personal piety nor justice but was always about both. She often repeated the phrase “watch Jesus” in her sermons, calling hearers to notice the ways Jesus offered both personal salvation and collective justice.
Opposing systemic racism, sexism, and classism are moral issues, and it is appropriate and good for people of faith to participate in liberation movements. It is also appropriate and good for people of faith to share their concerns about contemporary moral issues within their communities of faith. (As a counter example, trying to outlaw abortion because one’s faith opposes it does violate the separation of church and state.)
Janene: How does theological education connect with that?
Courtney Pace: I proudly serve on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary, where all of our curriculum is organized around scholarship, piety, and justice. As we prepare students for ministry in congregations and communities, we are helping them understand the integration of scholarship, piety, and justice in their personal faith and leadership formation. We help students develop skills in critical thinking, innovation, and informed reflection so they are prepared to navigate the issues in their ministry contexts and can offer meaningful guidance to those looking to their leadership.
Memphis Theological Seminary has students from more than twenty-five different denominations, and from all over the world. We celebrate the ways we learn from and with each other, and we celebrate that God is bigger than any one tradition. Part of justice in theological education, then, is exposing students to a variety of perspectives so they have opportunities to examine their own and appreciate those of others. We have different understandings of worship and how God speaks to the church. And yet, we are all part of how God is building God’s kingdom on earth.
As a theological educator, I want to encourage my students to always inquire, to wonder with reckless abandon, and to trust that God is big enough for all our questions. If God is who we say God is, then no question will change that. Ask! Wonder! Feel!
If we are to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength, then our academic work of theological education is worship. When we seek to better understand who God is and how God is working in the world, we are deep in worship. Books are not a threat to faith, but a resource. Academic disciplines are not a threat to faith, but a resource. Thanks be to God that God continues to reveal God’s self to new generations in new ways. May we have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hands and feet to follow.
Women of faith and activism
Janene: Do women of faith have a role to play in today’s civil rights activism?
Courtney Pace: Women of faith have been the backbone of every justice movement in history. Often unnamed in histories, women have supported, organized, and worked for justice in their local communities, nationally, and internationally. Most denominational missions’ infrastructures were developed by women, including foreign and domestic missions, hospitals, orphanages, and schools. Much of the pastoral care for those leading these organizations has been done by women, including correspondence, fundraising assistance, and advocacy.
Women of faith have much to offer today’s civil rights activism. Let me begin by acknowledging that we are gifted and called in different ways. There is no one way that civil rights activism happens. It takes place through a variety of actions taken by many people. We need some people to be in public demonstrations, but that is not everyone’s call. We also need strategizers and motivators, artists and builders, educators and caretakers, proclaimers and musicians, leaders and followers. Those who are not comfortable being on the front lines of marches can help through prayer, raising funds, and raising awareness. Those who prefer to work one-on-one can volunteer with local school systems or community organizations. Writers can publish op-eds and blogs to spread the word about movements and why they are needed. I’ve struggled with this significantly given my academic focus on women’s activism. I’m a Ravenclaw, well-suited to studying and teaching as part of the mobilization of others. My friend Commissioner Sawyer will always be one of the first on the scene. We all can play a part according to our giftedness, and we can all work together.
Janene: Fun fact: You won a gold medal in figure skating at the 2012 ISI Adult World Championships! Discuss, please!
Courtney Pace: I have trained as a figure skater since July 4, 1992; twenty-seven years. I competed until I finished high school in 1999 (I was fourteen), though I did a local competition in my last year of college for fun (2004). During college, seminary, and graduate school, I continued training for fun and skated in shows. My son started skating at fourteen months, and we enjoyed sharing time together on the ice. By 2012, I was teaching at Baylor. My students learned that the 2012 adult world championships were to be in Dallas and dared me to enter. I skated to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” covered by Katherine McPhee and won gold! My grandmother, mother, and son were there to cheer me on, and it was a beautiful memory for me.
Skating is as natural to me as breathing. I skate better than I walk. The ice is my safe space, where I can feel fully like myself. My brain and my body are perfectly in sync on the ice. I skated during my entire pregnancy, and skating held me together through my divorce. Like Sabbath, skating is the rhythm I live by. Skating has taught me how to be aware of my body, to learn from constructive criticism, to persevere through challenges, and to be part of a team. I proudly train with #TeamCain, based in Euless, Texas. My coaches since 2004, Darlene and Peter Cain, work with me via FaceTime, and I can cheer on the rest of my team – including TeamUSA skaters Amber Glenn and Jimmy Ma and U.S. National Champs Ashley Cain and Tim LeDuc – by watching them online. When I visit my parents in Dallas, I enjoy opportunities to skate with my team. Believe it or not, I’m actually skating better now than I did as a kid!
Janene: What’s a question you never get asked and would love to answer?
Courtney Pace: I am sometimes asked, always by gifted young women, if they will ever find a real partner to share life with. This question is rooted in fear that their exceptional giftedness will prohibit them from finding a meaningful lifelong relationship with someone who can support their career and ambition, or it is rooted in their growing awareness that their current relationship is not sustainable.
What I am almost never asked is what a supportive partnership looks like. It can take many forms, but in general, a supportive partner relationship is one where each partner has room to blossom as their fullest self, knowing that their partner will support and affirm them. There is a natural give and take, which doesn’t keep score, and which is as invested in the other’s thriving as one’s own. Domestic tasks are often assigned by giftedness and availability rather than stereotype, and both partners genuinely appreciate what their partner contributes to the relationship and to their household. Supportive partnerships are rooted in respect, trust, and love for each other. They ARE possible, and they ARE worth waiting for. If you never meet someone with whom you can have a supportive partnership, I honestly think you’re better cultivating supportive community as a single person than forcing a marriage where you cannot flourish. Follow how God is leading you.
Janene: Amen, Courtney! Thank you for your time!
Courtney Pace: Thank you, Janene!
© 2019 by Christian Feminism Today