Thursday, November 8, 2012

When Mrs. Jarena Lee Stood Her Ground

"Between four and five years after my sanctification, on a
certain time, an impressive silence fell upon me,— But to my utter surprise there seemed to sound a voice, which said to me, "Go preach the Gospel!" I immediately replied aloud, "No one will believe me." Again I listened, and again the same voice seemed to say — "Preach the Gospel ;  I will put words in your mouth, and will turn your enemies to become your friends." - from Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee, Giving an Account Her Call to Preach the Gospel"

A call from God must be a terrible call to hear, for God is not an easy taskmaster. He (yes, I use the male pronoun to refer to the deity; it's my conditioning) will send you to folks you despise – just ask Jonah. He will insist you spread a message no one wants to hear – just ask Jeremiah. When you follow God, you will find yourself in places where society says you don't belong – just ask Mary, who abandoned her place with the women to hear Jesus preach to the men.

Is it any wonder then, that Mrs. Jarena Lee, the first woman to preach in the AME church, said "No!" to God?

 I'm struck by the other half of her response: "No one will believe me." Her objection wasn't unique - even Moses stepped away from becoming God's mouthpiece. Both Moses and Mrs. Jarena Lee had reason to suggest God had made a huge mistake. Moses had a speech impediment. Jarena Lee was a woman. Throughout the New Testament, women are reminded they are better seen than heard.

Mrs. Lee struggled with her faith. Her journey wasn't a straight path, but meandered through spiritual hills and valleys.
"From the day on which I first went to the Methodist Church, until the hour of my deliverance, I was strangely buffetted by that enemy of all righteousness — the devil. I was naturally of a lively turn of disposition ; and during the space of time from my first awakening until I knew my peace was made with God, I rejoiced in the vanities of this life, and then again sunk back into sorrow. For four years I had continued in this way, frequently laboring under the awful apprehension, that I could never be happy in this life. " - from Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee

Yet she recognized she'd been blessed with the power of exhortation - we'd call it preaching now. Her worry wasn't just acknowledging her gift; it was getting a hard-headed public to accept a woman who had something meaningful to say.

No less a revolutionary than Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church,  turned her away. When she told him of her conviction, his response was curt:

He then replied, that a Mrs. Cook, a Methodist lady, had also some time before requested the same privilege ; who, it was believed, had done much good in the war of exhortation, and holding prayer meetings; and who had been permitted to do so by the verbal license of the preacher in charge at the time. But as to women preaching, he said that our Discipline knew nothing at all about it — that it did not call for women preachers.
At first, Mrs. Lee was relieved; she didn't have to carry out the burdensome task she'd been given. But she quickly fought back and resolved to speak her piece:

O how careful ought we to be, lest through our by-laws of church government and discipline, we bring into disrepute even the word of life. For as unseemly as it may appear now-a-days for a woman to preach, it should be remembered that nothing is impossible with God. And why should it be thought impossible, heterodox, or improper for a woman to preach t seeing the Saviour died for the woman as well as for the man... " from - Religious Experience and Journal of Mrs. Jarena Lee
Allen relented when she heard Mrs. Jarena Lee preach, but others didn't As she walked throughout the countryside, preaching and saving souls, she repeatedly ran into male preachers who barred her from their buildings.

Yet she stood her ground and walked her path.

The more I ponder these three words - if she stood - the more I'm guided to women who are all but forgotten like Mrs. Jarena Lee. (I included her title because, during that time, it denoted a respectable woman. I like the idea of a respectable woman acting in a powerful, challenging manner.) I wonder at the way these women raised their voices, but Mrs. Jarena Lee also used another strategy. She wrote a book.  And to ensure the reader understood who was speaking, she added a notation: "Revised and corrected from the Original Manuscript, written by herself."

What a marvel. A woman who was admittedly self-taught dared to believe her experiences were so inspirational and important that others should know of them.

"But for the satisfaction of such as may follow after me, when I am no more, I have recorded how the Lord called me to his work, and how he has kept me from falling from grace, as I feared I should...I have now only to say, May the blessing of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, accompany the reading of this poor effort to speak well of his name, wherever it may be read. AMEN."

This blog explores issues raised by If She Stood, a play by Ain Gordon and Nadine Patterson for the Place Philadelphia project. Please subscribe to receive posts in your email.
 If She Stood will run for six performances - Friday, April 26, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8pm, and Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 3pm, followed by Friday, May 3, 2013 at 8pm, Saturday, May, 2013 at 8pm and Sunday May 5, 2013 at 3pm. Tickets are on sale for the first weekend - BUY HERE.


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