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In black churches, pastors recognize a #MeToo moment among their clergy

In black churches, pastors recognize a #MeToo moment among their clergy
Researcher Dr. Dilara K. Üsküp listens as a group of black female pastors, professors and theologians discuss the challenges of handling pervasive sexual harassment in their churches. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was a sweltering weekday morning, and the vibe inside the Rev. Rosalynn Brookins’ Los Angeles home was festive.

“Girl! You look great!” “Are you a Delta?” “Hello, room of God!”

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Ten women, all professionally accomplished, most ordained pastors, had gathered in Brookins’ living room to talk about a painful but little-discussed crisis: sexual harassment in the black church.

As Brookins passed out folding fans for the heat, the Rev. Naima Lett, a TV actress and producer, opened with a prayer: “We ask that you bless this conversation, that the truth set us free….”

Over the next two hours, the truth came spilling out. The room felt like a party, a church meeting and a group therapy session, with revelations and confessions that prompted tears, disagreements and plenty of laughter.

Black women, the backbone of their churches who far outnumber men as congregants, are in a bind that is historically unique.

“The black church responds to black male clergy like they are demigods, very revered,” said the Rev. Najuma Smith-Pollard, who convened the women as part of her work for the USC Dornsife Cecil Murray Center for Community Engagement.

“You don’t rat out your pastor. You don’t bring the man of God down,” she said. “If a pastor is caught in an indiscretion, sometimes he gets moved, but a lot of black churches are not organizationally led, there is no board, so even if there is misconduct, there is nowhere to turn.”

Even now, she said, a woman is likely to be asked, “ ‘What did you do to provoke it?’ The message I kept hearing growing up was, ‘Pull your skirt down, close your legs.’”

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A group of black female pastors, professors and theologians meet to discuss how their churches handle sexual harassment and assault.
A group of black female pastors, professors and theologians meet to discuss how their churches handle sexual harassment and assault. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Many of the women spoke of being molested or harassed in church and the pulpit, of feeling helpless, unsupported, with some finally questioning whether they belonged in church at all.

The Rev. Stephanie Butler-Adams, a former professional dancer, said she was invited to perform as a liturgical dancer at a megachurch in Texas. After her performance, she said, the pastor approached her lasciviously and, reaching for her skirt, asked if he could touch the hem of her garment. “He didn’t mean it as a gesture of respect,” she told me.

“We are violated before we preach, while we preach, after we preach,” said the Rev. Deborah Manns, who is opening a home for young women who have been victimized by sex traffickers. “I am on fire for God. I love preaching his word, but it’s hard to preach at a church and you go to the pastor’s office and the first thing he asks you is ‘What color are your panties?’

“Or he puts his hand on your knees. Or stands up behind me and holds my waist. Or after the sermon, he hugs you and holds himself against your breasts, or asks you to go to a restaurant, ‘because I haven’t had enough of you yet.’ We become so broken.”

The Rev. Monica Coleman, a theologian at Claremont School of Theology who has written about church responses to sexual violence, said she’s been in the ministry for more than 20 years, and in that time, “I can’t even remember how many gropes, inappropriate things were said. It becomes normalized. A pastor once said to me, ‘I would love to perform cunnilingus on you.’ I was like, ‘Whaaat?’ If he said this to me — a person with a Ph.D., not in crisis, not grieving, whose work is around sexual violence in the church — what does he say to vulnerable people?

“I called my friend who introduced us, and he said, ‘Yeah, I am not surprised he said that.’ I was like damn, people.”

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Tasha Morrison, a minister who also works for the Transportation Security Administration at Los Angeles International Airport, said, “That goes to a culture where black pastors know we won’t say anything, and when we don’t, the cycle continues.”

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The Rev. Rosalynn Brookins, left, and the Rev. Naima Lett, right, greet each another.
The Rev. Rosalynn Brookins, left, and the Rev. Naima Lett, right, greet each another. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

The conversation soon turned to the televised memorial for Aretha Franklin, and the bizarre moment when Bishop Charles H. Ellis III appeared to grope the breast of singer Ariana Grande when he put his arm around her back after she sang a tribute. Grande pulled away and seemed uncomfortable.

For most of the women here, that was a perfect example of the almost mindless harassment that occurs in church.

“The world said, ‘What you doing, brother?’” Lett said. “He was caught and exposed. He was probably scratching his head: ‘I didn’t do anything different from what I normally do. Why you all trippin’?’”

But the Rev. Aquyla Walker thought his gesture was misinterpreted, and disingenuously amplified on Twitter and Facebook.

“While I think there is a lot of misogyny and silencing in the black church,” she said, “I think that social media has sensationalized these issues to make them more than what they are. I think it’s grossly unfair to suggest that Bishop Ellis is always groping.”

Even if he wasn’t, Smith-Pollard countered, a lot of people thought he was.

“As women of God, we have to be comfortable calling someone out, even if what they are doing is slight or subtle. And even if Ariana Grande wasn’t triggered by it, other people were. If I see someone doing something to you, it’s like ‘Yo, sis. You don’t have to take that.’”

Smith-Pollard is already planning another conversation like this one. But next time, she said, she will include men.

“For the longest time,” Lett said, “I was literally thinking, ‘We’re just going to have to wait until the old regime dies, and train up the new ministers in a new way.’”

She laughed at her naivete. After all, older ministers are role models for younger ministers, and no one gives up power without a fight.

I don’t want to seem naive, either. But these women are formidable, brilliant and strong. They will change their churches. It’s just a matter of time.

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