ABWW Book of the Day: Jesus, Jobs and Justice: African American Women and Religion

Bettye Collier-Thomas’ Jesus, Jobs and Justice is a massive work that details the story of black women’s roles in building up the black community and its churches. Her research is excellent. Womanist scholars have previously focused on particular women as symbols of the civil rights struggle — Sojourner Truth, Nannie Helen Burroughs, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Mary Mcleod Bethune and Dorothy Height. Collier-Thomas weaves into that U.S. history the stories of countless other women. We meet the black women in the predominantly white — Episcopal, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic — church where rarely have the names of any but a few of these women been lifted up for the recognition they justly deserve.

The women’s efforts are seen not in isolation but in conjunction with the efforts of black women nationwide — but especially in the South — in a civil rights struggle that was twofold: At the same time they fought for black women and men to be recognized as human beings, the women had to struggle for religious rights within the black churches. The irony of the black church is that of all Christian churches built with the pennies, nickels and dimes women helped to raise. Women, who provide so much of the financial support, who are the backbone of the ministers and bishops, have historically been denied the rights of full membership: leadership roles, ordination, self-autonomy.

Black men fought against opening church leadership to women, who oftentimes were those same male leaders’ main support. Sadly buying into the patriarchal rhetoric, there were very few black men courageous enough to recognize the equality of women and men. The women persisted and persevered. They became deacons, ordained ministers and finally, in the late 20th century, bishops in various denominations.

Jesus, Jobs and Justice is a comprehensive, almost encyclopedic narration of historical facts ferreted from church newspapers and newsletters, convention minutes, and the minutes of women’s conventions and auxiliaries, the secular black press and other archival sources. It is a groundbreaking depiction of women’s religious faith and spirituality as it seeks to reveal how “black women have woven their faith into their daily experience, and illustrates their centrality to the development of African-American religion, politics and public culture.”

Bettye Collier-Thomas begins with the 400-plus years of slavery, discusses the critical roles that African-American women played in establishing the “Invisible Institution” — the various “hush and brush” arbors that enabled those enslaved to develop a Christianity that was a blend of African and American cultures, heritages and experiences. She illustrates how enslaved black women were the “glue that held the family and community together” and the foundation for the formation of the independent black churches.
Check it out at amazon

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