by Rev. Afi Dobbins
In a recent article “ Women of Color in Academia Often Work Harder for Less Respect,” written by Nadia Owusu of Catapult online journal, I found an article that speaks to a significant portion of my experience as both an elder in full connection with the WAC and within the context of the local church, as a clergy woman of African American descent.
Owusu remarks upon a “discovery...that women of color in academia are often expected or required to do extra work, advocacy, and mentorship, and that much of this labor is uncompensated and not formally recognized.” She continues with these examples,
‘If there is a committee, especially if it has to do with diversity, I am expected to be on it, … Often, I am expected to chair it. They want me to be the ‘diversity’ on the diversity committee. And they want me to define what diversity is and why they should care about it in the first place.’
My friend JaNay, who used to work in academia as both a faculty member and an administrator, said that as one of few black women professors at her university, she found herself both formally and informally advising many students of color who struggled to find support or mentorship from white faculty. “My office hours had lines,” she said. “Sometimes I wanted to hide because I had so much work to do in terms of teaching and trying to publish, but I couldn’t hide because where else would the students of color go for help? I had been in their position. I knew what it was like to feel alone in a white institution.”
The parallels for me with this particular excerpt have to do with the various and myriad roles that I am thrust into as the only full time African American clergy person in the Milwaukee Area. These roles have included but are not limited to: participating and being a member of conference activities/boards such as BMCR, CORR, the Conference Strategy Board, Directing Camp Rising Sun ( A Mission of the WAC), Conference Youth Council, various Task Forces, Conference Connectional Table and UMW Mission U Study Leadership.
These responsibilities are in addition to meeting the demands of ministry in relation to the local black churches and ever diversifying community not limited to but including: Rising Sun Community (youth program), Helping Community Food Pantry and programs from multiple partnerships such as the Harambee Great Neighborhood Initiative, Tikkun Ha-Ir’s “Chop-Shop” ( a program for incarcerated women hosted at Solomon), and those of my family. The burden is overwhelming at times especially without the support of my conference, administrative staff and in the face of unwarranted and often toxic abuse at the hands of the congregation and community and yes even the sacred space of clergy gatherings.
To help clarify my meaning further - a final quote from Owusu: “As Patricia A. Matthew, an associate professor of English at Montclair State University, wrote in The Atlantic, ‘Women of color . . . tend to take on more service than their male counterparts . . . much, if not most, of this service revolves around supporting students of color...And all of this extra labor, she notes, is to be done by women of color without asking too much of the institution—faculty of color, particularly women, “are often expected . . . to be the racial conscience of their institutions while not ruffling too many of the wrong feathers.’ ”
In my 10 years of appointment with the WAC, I have been on the receiving end of overt and systemic racism and oppression, sexism and even the internalized racism and oppression of my own African American congregants and community residents.
A few brief examples include: being regularly greeted with shock when introducing myself as the pastor of the congregation and often asked who’s the “lead pastor.” The treasurer of Solomon shared there are even still some members of Solomon who refuse to give tithes or offerings toward my salary specifically because “They don’t want to pay me so that I can support my husband.” Being groped on my behind or kissed on the neck by white and black parishioners and colleagues. Remaining at minimum salary despite being in full time ministry for over 10 years through some of the most toxic and traumatic appointments possible (cleanup woman).
Wisconsin Public Radio, along with other local news outlets, recently reported that Milwaukee continues to be the worst city in the Nation for African American people to live. According to WPR:
"Milwaukee has some of the largest racial disparities in health, income and other socioeconomic measurements in the nation. Unemployment rates decreased by 2 percent from last year and the home ownership rate dropped by 1 percent... The typical African American household in Milwaukee earns $28,928 a year compared to an income of $66,097 in white households. Milwaukee also has one of the largest black mortality rates nationally, 1,020 in every 100,00 black person die every year in Milwaukee according to the report."
This is the reality within which I live as a woman, wife, and mother. This is the reality within which I am charged to build a financially sound church and this is the reality within which I am called to serve as a pastor. Serving the spiritual and physical needs of severely oppressed minority community, attempting to achieve the ministry and financial expectations set by a wealthy and white denominational body, and tending to the responsibilities of my own household and family (who themselves are living witnesses of the racial disparities in Milwaukee) is an enormous responsibility that truly deserves a team of pastors. While I believe God has called and appointed me to this community at this time I need to recharge, heal and reset.
I love the church - the United Methodist church especially, as I have been born into it, raised up in it and called to serve it. It’s imperfections and sins have shaped my spiritual formation as surely as any of the training, seminars, and seminary courses I have taken. These “lessons” have been heavy, and because of them I have been driven to keep the holy fire of the lamp of my soul, “trimmed and burning.” Today, with passion and with love, I can name the racism and oppression that might have snuffed it out, were it not for God's grace.
Like many of my sisters, I am in love with God and with the ministry which calls me to be a pastor for all who are seeking God. It pains me to think of taking an extended leave, because as the scriptures remind us, I have found it to be true that, “The labor is plenty, but the laborers are few.” There is so much need in the city of Milwaukee. There’s so much potential with my current appointment to see real and lasting, transformative ministry happen. Yet without time to rest, to take in new educational understandings, we will not be able to do my part in meeting the need. So I encourage you to stand in power, in peace and with conviction to take the time necessary to care for your soul, mind and body. I believe God does approve. Psalm 91 has been passed down to me from my mother, a word of comfort in times of distress. I leave this passage as a parting thought.
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For God will command God’s angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
13 You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
you will trample the great lion and the serpent.
14 “Because he[b] loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him;
I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name.
15 He will call on me, and I will answer him;
I will be with him in trouble,
I will deliver him and honor him.
16 With long life I will satisfy him
and show him my salvation.”