The congregation is still panting from the opening worship, which sounded more like Carnival than a Sunday morning liturgy. Shoes were kicked off as soon as the music began and the sentiments of worship were expressed in stamping feet and clapping hands, sounds that were even louder than their singing. The energy was irresistible at The Upper Room of Prayer in South Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Then, the congregants took their seats and became riveted to their wood-and-purple-cushioned seats, as attentive as army recruits receiving their first orders. From the last row, Reverend Dr. Sylvia White appeared to float atop a cloudscape of white Sunday hats as she made her way to the pulpit.
She is a presence, A PRESENCE!
Standing in front of the podium in a floor-length white dress with one hand holding a microphone close to her mouth and the other outstretched with her palm and fingers spread parallel the floor, she keeps a steady eye on her audience, the congregation. She does not speak loudly but her deep voice fills the two-level sanctuary like a low distant thunder.
The 62-year-old White is just one of the many women who lead Caribbean-American congregations in the city. Ideologically, the Caribbean American church remains a patriarchal space, upholding the traditional view of man as the head of the household. In practice, that same sanctuary may be filled with powerful women. White’s teaching emphasizes being strong.
Her preaching warns the men and women in her congregation that if they believe that they are powerless, that they will be overcome. She says, trust in God that He will give you strength, and you will conquer. “When the devil comes to tell you that you are weak, he is a liar!”
Still, many churches prohibit women from taking the pulpit because the Apostle Paul instructed the early church in his first letter to Timothy, chapter 2, verse 12 that he “does not allow a woman to teach or have authority over a man.” He repeated a similar sentiment when he wrote to the church at the city of Corinthians. Paul recommended that “women should remain silent in churches.” Yet, in visits to Caribbean churches of undeniable loyalty to Christian faith, the authority of women leaders is quite noticeable.
In the spring of 2013 the first ever Caribbean Women’s Conference called upon women to “shine throughout the Caribbean and beyond as the diamonds that they are.” From April 24 to April 28, over 250 delegates heard speakers from Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, St. Kitts, Bermuda, and Barbados. They taught that women should take leadership positions. The meeting was hosted at the New Testament Church of God International Worship Center in Tortola of the British Virgin Islands.
In a phone interview Dianne Stewart, a specialist on African American culture at Emory University, observed that Caribbean women are often the “key voices in their congregations.” The women’s influence is amplified by the number and effectiveness of their church activities. These Caribbean Christian church women “work with a lot of courage and a lot of conviction, and they have a vision for what it means to be an inclusive community,” Stewart said. Caribbean society attributes certain qualities to women that opens the door to their leadership in the church. In the popular view women are holy vessels in their ability for child birth, are caring personalities and have more freedom to show their vulnerabilities, which in turn encourages others to share their weaknesses in seeking help at the church.
Overcoming inner misgivings
A common pastoral narrative about humbly resisting the call of God to become a pastor fortifies female ministers’ claims to legitimacy. It is God who insists on their pastoral role, often after a worthy life as a lay activist.
For several years in her apartment White had hosted a prayer meeting, which consisted of seven people stationed on folding chairs in her living room. But it was not her plan to enter the pastorate. Then, one day in 1996 the prayer meeting leader felt the call from God to begin preaching. When the Lord told White to begin her church, her immediate response was, “No, God!”
“Being a pastor is hard,” White thought. “You have to be aware of yourself as well as other people.” Also being a female pastor within a patriarchal society has ready-made tensions. And there is little support for the church from the secular world. White was also working as a nurse.
Then, she began to see a parallel between working as a pastor and working as a nurse. As a nurse, she had relied on the Holy Spirit’s healing power as much as she did on the work of drugs and medication. She illustrated her nursing method as “giving medication” with a swirl of her hands, a mock pricking of a patient with a needle, and a passing of a benediction: “I say, ‘God, bring them out of it!’” White was becoming persuaded that she was hearing God’s call. She knew that God had called other women to speak out at key times in church history.
White’s daughter and associate pastor Camele White observed that in the Biblical account of the rise of Christianity, the Book of Acts, chapter 21 mentions that Philip’s daughters prophesied in the church.
The sudden availability of a nearby basement seemed a confirmation of her entrance into the pastor’s role. White’s church, The Upper Room of Prayer, has been in its Crown Heights location since 2008.
At about the same time in a different part of the city, the Bronx, another Caribbean woman was also being convicted of “the call.”
A vacation turned into thirteen years of church planting in the Bronx
Sitting in a camper-sized sanctuary, Marcia Cameron-Allen looks like a giant in a doll house. This illusion is magnified by the bold fire engine red of her shirt popping out against the subdued beige of the cruciform wall decorations and the faded maroon carpeting. Three steps lead up to the sanctuary’s stage where she is perched. On a crowded Sunday, the congregants “sit all over. They sit right up here,” she says. She gestures to the stairs at her feet in Holy Ghost Prayer House Deliverance Ministries at 3209 Barnes Avenue in the Bronx.
Cameron-Allen also resisted entrance into the ministry. She thought that she was destined to become a nurse and was in training for the profession. In June 2000, she came to the United States for a vacation but did not return home for another eight years.
Instead, she joined the Holy Ghost Prayer House, which is headquartered in St. Catherine, Jamaica, to plant churches in the States. “If I had known God had this plan, I would have run away from it,” she confesses. Now, “ministry is my life.”
Her reasons for remaining in the ministry are “loving God’s people” and the conviction that the safest place on earth to be is in the center of God’s will. “What more do I want than to be in the service of God? Like the prophets, I go where God sends.”
Cameron-Allen’s current church began as a prayer meeting in her house. Her tiny flock of four people, including her mother, sister in law, and two other friends, started to grow.
In 2008 she says God convicted her to look for a permanent place to worship. She then founded the Holy Ghost Prayer House Deliverance Ministries in Bronxwood, Bronx.
Since then, Cameron-Allen’s ministry has seen nothing but growth. “When you come, you don't want to leave,” says Everton Roberts, one of the founding members. The church has again maxed out its small space.
She concludes, “I’m here until God lets me off!”
The Super Mom of All
Today, Cameron-Allen arrived early at the church for the Prayer House’s youth service. For the moment the storefront space was quiet except for the four-year-old boy who was crawling army-style through the curved-back stacking chairs. He finally squirmed onto the pastor’s lap. Cameron-Allen is not his mother, but genetics are a moot delineator in this close-knit congregation. She rested her palm on his smooth forehead. She is like a mother in the Caribbean who is always present to give direction and help with life. Soon the sanctuary will be full of teens teaching toddlers a song about how Father Abraham has many sons.
“Women never work,” Cameron-Allen observes about the traditional household dynamics in the Caribbean. “So they are always present, the way our mothers were present.” But in an expensive metropolis like NYC, families rely on both parents devoting more time to work than to their children. The female pastor is a stable, comforting presence in such a situation. “Women are present in their families, and that presence spills over into the church,” the pastor explains.
Cameron-Allen takes responsibility in being present, just like her mom was in the Caribbean. Today, she came to church directly from her office in the city’s housing department at Manhattan. A bi-vocational pastor must be especially determined and strong to sustain a small church.
Strength from the Holy Ghost
Pentecostalism has a habit of flipping the patriarchal hierarchy on its head. In denominations where strength is believed to come from the infilling of the Holy Spirit, it is their lower place in the status hierarchy that has paradoxically enabled women pastors to show how much more they have to rely on God’s power instead of their own. Their followers point out that the Caribbean women pastors whom we have interviewed exude a God-focused strength with little reliance on human scheming and manipulation for success. Their presentation of genuineness and honesty powerfully appeals to potential congregants.
In the Bronx Cameron-Allen emphasizes that she “cannot serve without the Holy Ghost indwelling. The Holy Ghost is in our midst, in our worship, in our everything, as long as we are willing to accept it.” She points to her knees, the only thing that flexes as she waits upon the Lord while kneeling in prayer. “I depend on the Holy Spirit for everything,” she observes.
Roberts, who has been with Cameron-Allen’s Prayer House since its inception, adds, “You can feel, when you enter a church, if the pastor is speaking from the Spirit or the flesh,” he expressed. Cameron-Allen, he promises, is speaking from the Spirit in her Pentecostal church. She is “a powerful woman of God, in touch with the creator of the universe.” The power is felt through-out Caribbean churches in the Bronx.
A female pastor works hard for 30 years, encouraged by faith
As we spoke on the phone, Reverend Norma Rose’s voice on the other end of the line swam on top of the background noises of dishes clinking and cabinet doors opening and closing. Each of her words seems to slowly and steadily come out as if tested and measured for truthfulness and wisdom. In the early morning, she is already at work at her Living Praise Ministries in Bronxview, Bronx, preparing the spaghetti and meatballs to be served to the students of the summer camp she hosts in her church’s basement. She observes that the church lunch may be the only nutritious meal that the children receive this day.
Rose, originally from Jamaica, began Living Praise in 1982 with her husband, Reverend Lloyd Rose. Like Cameron-Allen, Rose was on the nursing path when she and her husband entered ministry. She trained in Jamaica and was certified here. The couple’s vision for Living Praise was to develop a ministry that impacted the neighborhood by filling its greatest needs. They developed afterschool programs for kids, literacy tutoring for adults, and community luncheons for the elderly members of the church.
The camp today begins with a devotional at ten-thirty, but at quarter to eleven the last handful of stragglers still have yet to arrive. This is no matter to Reverend Rose; she will wait until everyone is present to begin. In the meantime, she talks about the lessons from her 30 years in ministry.
The 73-year-old pastor says that she waits upon the Lord because she knows that no matter what the earthly obstacles her congregation may face, their ultimate answer lies with Christ. She demonstrates that faith and determination with very hard work.
Women make the church a place where Caribbean New Yorkers can safely show their vulnerability
While helping for many hours per week with her husband’s ministry, Rose also worked in the pediatrics wards of Beth Israel and Albert Einstein in Manhattan. Then, five years ago her husband Lloyd Rose passed away. She retired from nursing and stepped up to the pulpit. She found that as a woman she had some advantages in ministry that she had long refined as a nurse.
Caribbean women are allowed to show weaknesses that men are not. This circumstance equips them to be effective leaders in their churches: they are allowed to cry for their communities. Rose’s voice easily drops half a note as she describes her fears for the children of the neighborhood.
“We go and talk to the kids that hang out on 225th St, those who have dropped out of school. We go and talk, and see if they can change their lifestyle,” she says. However, the motherly worry sometimes meets a rejection. “Sometimes they laugh at us…the hardest part is the drugs. One boy, eight or nine years old at the most, said he made more money than his principal. Can you imagine?” The veteran pastor sighs deeply as though it is her heart is breaking on that street corner. “But we press on because we have great promises in Jesus.”
She does not find that much of a difference in her mothering, nursing and pastoring. She said of her career changes, “I was saving bodies and now I am saving souls.”
Powerful women pack a holy penicillin against the troubles of life.