Q&A: A Spiritual Trailblazer
Joiner, Lottie L
Thirty years ago, Katie Geneva Cannon became the first African American woman ordained as a Presbyterian minister. In 1983, she became the first Black woman to earn a doctorate of philosophy from Union Theological Seminary in New York.
A native of Kannapolis, N.C., Cannon’s religious family background helped shape her future as one of the world’s pre-eminent spiritual leaders. Today the graduate of two historically Black colleges – Barber-Scotia College (B.S.) and Johnson C. Smith Seminary (M.Div.) – is the Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Theological Seminary & Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. She is also serving the first of a four-year term as president of the Society for the Study of Black Religion.
Cannon, the author of six books, including Katie’s Canon: Womanism and the Soul of the Black Community and Black Womanist Ethics, spoke to The Crisis about the challenges of being a female minister and how the church has changed in the past three decades.
Did you know you were making history 30 years ago?
I wanted to get a masters in Christian education. The dean said to me if I got a masters in Christian education and not in divinity, the only thing I could do was work at the Y. At the Y, Black people couldn’t even enter the building. He said, “It’s time for a Black woman to be ordained, and it’s time for you to be the one.” He conceived the potential, the possibility.
What challenges did you have to overcome?
The biggest challenge was the loneliness in it. It’s very different from being a man in ministry or what women experience in ministry today. It was such a new experience. I was an enigma, an extraterrestrial. I didn’t have any role models to say this is what you’re supposed to do. Any Black who’s desegregated any institution, you just know that you’re representing the race; you have to carry it. There was no space to mess up.
What was your experience like in earning your doctoral degree?
That was very difficult. I had been in predominantly Black schools all my life. In a Black educational culture, professors would say, “I’m going to give you the best I got and I want you to be better.” When I got to Union in New York, the culture was elitist, Eurocentric, competitive and individualistic. I was a fish out of water. The second thing that was so hard to deal with was the public persona. That was very hard at 24.1 had no sophistication, no savvy.
What changes have you seen in the church over the years?
Women being ordained, hundreds across denominations, and with that the variety of women. When I first started out, we couldn’t wear dangling earrings, sleeveless blouses, anything that would take away from the ministry and cause people to see you as a feminine person. With this increasing number, the sexism in the church has gotten more vocal. The men are scared of losing too much power. Even women have internalized it and say, “I don’t want a woman minister.”
What do you think of gay marriage? The heart loves who it will. Bishop Leotyne Kelly said that. God creates love. God gives love. If two people of the same sex are in love with each other, that’s a gift from God.
– Interview by Lottie L. Joiner
Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Mar/Apr 2004
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