Madam, we would see Jesus

Anghaarad Teague Dees, the first woman to serve as head pastor at Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, remembers all the women who have paved the way for her.

Photo by Mitchell Leach on Unsplash

Every time I enter the pulpit I take a deep breath, close my eyes for a moment and give thanks for the opportunity to proclaim the good news that women have been proclaiming since that first Easter morning. As a young minister, I was once invited to preach in a church that had on the pulpit a beautiful brass plaque with the words: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Someone had taken the time to put a sticky note over the plaque with a much more apropos charge: “Madam, we would see Jesus.”

It is never lost on me that every time I perform the duties of my vocation, I do so on the shoulders of the women who have gone before, who made space for me to enter into this wild and wonderful calling of pastoral ministry. I stand on the shoulders of women who have been chronicled in the annals of history but also in the quiet memories of those who knew them. These women have helped me and countless others to see Jesus.

Paul Tillich’s observations about the relationship between the past and the present speak to me as I reflect upon all of the remarkable women from the past, present and future who shape my ministry. In his book The Religious Situation (written in the 1930s and published in English in 1956), he writes, “The present is the past. Every present movement is a wave which has been raised by the waves of all the past … The present is what it is only in union with all that has gone before.” I am truly a product of those ripples and waves made by the women of the past.

As I was preparing this article, I learned more about Margaret Towner and Rachel Henderlite, the first women to make not just waves but loud cannonball splashes as the first women ordained in the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA) and Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), respectively. (Both of these denominations merged to form the PC(USA) in 1983.) Their stories are ones of tenacity and faithfulness. I resonated more with Henderlite, maybe because we seem to have many commonalities in our call stories: baptism in the PC(USA), the state of Mississippi (Rachel was the last dean of the Mississippi Synodical College), Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and a Christian education background. Henderlite was a longtime Christian educator when the question of ordination of women to the office of minister of the Word and Sacrament arose in the Presbyterian church. She bravely asked, “Why not me?” She had done the work. Before the hands of ordination were laid upon her shoulders, she had preached and taught for decades.

Henderlite’s legacy still loomed at Austin seminary when I was a student. Frequently, I ate lunch with women on the faculty and listened to the stories of women from their generation. They told me what they endured to be recognized by the church and ordained into ministry. Church history professor Ellen Babinsky often lamented that my generation would not know the trials and tribulations. This realization made her both joyful and sad. Her comment cemented for me that we must tell the stories of the women — we cannot forget what they have done, for so much more remains to be done. Too often in the chronicles of history women are forgotten or are footnotes. We must do better. Women in ministry still face many of the barriers of the past. We must share the stories to make waves for a hopeful future when all who seek to serve in the church will be fully embraced.

In March of this year, I was installed into my newest call as pastor of Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia. I am the first woman to serve as an installed pastor for this congregation. But this isn’t the first time I have broken this barrier. In more than one previous call, I was the first woman called and installed and, in one case, the first woman ever to have preached from that pulpit. The local paper dispatched a reporter. A front-page feature ran a week after my installation and was picked up by papers across the nation. I shared the link to the piece on social media, and lots of folks congratulated me, not only on the new call but also on the article. One of my sisters in ministry, Candasu Vernon Cubbage, captured my feelings about the situation: “Although it makes me sad that the story of a church calling a woman as pastor is front page news, I’m glad it is out there loud and proud.”

Yes, a woman minister is still big news in many localities. Yes, we are still pioneers. We continue to make waves for the voices of women in the church. Women are still breaking barriers in ministry. Every week a woman is the first to step into a church’s pulpit, the first to be called to serve, the first to go to seminary, the first to ask the question, “Why not me?”

When I was a seminary student in the late 1990s, there was this feeling that finally the stained-glass ceiling was being shattered. For the first time women in PC(USA) seminaries made up a higher percentage than men. The reality is that we may have cracked the ceiling, but it is still firmly in place. Churches are still resistant to calling women and to paying them fairly. A lot of ink has been shed on this topic, and I will only add that it is surprising that people still find it newsworthy when a woman is installed as pastor in churches across this country. Even though women have been ordained as ministers of Word and Sacrament since 1956, much work remains to bring the voices of women to the center. Henderlite said, on the occasion of her ordination, “I think the ordination of women, not only to the ministry but as elders and deacons, will give women an opportunity to work within the structure of the church. It will make a lot of difference. Women will no longer be second-class members.”

I grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, where I was surrounded by amazing, faithful women. My father died when I was young, and my mother raised my sister and me with the help of her family, which included The Aunts, my maternal grandfather’s sisters. They had never married, and they lived in a house together in Fawn Grove, a little stop in the road outside Tupelo. They threw open their doors every Sunday for dinner after church, and my entire extended family showed up along with a wonderful collection of strangers and friends. As children, my sister and I spent our summers building blanket forts in their living room, running barefoot through the garden, picking berries in their orchard and watching the summer storms roll in from the front porch.

We also went to church with them. We couldn’t wait to go to Sunday school with Mae Mae, who taught the primary class for more than 37 years in her little country church. She had felt characters for every story in the Bible, and she dreamed up the most amazing crafts to help bring the stories to life. We even built a model of Solomon’s Temple out of craft sticks and paste. Every night before bed, they took turns reading to us from the 1904 Hurlburt’s Story of the Bible. The Aunts taught me that the stories of the Bible were alive and breathing, ready to inspire me with their wisdom and imagination. The welcome of God found in the pages of Scripture was large and wide.

The little girl from the window at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, Mississippi. Photo by Leslie Geoghan.

Rachel Held Evans writes in her 2018 book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water and Loving the Bible Again, “Inspiration, both in the English language and in its ancestral languages, is rooted in the imagery of divine breath, the eternal rhythm of inhale and exhale, gather and release.” The Aunts taught me that God’s story was our story and that there was room for everyone, even me. I still find comfort in the knowledge that my place is firmly set in the story of eternity. Women have been and continue to be an integral part of the story. I stand on the shoulders of these women who taught me to love the story and to live the story.

It surprises folks when I share with them that it never occurred to me that women couldn’t be ministers until I was in seminary. As a student, I was confronted by lots of people who had opinions about women in seminary and even more opinions about women in the pulpit. I was in elementary school when the first woman (Janet Dietrich Williams) was called as associate pastor to the church of my childhood, where women had been serving as elders and deacons long before I was born. I watched Williams and later Ann Houston Kelly preach and pray and lead with deep admiration. I asked them questions and learned so much from them and the other faithful women of that congregation.

As a youth, I was given many leadership opportunities. Through these opportunities I was nurtured and guided by faithful women and men. I was encouraged to fearlessly ask all the questions. And I did. It was the natural conclusion for me that the place in which I was called to serve Christ was the church. The day I went before the session of my church to seek their endorsement to become an inquirer was a joyful celebration and acknowledgment of their faithfulness to my baptismal covenant. Many other candidates had been endorsed by the session through the years — but I was the first from the cradle roll, and I was the first woman.

Mississippi has a complicated history when it comes to women, but it was Mississippi women who taught me that I could do anything, be anything and go anywhere in the world. What most people do not understand about Mississippi is that it has a way of raising up some strong women. I attended college at Mississippi University for Women (known as “the W”), the first state-supported public college for women in the country. Three tenacious women – Sallie Reneau, Annie Peyton and Olivia Hastings – fought for two decades to found a school of higher learning for women, and they succeeded when the doors to the W welcomed the first class in 1884. I thrived at the W. I was once again nurtured and encouraged to be a leader on campus and in the world. I was also able to keep asking all those questions.

When I graduated from the W, I became a part of the “Long Blue Line,” the nickname given to our alumni. I became friends with women generations older than me, who inspired me in so many ways. Many were trailblazers in their own vocations and made waves for the generations that followed. I remember when I was invited back to lead the worship service as part of homecoming activities. I was still a seminary student struggling with my call. I wasn’t sure if I was being called to be a minister of the Word and Sacrament or a Christian educator. I didn’t know if I had a place in the work of proclamation. Jimmie Meese Moomaw – alum, trailblazer and Presbyterian elder – embraced me after the service. She declared I was a wonderful “pulpiteer” and said what a gift I was going to be to the church. She was proud to know that a W girl was going to be Presbyterian minister. Her startling affirmation was one of many confirmations of my calling to become a minister of the Word and Sacrament. I stand firmly on the shoulders of these remarkable women who believed that women deserve an education, deserve an opportunity to make their own way in the world, deserve to have their voices heard, deserve to be a pulpiteer.

Every Sunday, growing up at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, Mississippi, I was greeted by the beautiful triptych stained glass window in the chancel of the sanctuary. At the center is Christ robed in a beautiful red robe. In the right and left windows, people from all walks of life look up to Jesus — all except one. In the bottom left corner is a little girl in a red dress, who looks a lot like me at the age of six or seven. She is looking over her shoulder at the congregation, with her hand outstretched as if to say: “Come, you are invited to follow Jesus too.” I still find it remarkable that the artist who designed those windows – during a time when women were finally being ordained in the Presbyterian Church – had a little girl, not another representative of the church universal, be the evangelist. I was completely fascinated by her. I wanted to be the little girl in the window. In 2001 when I knelt on the chancel steps as the hands of ordination pressed against my shoulders, it dawned on me: I am that little girl, but instead of a red dress, I wear a red stole.

South River Meeting House organized in 1757. This structure was completed in 1798 and purchased by the Presbyterians in 1899 who have been the caretakers ever since. Photo submitted.

Every Sunday, as I throw open the doors to Quaker Memorial, I give thanks for the women who have challenged the church to remember, “There is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I also give thanks for Sarah Lynch, the mother of Lynchburg founder John Lynch. A faithful Quaker, she gave the money and land for the first meeting house in this part of Virginia. She had a vision that this spot, the highest hill in the city, would be a place for the faithful to worship God. The Quakers left in the 1830s; but her vision has held true, as the Presbyterians have continued to faithfully shine the light of Christ from this place. As I step into this position as the first woman pastor, it is not lost on me that a woman first built a house of worship on this hill. There is a place for women in the pulpit. Our task will always be to help others to see Jesus.

At my installation service, I decided to do something a little unorthodox for the charge to the newly installed. It is our tradition to ask a colleague or friend to deliver the charge, and I had originally planned to do just that. But circumstances beyond my control changed my original plans. I accepted this new call with lots of joy, but there would soon be lots of sorrow. I was looking forward to being a two-hour car ride away from a dear friend from seminary; in fact, she was one of the first people I told that I was coming to Quaker Memorial back last summer. I was devastated to learn that she had died only days after our last communication. Then, less than two weeks after my arrival in Virginia, my mother died unexpectedly, and I had to journey home. I had to write an obituary for a life that felt incomplete and stand at her grave and say goodbye to the greatest example of strength and service I had in my life.

Grief completely shrouded those first weeks and months at Quaker Memorial, but I was determined that my installation would be the joyful work of the church. However, installation services in the times of COVID-19 are tricky. We had to wait until we felt the infection numbers in our community were safer. We had to assess if the presbytery felt comfortable having an in-person service of worship. Then when it came time to put together the commission I wondered: How do you ask someone to travel across the country when there are still so many unknown variables about life in the pandemic?

As I struggled to envision what this joyful service would look like, I was struck by a beautiful image of all the women in my life, past and present, who would stand with me and who had always been standing with me in this pastoral life. I would ask a whole host of women to give the charge.

I emailed sisters in ministry all over the country: women I attended seminary with, women I had served alongside in various presbyteries, women I had met at conferences, women I had traveled with, women who I loved, women whom I knew would encourage and challenge me. I asked them to write a few words to be woven together and read by the women of this new congregation. A dozen sisters agreed to write beautiful, supportive words. A diverse group of women from Quaker Memorial Presbyterian Church read these charges written by other women from across the country. And as each charge was read, a grosgrain ribbon was placed on my shoulders. The weight of a dozen ribbons was a tangible remembrance of the hands of ordination. Those dozen ribbons will one day be fashioned into a stole that I will wear to symbolize these amazing women from past, present and future who are woven together in my story and the story of eternity. And they will continue to entreat: “Madam, we would see Jesus.”