WomanPreach! is one of those “God ambushes” in my life, as my godson and I often call it. God didn’t disclose some pretty important details as the Spirit urged me to take on this task. Had I known the real nature and responsibility of this call, I might have run in the opposite direction–a 21st century Jonah. This ministry to women is a beautifully burdensome joy and surprise to me after years of ministry with and to artists, among dying people in hospice, and teaching seminarians
While I am the leader of WomanPreach!, I am by no means its catalyst. This ministry was born in the bellies of women hungry for support, guidance, training, and resources for preaching. It was urged on by those students in the Sacred Rhetoric classes jointly sponsored by Memphis Theological Seminary (MTS) and the University of Memphis, and later at the Cathedral in D.C. The appetite for intimate, “real talk” grabbed us all. The desire to grapple with the hard questions, the irrepressible questions, the persistent questions led us into this labyrinth.
My own fire for the work lay somewhere within the creative impulse for art that is at the core of who I am. I am an artist. And preaching, for me, is one of the highest art forms. When done well, when done with passion and justice, I really do believe–foolishly–that preaching can change worlds
I grew up in a wellspring of preaching. My native environs of the rural Baptist church and the Church of God (Anderson, Ind.) congregations filled my ears and soul with the rhythms of grace. I accepted my own call at age 18. But I knew from seven years old (yes, seven!) that God had called me to this mysterious work. By the time I yielded to the call, my memory was seared by bible drills and memory verses, revival sermons and times of consecration. Preaching was the fire shut up in my bones. But, honestly, I would have rather roasted marshmallows with that fire as I received a Pulitzer Prize. Clearly, I said “yes,” and nearly 35 years later, I am still honing and learning my preaching craft. My ordination at Greer Street Church of God in San Antonio, TX was mere confirmation to a longtime knowing deep within.
Serving as a pastor where preaching is a constant task gives me compassion for those who have to do it every week and for those who rarely get to preach. Having performed with a Word/Jazz band with musicians and other poets gives me an appreciation for the “moment” when all the preparation meets those who wait for it. In fact, I believe everything I have ever done has led me to this moment: working with gang members, serving as a chaplain in an in-patient hospice facility, performing on stage as a poet and actor, starting “The Tribe,” beginning a theology and arts institute. All of what went before serves this ministry.
For most of my career, choices were just “the yeses” lining up–God calling through opportunity. I never expected to teach in a university or seminary. But here I am after five years at Huston-Tillotson College (now university); six years at MTS, and this tenure at Lancaster Theological Seminary that begun in the fall of 2009. I get to see the faces of the next leaders regularly. It helps me pray for them and for the church and world. These students will handle “the word of Life” for people as spiritual leaders. No small feat. This journey, this adventure keeps me praying and singing. I love it, even when it’s hard.
Valerie graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio with a double major in communication and religion. She earned her masters of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Seminary, where she won the Charles L. King Excellence in Preaching Award for graduating seniors. She completed and was awarded her Ph.D. in Biblical Studies (OT concentration) from Baylor University. Valerie is a published and award-winning poet, a visual artist, jazz dancer, and stage performer.