During her 40 years of ministry in Western PA and beyond, the Rev. Dr. Josephine Whitely-Fields noticed a void in the documented history of Black clergywomen in the United Methodist Church. After retiring in 2015, she set out to fill that void. The latest result, released just before the start of Black History Month, is Pioneer Black Clergywomen, a book that shares the stories of nine Black United Methodist clergywomen.
“Black clergywomen are pioneers of the United Methodist Church who continue to significantly contribute to making disciples and spreading the good news of Jesus Christ,” Whitely-Fields said. “Their stories are inspiring illustrations of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of Black women who said yes to ordained ministry.
“While we know the stories of some of our Bishops, and they ARE important, Black clergywomen who are the everyday soldiers for Christ are seldom heard,” she added.
To change that, Whitely-Fields launched a research project with seed money from the General Commission on Archives and History and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. She initially went to gatherings of Black Methodists for Church Renewal, the Black Clergywomen’s group and Sacred Sisters to appeal for volunteers to share their stories. About 48 people indicated interest, and 23 followed through. Their stories are included in documents Whitely-Fields produced for the two agencies. But that wasn't the end of it.
Eight of the women's stories, along with her own, are included in the book just eleased by Westbow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson & Zondervan. Those profiled are Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, Rev. Cheryl Bell, Rev. Ella DeDeaux, Bishop Linda Lee, Bishop Sharma Lewis, Bishop Tracy Smith Malone, Rev. Edna Morgan, Rev. Dr. Tara Sutton, and Whitely-Fields.
Common to most of the stories is the racial, sexual and economic discrimination the women endured within the church.
“The stories actually highlight the victories and joys of serving in ministry despite the injustices that we had to fight at the same time,” said Whitely-Fields. “We had barriers to overcome to share the story of Christ. But the Bible tells us that all things work together for good. So we are still here and God still used us to make his story known through the United Methodist Church.
“We are carriers of good news and we are the embodiment of Christ’s love. We can’t just tell the story, we have to live the story, and that’s what black clergywomen do. That’s why our story has a connection with every born-again Christian who is striving to be more like Christ."
Pioneer Black Clergywomen covers the years 1974-2016, a time Whitely-Fields was in ministry. Answering God's call as she was completing a Doctor of Dental Medicine degree at the University of Pittsburgh, Whitely-Fields went on to earn an M.Div., two other master's degrees and a PhD in Formative Spirituality. In Western PA, she served at Coraopolis, Bridgeville First and Port Vue UM churches, was Conference Director of Missions and Outreach, and founded four 501 (c)(3) Non-Profit Corporations ministering to children and youth in underserved communities. For a time, she was Associate Dean of Doctoral Studies and an adjunct faculty member at United Theological Seminary.
Whitely-Fields says she hopes her book “will help to remove these barriers for all people so that we can be the church God calls us to be.”
All proceeds from sale of the book will go toward scholarships for Black clergywomen, she said.