A woman was the first to carry the good news that Jesus Christ was alive and no longer in his tomb. But women have largely been excluded from religious leadership for centuries without denominational or credal distinction — and that’s in spite of the fact that women outnumber men in offering their spiritual, emotional, and financial support to congregations. 

So the shot was heard around the world on January 23, as the word went out that Rev. Dr. Gina Marcia Stewart was preaching for the National Baptist Convention of the United States. Stewart is the first woman to preach at the convention. 

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And, as the saying goes, she preached the horn off the Billy goat. With her extraordinarily Baptist delivery, she had the attention of everyone within hearing range. 

 

But the actions of Claudia, Pilate’s wife, show us the importance of listening to women. Previously “a silent, nameless observer,” Claudia “spoke up for Jesus and came to Jesus’ defense,” Stewart says.

Stewart’s achievement isn’t just a footnote in religious history — it’s just the latest “first” of women taking their rightful place in a house of worship.

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane, but not too far back. In 1819, Rev. Jarena Lee got the nod from AME founder Rev. Richard Allen to preach, making a crack in that stained glass ceiling. Fast forward to 1884, and Julie Rosewald became America’s first female cantor. The timeline ticks on: in 1909, the Church of God in Cleveland, Tennessee, began ordaining women; Bishop Ida B. Robinson took the helm of the Mount Sinai Holy Church of America in 1924; and in 1964, Addie Elizabeth Davis broke new ground in the Southern Baptist Convention, a decision that sadly backpedaled in 2000.

A decade later, in 1974, Katie Cannon became the first Black woman to be ordained in the United Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Then, in 1984, Leontine Kelly became the first Black female bishop of a major religious denomination in the U.S. by the United Methodist Church in San Francisco; Sister Cora Billings became the first Black nun to lead a U.S. parish in Richmond, Virginia, in 1990; Lia Bass was ordained as the first Latin-American female rabbi and the first Brazilian woman rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 2001; and Ava Muhammad became the first female minister in the Nation of Islam in 1998, leading one of the country’s largest mosques in Atlanta, Georgia.

Now, the peculiarity of it all is that the “firsts” continue in 2024, with Stewart’s pulpit glass ceiling moment.

When Stewart encouraged and admonished listeners to “Be like Claudia and speak up for Jesus,” the entire place went up in a shout.

“The prophetic and profound sermon preached by Dr. Stewart was trivocal and didactic. She tore down the mantle of exclusivity that plagues our churches and this nation,” says Rev. Stephanie M. Atkins, AME pastor, First Episcopal District. “It reminded me of the words of Sojourner Truth in her speech, ‘Ain’t I a Woman,’: ‘Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman. Man had nothing to do with that.’” 

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Atkins adds that “Dr. Stewart’s preachment came from God and a woman! We should not be the same after hearing such verity.”

And there was more. 

“God will open doors no man can shut. We saw that with the anointed, powerful, masterful, Master-filled preaching of Dr. Stewart, says Rev. Dr. Suzan Johnson Cook, the first woman president of the Hampton Ministers Conference and the first Black woman pastor of the American Baptist Churches USA. 

“She’s a woman who not only walks through these doors God has opened, but she holds them open so others can follow. I’m so thankful to God, and so proud of our sister,” Cook says, adding that Stewart is not only the first woman to preach at the National Baptist Convention but also the first woman leader of the Lott Carey Convention, an international Christian missionary organization named after Lott Carey, a freed Black man who became a missionary in Liberia, West Africa, in the early 19th century.  

Some watched Stewart preach alone, while others gathered with fellow clergy.

“I watched in sheer delight as I witnessed Dr. Stewart make history with a digital congregation of sister and brother clergy from across the nation, says Dr. Anika Wilson Brown, lead pastor of Union Temple Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.

“We hollered as we huddled around our screen sanctuaries with our virtual victory dances as she preached prophetically.”  

Wilson Brown says Stewart “stood ten-toes-down in her pumps, challenging systems of patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other forms of oppression that are very present in the pulpit and pews of the church — while simultaneously championing us toward a hope for a more just future where we are all both seen and valued.” 

And as a new pastor, Wilson Brown says Stewart made her feel “inspired and empowered to continue to stand in the face of the Westernized patriarchal systems that are embedded within the culture and subconscious of the church.” 

She’s not the only one encouraged to stand boldly. 

“Every human is born of a woman. She is the matriarch of human understanding,” says Queen Shic, singer, mother, and teacher extraordinaire. “Women are not the backbone of the church. They are the church. Without their voices being heard, the church becomes inefficacious.”

Stewart’s part of a future where the question isn’t who can lead us, but how we can lead together. And for those who don’t believe a woman can lead in this way, in her January 28 sermon at Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church in Houston, Dr. Carolyn Knight, esteemed professor and preacher, referenced the entire event and the biases that made it a spectacle.

Her response to the powers-that-be was clear: “Boy, bye! Miss me with that!

Shattering the Glass Ceiling at the National Baptist Convention