On being black and female in white evangelical America

Austin brownToday’s post comes from Austin C. Brown, who leads church-wide diversity efforts at Willow Creek Community Church. She blogs at Sankofa Narratives and tweets at @austinchanning.

I appreciate Austin’s vulnerability in describing the challenges of spearheading reconciliation work as a black woman, as well as the godly and mature example she sets in enduring frustration, negotiating conflict and getting to the other side of disillusionment with the capacity to hope.

Those of us who identify with Austin will likely find her story affirming. Those of us who don’t will likely find her story instructive. Win-win.


After ten years of being committed to reconciliation work, I have found that occasionally it is necessary for others to point out the fact that I am young, black and a woman.

Sometimes the words are said with disdain, dripping from the mouths of men who cannot fathom that such a being could possess something so precious, so risky as authority. But usually it is spoken quietly, in hushed tones, as if my brownness might flee in fright if spoken too loudly. It seems that major portions of my identity are tethered to confusion… assumption… and often require deep reflection for others to comprehend, to accept, to enjoy.

I realize that for many white churches, I am the first black woman they have encountered in a ministry director role- the first to lead the class or host the meeting, the first to guide down the streets of Chicago, the first to preach to their kids and the first who was in control of the plan.

This is sometimes hard for me to remember since I grew up around strong, capable, confident, educated, preachin’ black women. There are so many of us out there. So, I do not write this to suggest that history books will remember my name because I have been “the first” so many times… I write this in lamentation of all the young, brown-toned women who face confused looks when even small amounts of authority are expressed. I suspect there are many of us who are “the first” as we continue to expand our reach beyond our homogenous church roots.

The confused looks can and will catch us off guard. It does not happen often, but when it does, it is a very jolting experience. After all, only one of the three components will change over time; I shall always be both black and woman.

In those moments when I wonder if the skin I’m in can penetrate minds, when I question how far I can go, when I wonder if my impact on the world will be limited after all, when I wonder if anyone can hear me- or if they can only see me- I go back to my roots.

And today, it is Langston Hughes who reminds me of who I am, brown skin and all, in one of the first poems I learned as a child.


I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.


I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”



They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

                                   –Langston Hughes


14 Responses

  1. Nicola_A_Menzie (@namenzie)
    Nicola_A_Menzie (@namenzie) July 22, 2013 at 10:56 AM |

    Thanks for sharing. It seems some Christian churches reflect corporate America.

    1. Austin
      Austin July 22, 2013 at 6:42 PM |

      Hi Nicola, I think that homogeneous authority exists in both- corporate America and unfortunately in far too many churches. I think both institutions have far to go in realizing a vision of diverse leadership (and appreciating it!)

  2. Cherlynn Rhinehart
    Cherlynn Rhinehart July 22, 2013 at 11:48 AM |

    Beautifully stated. Love this

    1. Austin
      Austin July 22, 2013 at 6:47 PM |

      Thanks so much, Cherl!

  3. Jeff Heidkamp
    Jeff Heidkamp July 22, 2013 at 12:00 PM |

    Thanks for sharing this. As a white male, it’s so helpful to hear what it feels like from your point of view. I had a chat last week with Christena about “well-intentioned-ness”. Posts like this are a powerful reality check.

    1. Austin
      Austin July 22, 2013 at 6:51 PM |

      I really appreciate your words, Jeff, and I am so glad that you are having intentional conversations about leadership and diversity.

  4. Michelle Loyd-Paige
    Michelle Loyd-Paige July 22, 2013 at 2:22 PM |

    Thanks Austin, I feel ya. I wish I could tell you that as an older Black woman no one ever questions my athority (in higher ed and the church) … but I can’t lie to you my sista. When others question … verbally and non-verbally … I try to recall who it was that had anointed (yes anointhed) me for the task and take my hurt feelings, bruises, and anger to Him. He reminds me of who and Whose I am.

    1. Austin
      Austin July 22, 2013 at 6:46 PM |

      Thanks for sharing, Michelle. I so appreciate women like you, Christena, and Dr Brenda who stand as pillars in my life, reminding me of the possibilities!

  5. Bill Jones
    Bill Jones July 23, 2013 at 11:36 PM |

    Unfortunately, Austin, it’s not only your authority my fellow white males are questioning. They are questioning God’s authority to call whomever He chooses to call. It’s a sin for us to refuse to affirm God’s call – God’s anointing, as Michelle Loyd-Paige put it so beautifully – in your life. It’s also a sin to consider you, on the basis of either race or gender, anything less than equal to anyone else before God. Thank you for your courage in following God’s call and not man’s, and in persevering in spite of the awful barriers placed in your way by those who would usurp God’s throne.

    1. Austin
      Austin July 28, 2013 at 6:49 PM |

      Thanks for your thoughtful addition, Bill. How true, that for some, our [women] presence creates theological discomfort as well. You just nailed a big piece of why its so hard to define the negative reactions of others- I don’t always know which part of myself offends people the most- age, color, or gender! Thank you for reaffirming that God’s hands are not so short as to be incapable of calling even me.

  6. Lindsey
    Lindsey July 27, 2013 at 3:35 PM |

    Thank you for your work and for this encouragement! As a young female at a mostly male seminary (that’s starting diversity initiatives, praise God), it’s good to know I’m not crazy for being frustrated or discouraged at times. God is good, and He’s doing good Kingdom work! May He continue to bless you and establish the work of your hands.

    1. Austin
      Austin July 28, 2013 at 6:52 PM |

      Lindsey, God bless your heart! No, you are not crazy at all. Please be encouraged to know that you are far from alone. I hope that you have formed good community at your seminary who remind you regularly that you’re not crazy! I am so grateful for my community at Willow and the many ways they remind me of who I am and who God has called me to be.

  7. Chrystal Hurst
    Chrystal Hurst July 28, 2013 at 5:40 PM |

    Love the voice you give to a real issue. Glad to “meet” you.

    1. Austin
      Austin August 1, 2013 at 7:54 PM |

      Glad to “meet” you as well, Chrystal! Thanks for reading!

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