Mothers of the Movement: Evangelicalism and Religious Experience in Black Women’s Activism
“It is a radical act to nurture the lives of those who are not supposed to exist. Not supposed to grow old (Oscar Grant). Not supposed to speak up (Mumia). Not supposed to survive domestic violence (Marissa Alexander). Not supposed to walk across streets (Michael Brown). Not supposed to wear hoodies (Trayvon Martin). Not supposed to ask for help (Renisha McBride). Not supposed to play loud music (Jordan Davis). Not supposed to be old (Kenneth Chamberlain). Not supposed to be inside our homes (Kathryn Johnson). Not supposed to shop for toys at Walmart (John Crawford III).”—Loretta J. Ross, Preface to Revolutionary Mothering (Ross 2016), p. xviii.
“A new generation of leaders ultimately would point our way. But it was their mothers who would nurture the movement. Mothers also would guide and they would lead. Too often, though, they would lead us in mourning.”—Mamie Till-Mobley, Death of Innocence (2003), p. 226.
“My whole body slumped in my chair as the full reality of my son’s murder hit me squarely in the chest. God show me what to do now, I beseeched my Lord. My child was dead. My whole purpose for waking up each morning had been torn away. How would I go on? Where would I find meaning? I had no clue. I begged God for an answer, my desolation at last absolute…I was too lost in grief and anguish to realize that through Jordan, I was already being guided to a purpose greater than any I could have dreamed for myself. It was a call to action that I would come to understand had been mine all along. God had begun planting the seeds right from the beginning…”—Lucia Kay McBath, Standing Our Ground (2018), pp. 25–26.
“In a dream, I saw myself in an endless field of purple.And I saw ladies crying in agony and sorrow. They were lost and alone, even while they were somehow together. Then, suddenly, I saw them smiling and hugging one another in support. I somehow knew that these ladies were mothers. And I knew that, just like me, they were mothers who had lost their children to senseless gun violence. And while they once felt alone, they now had one another.I saw these mothers sitting together in a circle in an enormous room. Then I saw them sitting together before tables filled with flowers, and everything was so pretty and so purple. There were different speakers coming up to speak to them. I had no clue what all of this meant. But I knew that it was a vision that God had given to me. When I awoke, I grabbed a pen and paper, and I began writing down what I had seen in my dream. And when I was done writing about that purple dream in my purple bedroom, I had pages and pages of notes, all about that dream about mothers who found healing in one another.The next morning, I knew my purpose, my mission…”9
2. Scholarly Overview
3. Alternative Scholarly Trajectories
4. Mothers of the Movement
4.1. Mamie Till-Mobley
“God told me, ‘I have taken one from you, but I will give you thousands.’ The words just came to me, quietly. Words of great comfort to me. A revelation can be like that. Not always like the thunder we hear in movie versions of the Bible. But more quietly, like a whisper. It’s just there in your awareness, as if it had been there all along, waiting for just the right circumstances for you to notice.”—Mamie Till-Mobley, Death of Innocence (2003), p. 231.
“There came a point, in the middle of everything, as I was listening to the speakers, when I had a sensation. It was something I could just barely make out. Something fluttering somewhere. It seemed like it was in the corner of my eye, at the edge of my awareness. As my eye darted to get a better look and as my head turned to follow, the image seemed to move, just ahead of my glance, always just a flutter ahead like that, always on the borderline between conscious and subconscious. It would happen like that over and over again. And it looked like a dove. I wanted to see it fully, but never could. It would always move away just when I’d turn my full attention to it. I came to realize that it was a sign. The dove. A sign of peace. A sign from God.”57
4.2. Lucia Kay McBath
“Perhaps the most extraordinary part of my journey has been watching my life be transformed in the wake of Jordan’s death, being called out of the boat, stepping out on the water for a cause. Just as God did with Abraham, he said to me, I am going to take you to a land where you’ve never been. You won’t know anybody at first, you won’t know how to do what I am asking of you, but I just need you to go. I will guide your steps.I know in every cell of my body that my son came into this world to make a difference, and in the end, he helped deliver me to my highest calling. His death showed me that I am to be a voice in the wilderness, joining a dynamic group of activists who are working to stem a red tide of violence, one fueled by the deadly interplay of guns, race, politics, and faith in American life. I have no doubt this is my divinely-appointed purpose, but when tragedy arrived at my door in a sudden senseless burst of gunfire, I thought I had failed my child. I believed my life was over. And perhaps it was. But a new life opened up before me, and there was nothing else for me to do but claim it. In telling my story—and honoring the life of the child God entrusted to me—I am claiming it still.”—Lucia Kay McBath, Standing Our Ground (2018), p. 8.
“…[A]ll the worshippers in attendance had circled me in prayer. They laid hands on me, and spoke in tongues. Then Yvette Maynard, who was a breast cancer survivor herself, placed her palm against my left breast, over my heart and toward my shoulder where I had told her the calcifications had been found. At her touch, a wave of heat shot through my entire body, and I started convulsing and retching, but nothing came up. I knelt there, gasping and shuddering as the people around me prayed. Suddenly, a sensation like a cold whoosh flooded through me, like cool brook water running through my veins, chasing the heat, and I felt cleansed and spiritually whole inside, and I knew I had been healed.”
“Jesus never advocated violence. Despite how bad it gets, we’re never to advocate violence, ever. Particularly with the Stand Your Ground law—you do everything you possibly can to retreat before you use that violence. Yes, you have a right to protect yourself. But you don’t have a right—God did not give you the right just to shoot to kill because you think that you’re threatened? Or because you’re empowered because you have a gun? That’s not the will of God.”
“I don’t condone abortion, but I would never infringe upon a woman’s right to choose for herself what is best for her. But I don’t think it would be difficult for me to work with anyone such as Rob Schenck that is so pro-life, simply because I understand that pro-life is what I’m fighting for. A love for life. That’s what this is all about, fighting for life. That’s what Jesus wanted us to do. That’s the whole reason why we’re here.”97
“The convictions of Renisha’s and Jordan’s killers, while certainly a just end in these cases, is not the full justice that Michael’s mother or the others’ mothers demand. This is not the justice for which mothers weep. Theirs is a justice that goes beyond the conviction of their children’s killers. They weep for divine justice. God’s justice means an end to the very culture that has declared war on innocent, young black bodies. This means an end to the systemic, structural, and discursive sin of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, which makes black bodies the target of war.”—Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground (2015), pp. 231–32.
“There are women in communities all over this country and around the globe, I’m sure, like my mother. I have met some of them. Women with original and powerful ways of understanding life, ways that come from the struggles and pleasures of their lived experience, but that may not find much expression beyond their kitchen tables, their market stalls, or the crises in which their families inevitably turn to them for guidance. (Like Mamie Till-Mobley said, ‘Any trouble I’ve ever had in my life, it took Mama to get me out.’)”—Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Remnants (2015), p. xi.
“As a Christian nation, as a nation of faith, we have lost our way. When people that even consider themselves Christians can use violence as a means to act out their fears, we have lost our way. If we are a nation that is founded ‘one nation under God,’ where is the God in the systemic violence that is played out every single day across the nation? That is not what God advocates. God does not advocate that violence begets violence. We cannot continue to live in fear, and fear is of the enemy. That is not of God.”101—Lucia Kay McBath, “Armed in America: Faith and Guns” (2016).
“I draw back on those moments and those conversations that I had with Jordan all the time, especially when there are the really difficult moments when I feel like I might not understand my way, where I’m going. Or I might have a sense of ambiguity or anxiety about what I’m called to do, what God is calling me to as he continues to expand my territory and grow me and what he’s calling me to do for his people. So, I go back to those conversations because my son was the perfect example of just strength and courage in those moments. And that’s what I have to draw on as my role gets bigger, as my work expands. And I understand how important it is that I really care for the people that God has given me charge over.”104
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See (Butler 2004).
See (Booker 2014; Booker 2020a; Booker 2020b; Booker 2021).
(Frederick 2003, p. 94). See also (Higginbotham 1993).
(Fulton and Martin 2017, pp. 327–28). Earlier in the text, Fulton explains her purple bedroom color: “Purple is my birthstone, the purple of amethyst, the ancient stone that, it’s written, Moses said was filled with the spirit of God, bestowing power and strength.” (Fulton and Martin 2017, p. 67).
(Carter 2019, pp. 157–58). Carter engages theorist Sharon P. Holland’s concept of “raising the dead” in her study of New Orleans’s Black Christian women. Carter writes that to “raise” the dead is a collective response to the pain caused by violent Black deaths that includes “not only practices of mourning, or mutual support, but the restoration of kinship through the assertion of relatedness and worth.” (Carter 2019, p. 168).
Ross writes, “The assertion of having an encounter with God—generally understood as an internal personal experience—coincides with the Christian conception of God’s spirit being active within a person. The speech of testimony (claiming experience of such an encounter through speech) and the activity of witness also affirm the concept of divine presence within people, asserting that God within a person makes a difference in what she does when she brings the God within to bear on how she interprets, understands, and relates to the world around her. Moreover, assertion of a divine presence within that inspires an external witness presupposes an internal locus of authority giving direction and courage to confront what may even seem to be insurmountable challenges, anticipating that God will ‘make a way out of no way.’” See (Ross 2003, p. 224).
Here, I echo Judith Weisenfeld’s formulation of “religio-racial” identity in (Weisenfeld 2016).
Stewart-Diakité and Hucks point to Charles H. Long’s discussion of religious experience: “The situation of the culture of black peoples in the United States afforded a religious experience of radical otherness, a resourceful and critical moment that allowed these communities to undertake radical internal criticisms of themselves, their situation, and the situation of the majority culture. In religious terms, this was an experience of a kind of mysterium tremendum, or the experience of a deus otiosus. ‘And I couldn’t hear nobody pray, O Lord/And I couldn’t hear nobody pray.’” (Long 1999, p. 9).
See (Balmer  2014; Noll 2002).
See (Hempton 2008).
See (Marsden  2006).
See (Bendroth 1993).
See (Stephens 2010).
See (Sutton 2014).
See (Ariel 2000).
See (Sharkey 2008).
See (Chang 2010).
See (Williams 1982).
See (Larson 1997).
See (Harding 2001).
See (Israel 2004).
See (Carpenter 1997).
See (Hangen 2002; Martin 2014). A more recent study of Evangelical media and popular gospel music is (R. P. Harper 2017).
See (Dochuk 2011).
See (Moreton 2010).
See (McAlister 2001).
See (Marsh 2008).
See (Griffith 1997).
See (Manigault-Bryant 2014).
Another anthropological and psychological approach to Evangelical religious experience is (Luhrmann 2012).
For a study that centers Pentecostal material religion, see (Blanton 2015).
See (Blumhofer 1993; Sutton 2007).
See (Harvey 1997, 2005; Bennett 2005; M. Harper 2016; Mathews 2017; Jemison 2020; Turner 2020).
See (Brooks 2014, 2020).
(Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, p. 138). A similar experience and religious response by a Black mother in the early twenty-first-century is Carter’s description of Candace, an African American Baptist woman who lost her son Corey to street violence. Candace went through a period of anger with God, mourning that induced physical illness, and a gradual return to church life because of counseling, pastoral care, and a strong support group. Candace attributed her resolve to “[n]obody but the grace of God,” the result of a spirituality beyond institutional religious life, and her ongoing work to heal entailed working for justice and social transformation: “She fought for gun control, she worked in the criminal justice system, she supported crime victims and their families, she performed outreach services for women and their children, she accompanied people to court and to prisons for restorative justice programs. This work, so helpful for others, was not separate from her own recovery. ‘It’s been good for me, too’ she said. ‘It really has.’” (Carter 2019, p. 96).
(Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, pp. 142–43). Till described Bennie, Jr. as “a student at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and the choir director at Argo Temple. He also ministered to the boys in the neighborhood through a church-sponsored boys’ club.” In this prayer encounter that Bennie, Jr. recalled with Emmett, Till describes their meeting as a divinely-orchestrated encounter: “At a certain point, he asked if Emmett wanted to pray with him. Emmett said he would and they prayed together on the streetcar. Bennie says that when Emmett raised his head, he looked transformed. It was that moment…when Emmett accepted Jesus Christ. Bennie would remember that experience for years to come, because he realized that the reason he had not been able to concentrate on his studies was because he was being interrupted by something much more important. It was, as he recalls, the voice of God.” (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, p. 93).
Earlier in the memoir, Till stated her hope that Emmett would follow his relatives’ examples and join the ministry: “We had a lot of ministers on my father’s side. I always thought Emmett would make a wonderful preacher. I thought he might at least become a deacon or a trustee in somebody’s church. He liked going to church and he was under the influence of his grandmother, a deeply religious woman. He talked about helping her build a church one day. He attended the one she had helped to build, the Argo Temple Church of God in Christ.” (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, p. 78).
On empathizing and comforting Maria Johnson, Till wrote, “I knew what she was feeling during this time, a time when even all the family love, all the public support couldn’t fill that hollow loneliness. I felt that, too. So deeply. We talked about that feeling. About that and the need for her to find peace within herself and with God. She had to accept God’s will even if she didn’t fully understand it right away. That was the first thing to do. Once she could reach that peace, she would receive spiritual guidance to handle everything else that she would have to handle: finding the truth, finding forgiveness. She would have to be strong to endure what lay ahead: the outside pressure, the inner turmoil. Oh, I knew these parts so well. I could see how difficult it was going to be.” (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, p. 276).
Till spoke of a recurring dream that she eventually interpreted to be a message of God delivering her from hatred: “…I heard a voice in this dream. ‘I have suspended you high above the troubled waters. Keep moving forward. You are headed in the right direction.’/When I awakened from the dream, I had such a sense of peace. I knew that the troubled waters had been hatred and God had guided me over it and away from it. I would not take that plunge, and I was so thankful. Hatred is a self-inflicted wound. And it is so destructive. I never felt any hatred for Bryant and Milam. And I didn’t want them to be executed. I wanted justice. I wanted them to be sorry. I wanted the state of Mississippi to be sorry. I want it still.” (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, p. 262).
In her memoir, Till presumed Milam and Bryant faced eternal damnation: “…But as horrible a crime as they committed against my little boy, against me, against society, their true crime was against God. They were given enough time to redeem themselves, to show remorse, to beg forgiveness. And it seems that they refused to do it. As I taught my kids, life is all about choices. Bryant and Milam made a terrible choice, the most expensive one of their lives. It cost them their eternal souls. I feel so very sorry for them. In this world, they only had Mamie to deal with.” (Till-Mobley and Benson 2003, p. 262).
Till declared, “[S]omething was spoken to me and that something was, ‘I am the ruler of heaven and earth I see all things. I’m commissioning you to go into the vineyard and work, and what is right I will pay. And don’t forget that vengeance is mine.’” On Bryant’s lack of “confessed repentance,” Till stated, “I felt sorry for him that he did not have a spiritual life, and I just wonder where he thought he was going to spend eternity or if he thought he was going to be here forever. Because there’s one sentence that you cannot escape, and that is when you go before the judgment seat of God, he will give the verdict.” “Mamie Till Speaks of Forgiveness #BLACKLIVESMATTER (Last Public Appearance Before Passing),” YouTube, 2 September 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Q3ZOCjkEwY (accessed on 31 December 2020).
Leah Gunning Francis’s study of the religious presences in the Ferguson uprising, a response to Michael Brown’s killing, reveals progressive Christian clergy in activist movements from “day one,” in her analysis, regardless of the visible movement leadership’s (non-)religious identities and affiliations. Gunning Francis, a Womanist theologian, seminary professor, former pastor, and mother, articulates the connection between her religious identity and activist commitment: “As a woman of faith, I did not separate my actions in pursuit of justice for Michael Brown from my faith. Instead, I understood them as an expression of my faith. My faith, or my belief and trust in God, motivated me to join the efforts to seek justice and provide care. My faith was integral to my works, and, together, enabled me to embody my idea of faithfulness in this time of communal distress.” She describes the “Mother’s March” that she organized with pastors Karen Anderson, Traci Blackmon, and Rebecca Ragland that gathered Ferguson’s mothers on 18 October 2014. This organizing moment was “to call for justice on behalf of Michael Brown, and call for an end to all violence in our city,” with violence including “all killings of our children at the hands of police, people claiming ‘stand your ground’ justifications, or peers.” (Francis 2015, pp. 3, 128).
The Episcopal priest and Womanist theologian Kelly Brown Douglas provided an historical overview and critical assessment of Stand Your Ground laws for Black Christian audiences who pursued activism in the wake of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown’s murders. Douglas writes, “The Stand Your Ground law is an extension of English Common Law that gives a person the right to protect his or her ‘castle.’ Stand Your Ground law essentially broadens the notion of castle to include one’s body. It permits certain individuals to protect their embodied castle whenever and wherever they feel threatened. Essentially, a person’s body is his or her castle. In this regard, a person does not have to retreat from the place in which he or she is ‘castled’; they can stand their ground. While this law was initially invoked as a reason for Trayvon’s slaying, it was not used as a formal defense. Nevertheless, Stand Your Ground law signals a social-cultural climate that makes the destruction and death of black bodies inevitable and even permissible. It is this very climate that also sustains the Prison Industrial Complex, which thrives on black male bodies. Most disturbing, this stand-your-ground climate seems only to have intensified as it continues to take young black lives such as those of Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell, and Jordan Davis. The repeated slaying of innocent black bodies makes it clear that there is an urgent need for soul searching within this nation.” (Douglas 2015, p. xiii).
McBath stated, “I walk my dog every morning, and I’m praying to God as I’m walking my dog. I’m on a number of prayer text chains, there are people that I pray with, there’s meditationals that I’m reading and scripture that I read every single day. I listen to Charles Stanley every single day. Because I know that these are some very very difficult times, and I view everything that’s happening here as a spiritual battle, I really really do, so that is the way I tackle it. I’m always calling on God asking for his wisdom and his strength and guidance that I’m not making decisions that are against his will….What gives me hope is that each and every day I can get up and I can follow the path that God has given me. And I really pray that I’m keeping my vision expanded and open to what he’s calling me to do for his people.” “LIVE Town Hall with Congresswoman Lucy McBath and Reverend Raphael Warnock,” 18 September 2020, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbkrAvP-pyc (accessed on 7 January 2021).
McBath adds, “‘Trust God, but not man,’ say many evangelicals who insist their gun rights are being threatened. They give a knowing smirk as they pat their firearms. This is usually code for a rampant distrust of those who, in their view, are not like them, the black and brown people, the criminals, illegals, and terrorists, the inner-city poor, and all those whom the NRA’s leaders aggressively and repetitively warn will be coming for the ‘good’ Americans’ homes and families. It turns out that instilling a globalized fear of ‘the other’ has been a wildly successful marketing plot for the NRA. Using dog whistle racial language such as the words urban, animals, and thugs—while also hammering home the notion of we and they—the organization’s leadership has inflamed ancient hatreds buried deep in America’s heart.” (McBath and Robotham 2018, pp. 96–97).
(McBath and Robotham 2018, p. 124). For scholarship on literary approaches to Black suffering in African American religious history, see (Hardy 2003; Pinn 2002).
In her memoir, and in subsequent interviews, McBath stated that she and Jordan’s father Ron believed their son had premonitions of his death. (McBath and Robotham 2018, pp. 126–27). As McBath told Brittany Jones-Cooper, “I believe in the innermost part of my being that my son knew, he didn’t know what would happen, but I really believe that he knew that he wasn’t always meant to be here.” See “Lucia Kay McBath Chats ‘Standing Our Ground: The Triumph of Faith Over Gun Violence—A Mother’s Story,’ 12 September 2018, Build, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAPzGnYst9s (accessed on 2 July 2020).
See (Bender 2010).
(McBath and Robotham 2018, p. 193). McBath articulated her divine calling “to help save lives” through the work of “agitating tirelessly for stronger gun regulations. I was to march in the streets and stand in rooms and on stages across the country, talking to people about the dangers of bad gun laws like Stand Your Ground. I was to open their eyes to the loopholes in background check laws and the dangers of assault weapons, and encourage people of faith to put their trust in God’s protection, rather than in their sidearm. The latter stance would bring me into direct contact with white Christian evangelicals, who despite being fervently pro-life when it came to a woman’s right to choose, tended to view any attempt to regulate firearms—which claim thirty-three thousand American lives each year—as trampling on their fundamental freedoms.” (McBath and Robotham 2018, p. 196).
McBath writes, “Perhaps the energy of the [Trump presidential] inauguration day had been so heavy and murky, that to balance it, the world spontaneously chose brilliance, chose hope and optimism, chose to harness the energy of the divine feminine and all those who stand in its light. I believe we were all searching for a way to turn our dismay at the tone of the new administration into something positive and powerful. And we did.” (McBath and Robotham 2018, p. 220).
See (Best 2005).
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Booker, V.A. Mothers of the Movement: Evangelicalism and Religious Experience in Black Women’s Activism. Religions 2021, 12, 141. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020141
Booker VA. Mothers of the Movement: Evangelicalism and Religious Experience in Black Women’s Activism. Religions. 2021; 12(2):141. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020141Chicago/Turabian Style
Booker, Vaughn A. 2021. "Mothers of the Movement: Evangelicalism and Religious Experience in Black Women’s Activism" Religions 12, no. 2: 141. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel12020141