(RNS) – Reverend Melva Sampson dons her chunky, shiny glasses and a frayed pink dress at 8 a.m. Sunday as she greets attendees by name to worship via Facebook Live. No COVID-19 workaround, Sampson’s ministry has always been online — and for a reason: his theology isn’t made for Sunday morning get-togethers.
“In this space, although there are many representations of different religious traditions, it is the indigenous African traditions that take center stage,” Sampson told Religion News Service in a recent phone interview.
The weekly services, called The Pink Robe Chronicles, are clearly feminist and Afrocentric – focusing on the spiritual wisdom of black women and members of the African diaspora. Sampson calls the gathering a “digital silent port,” adapting the havens where 19th-century enslaved Africans secretly gathered, incorporating African and Christian rituals.
She started the group unwittingly six years ago, after being disinvited from preaching at her own church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and reeling from the death of a black woman in Baltimore who had was killed by the police. Sampson took to Facebook to share brief thoughts on the lessons inherited from her grandmother. At first it was frequented by friends and family, but it has grown, and Sampson’s meditations now cover topics such as sacred motherhood or the weighty myth of the strong black woman and delve into spiritual books from Black Women Authors – “Red Lip Theology”, by Candice Marie Benbow; Guessing the Self, by Velma Love; “Bring Out of Nowhere,” by Monica Coleman; and others.
Today, the meditations are followed by a Zoom discussion called The Clearing, where participants are asked to “reply” to the shared chronicle. Around 50 women normally attend, although at the start of COVID-19 she could expect around 175.
Sampson, who is a minister of the Progressive National Baptist Convention and an assistant professor of preaching and practical theology at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, said: “It allows women to engage and practice and stand up and to talk about their own lived experiences, validating them in a way that traditional religious faith does not. The spirituality of the group is sometimes Christian, but it goes beyond the limits of organized religion.
The Pink Robe Chronicles are just one of many bands that have thrived during quarantine but have come back to life post-pandemic. Several groups are populated by women of color, many of whom struggle with religious trauma. For them, digital hangouts offer a spiritual community free from the symbols and hierarchies that some find triggering.
Liberated Together’s online presence took off in May 2020, days after the murder of George Floyd, after public theologian Erna Hackett took to social media on a whim to ask if any American women in of Asian descent were interested in meeting virtually to discuss anti-Blackness. To his surprise, about 100 people said yes.
“Locked out, we were desperate for connection. Everyone was watching stuff happen with the murder of George Floyd and all this anti-Asian hatred. That’s when I started experimenting – maybe that could be a thing?
Soon Hackett was turning people away, having filled virtual rooms with non-black Latinas working on anti-black biases, women in their 20s of leaders of color, or those who wanted to “decolonize with badass native grannies.” .
Liberated Together charges $450 to $1,800 per “cohort,” depending on the number of meetings and whether an in-person retreat is included. (Scholarships, Hackett said, are available.) The cost, she explained, ensures group leaders are fairly compensated.
Unlike Sampson’s group, Hackett limits hers to women of color. “There’s really no place in the nonprofit world, the racial justice world, or the ministry world that’s just for women of color, queer women of color,” she said. .
The Liberated Together website makes it clear that certain debates are off limits, including whether women can be spiritual leaders, whether queer women should be fully included or whether trans women are women, and whether patriarchy and white supremacy are real. .
“I don’t try to be for everyone. I’m not trying to be a big tent,” Hackett said. “For many women, when the Zoom opens up and they know that everyone has agreed to not only be tolerant, but to actively co-create a space that centers liberated queerness and queer theology, that launches conversation in extremely different spaces.”
That held true for Reverend Riana Shaw Robinson, a pastor in Oakland, Calif., who participated in the Liberated Together cohort for women of color over 30. She said one of the greatest gifts is just to be heard and believed.
“My years in seminary, in the ordination process and in service in a multi-ethnic church have drained me into a very sad and exhausted place,” Shaw Robinson said. “And it was women of color who put me back together, who listened to me back in life and invited me to find joy again.”
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Some women who participated in the Liberated Together cohorts saw the need for another group, in which they could begin to imagine the spiritual spaces they wanted to be part of long term. Hackett partnered with three others in late 2021 to launch QUNI, a network for people with disabilities, queer people of color and women of color. QUNI – a coined word that lets others decide what it means – has a podcast and Instagram account and has offered a series of virtual listening sessions and gatherings.
Erica Ramos-Thompson, a master’s student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, who is now a QUNI facilitator, attended one of the first listening sessions for people with disabilities of color.
“Being around people who have more than one point of intersectional identity overlap with me, I was like, I can breathe. I’m not holding my breath or preparing to explain or justify myself in this space,” Ramos-Thompson said. “I felt like I needed to take my shoes off, it was sacred and sacred to me.”
Ramos-Thompson, who now leads QUNI groups for people with disabilities of color, has also started running Disability 101 seminars for people without disabilities.
This fall, QUNI will launch networks for spiritual directors and church planters. One of the women who hopes to “spawn” a church, as she puts it, is Shaw Robinson, who says his church will start with an online Advent series later this year. She says the church will initially only be open to women of color, who will set the cultural groundwork before opening up to others. Eventually, she hopes the church will also have an in-person component.
Sampson is also looking to expand the in-person ministry of the Pink Robe Chronicles. The group has spun off a series of traveling events called 1Love Festival, and Sampson has already visited members of the community with health issues and performed weddings for people who got to know her online.
The group has also used its networks to raise more than $20,000 to support black female-headed households during the pandemic and provides scholarships for black women attending historically black colleges and universities.
“Just because I’m not connected to a brick-and-mortar church doesn’t mean I’m disconnected and called out,” Sampson said. “It means that I have been called alongside others to usher in something new.”
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