Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. He launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. You can follow People’s District on Twitter @PeoplesDistrict, and can read his previous columns here.
“I have consistently tried not to be the first in life. I was the first black student in my high school in Long Island. We were the first black family in our town. I was the first woman in the pulpit at 19th Street Baptist Church. Now, I am the first woman to found a Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. that is recognized by the American Baptist and D.C. Baptist conventions. For the sake of history, the firsts are important, but it can be a difficult and painful process.
“In seminary, I remember the men saying to me, ‘Well, surely, you are not going to preach. You are a woman, and women don’t preach.’ As a woman, men believed I was meant to be an associate minister, work in the children’s or youth ministry, or support of the pastor in different ways. These were all important positions, but I had a very powerful calling and wanted more.
“After serving for seven years as an associate minister at the First Congregational Church and then as associate pastor of the 19th St. Baptist Church, I heard my calling to found the Pavilion of God. At the time, I was gravely ill and in the hospital. When I got out, a young man called to ask if I was still doing counseling. He knew a couple that needed help. I told him that I was very ill, but would find someone else. He called me back the next day and said, ‘Are you sure you can’t do this?’ I said, I am really, really sorry, but I can’t. The next day, the man in need of help called back and asked if I could meet with him. Finally, I said, okay, but for a very short time, as I could barely talk and was still on oxygen.
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“At the end of our session, he said, ‘Do you have a church? I would like to worship with you.’ When I was in the hospital, I made this quiet bargain with God. I said, God, if you get me out of here, I will do whatever you ask of me. I have to believe that the couple was sent by God. They were sent to help me build this church. Months after we met, we started worshiping together in my living room. Now, ten years later, we have a vibrant, young community of over 65 people. I named the church, The Pavilion of God, because I stayed on the Pavilion level at Howard University Hospital.
“I didn’t want to start what one thinks of as a traditional black church. I am more married to liberation theology, which is inclusive of all peoples. We have a diverse congregation and as the pastor, I am always learning and asking questions and encourage my congregation to do the same. I recently met a pastor who at 89 said, ‘I just discovered…’ I was so amazed that I don’t even remember what he discovered. I was just struck by him saying, “I just discovered.’ That inspires me. I want to continue to learn and discover things until I am 89. Doing so makes me more in touch with God and a more effective leader of our church.
“And, just as the church needs and learns from me, I need and learn from my church. On Easter Sunday 2010, I discovered some blood coming from my breast. Blood is supposed to be life giving until you see it coming out of your breast! I was shaken, but still came to church to lead the service. I started to preach, but nothing came out. I went blank and in the packed room, you could have heard a pin drop. I put my notes down and started to cry. A young woman walked forward and said, ‘You laid hands on us. Now, let us lay hands on you.’ The church gathered and prayed for me. At that moment, I couldn’t find myself. I was lost, but the prayer comforted me and made me know that everything would be okay. That was the beginning of my journey with breast cancer.
“Thanks to my faith in God, my son the physician, my husband, Charles, and my congregation who prayed and paid for my insurance, I am getting better. An experience like that changes you and frames your life differently. I don’t believe that you have pain and suffering in life for no reason. For me, breast cancer firms my belief that you should be conscious of the divine that exists in this world and within you. Everyone should honor that in their own way. Hopefully, that way is in your relationship with Jesus. That is my understanding and I stand on that.”
Reverend Dr. Alethea R. Smith-Withers is the Founder and Pastor of the Pavilion of God, a Baptist community that worships on Sunday mornings in the recreation room of the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center at 1719 13th St. NW. She is also the author of Blessed Breasts, a blog about breast cancer and faith.