‘Reverend Alethea on Being Conscious of the Divine’ by Danny Harris

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.

Continues after the jump.

“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.

20 Comment

  • houseintherear

    It’s wonderful to read about a religious leader in the community without having to sort through the “Jesus Christ Our Lord” and “everyone should be worshipping God right now” and “sinners should repent” stuff. She’s quite inspirational.

    • Sure, it’s nice to read about and she seems like a nice lady.

      Doesn’t change the fact that god doesn’t exist.

  • It’s great she recovered but I can’t think of anything more arrogant than people who state that God helped get them over some problem in life but he declines to intervene in saving any of the millions of children dying daily from hunger, treatable disease, birth defects, floods, tsunamis etc.

    It always seems like god helps a person here or there but never prevents something like the Haiti earthquake or tsunamis in Indonesia where hundreds of thousands of people, including children, die horrible deaths.

    How about the thing that cured the cancer was SCIENCE? No? Supposedly god has been around forever but people only started overcoming cancer in the last few decades when modern science-driven medicine became sufficiently advanced. Maybe it was a conicidence or God just decided to wait throughout the 10,000 years of human history to cure any cancer while letting people die from diseases that are considered harmless today (again becuase of medicine)

    Or maybe it’s true. Maybe no one was praying for Australians who are being currently killed by massive flooding.

    • Really?

      You want to turn this into another religious debate?

      Here’s another (atheistic) way to look at “God’s role” in this. Her faith and God-influenced worldview was very important to her morale/mental well-being during a time of crisis. Completely leaving issues of divine intervention aside, I would say it’s reasonable to say that “God helped her get through those tough times”.

      So, how about we just leave the “how can a good God allow evil in the world” question to Philosophy/Theology 101 students?

      • Sorry – You are not correct.
        “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. ”

        This sounds exactly like direct intervention to me.
        It just annoys me as a research scientist that someone someday may have their life saved because of the hard work of all scientists who educated themselves and devoted their lives to obtaining knowledge and creating cures and medicines – and that day this ignorant person decides to attibute their health to an act of god.

        This is a not just a philosophical problem but a real one that affects everyone. If large groups of people think that the solutions to human problems is god then we have less chance that any of these poeple will ever contribute to solving any of these problems.

        What we need is less preachers and more science teachers.

      • On top of this, you have this disgusting quote

        ” I don’t believe that you have pain and suffering in life for no reason.”

        I would love for this lady to talk to children in St. Judes who probably will die before they are 10, or survivors of the holocaust, or families of those who drowned in tsunamis or died in earthquakes – what possible F***ing lesson was there to be learned by the survivors that required the death of MILLIONS OF PEOPLE?

        That the devine exists? Some lesson

        • I think you missed my point – Despite my sympathies for a rationalist interpretation of our reality, grinding this type of “opiate for the masses” axe is about as counter-productive as coming out with a “sinners repent” message.

          I offered my alternative look at God’s role in the lady’s life to help you get past the frothing rage, not to debate the merits of religious and scientific thought.

          Finally, I am unable to resist adding:


          • Sadly, the lady upon being cured – started a church to brainwash more people to the idea that when they are in trouble they can and should rely on god for help.

            As for the false dichotomy – you can figure it out for yourself.

            If a person has an infection – they can pray and take penicilin. Now – which one can they do by itself and get the same exact results?

          • *Whhhwwww*

            That’s the sound of my point flying over your head.

            Not defending religion.
            Not defending science.
            Not trying to say how what the Rev does/doesn’t believe about divine intervention and or modern medicine.

            I started this by trying to point out that even the most hardened rationalist and fervent religious person should be able to find common ground by saying that her belief in God helped her get through tough times.

            Obviously the bigger HOW is up for debate, but even in that realm, it seems likely that Rational and Religious could agree her faith was useful from a mental health standpoint.


          • Sorry to hijack your post, but I can’t reply directly to Anonymous, who falsely believes that a religious person will EITHER pray or take medicine. A rational person will of course take medication, but that doesn’t mean that person will not also pray. Maybe not when they have the flu or a minor illness, but they will pray when gravely ill.
            If I may be forgiven an example, my aunt prayed and was comforted during her decade-long battle with breast cancer. She never missed a day of chemo, or of radiation, and she never refused a medical procedure until it was obvious the cancer was fatal. She didn’t as you say ‘rely on God for help,’ she relied on Him for peace and strength while she worked with her doctors for a cure.

            I’m not religious, but I do know her religion gave her a lot and I am glad. I would prefer that people didn’t belittle religion, but whatever.

          • I didn’t miss your point. I am making the point that from a mental health standpoint, faith has a negative and possibly a damaging effect. Faith doesn’t help you to find a real solution to a problem, it can only make you pretend you don’t have one for a while or to avoid it. In the case of medical treatment this could mean you delay the necessary medical care that will actually cure you. Additionally, being that medicine works just as well on people who have faith and those who don’t assuming all other factors are equal it seems to show that faith has no effect on it whatsoever.

            Using faith to help you deal with problems is the same as drinking to help you deal with your problems – it is nothing but an escape from reality.

          • Ack – yes you did miss my point. I get that you believe that science is a better bet for positive contributions to human existence than religion.

            I’m not debating that. I’m challenging the question itself. You are falling victim to the false dichotomy of religion *VS* science.

            Lizz S provides a good example of how it is not necessary to say either/or in this case.

            In both cases (the Rev and Auntie de Lizz), religious faith was valuable from a mental health/inner peace standpoint while science was valuable from a “prolong life in the face of cancer” standpoint.

            i.e. Religion and science both served a purpose, and in these *non-hypothetical* cases, neither one interfered with the other. Not saying it doesn’t happen, just that its not what’s at play here.

        • Lizz. I didn’t say that a religious person has to choose to pray OR take medicine.

          I am simply saying that If you pray AND take medicine you will have the same effect as if you ONLY took medicine. If you ONLY pray nothing will happen.

          I am saying that prayer is the same as doing nothing.

          As for belitelling religion, I’ll stop when people like the pope stop saying things like “condom use increases the risk of aids” or Fathers killing their daughters for talking to guys outside of their religious group or thousands of people protesting gay marriage (this century) or inter-racial marriage (last century) becuase they claim it is what god wants.

          So maybe I insult religion – but while religion is a major source of opression, discrimination and death in this world I believe it deserves to be insulted.

          • I’m pretty much atheist myself but I have nothing but respect for those who have faith. I have fundamentalist Christian friends who are more tolerant and open-minded than you.

          • …and here I foolishly thought I could nip the tired old Faith vs. Science debate in the bud by establishing some common ground up front.

          • El Gringo, you are right. Maybe faith played a role in helping to sooth a persons mental state in times of trouble. But faith is not required for that. You can achieve that effect on a human in any number of ways – like singing a song or laughing at something funny or looking at something beautiful and don’t come with all the dogma.

            There is nothing that only faith can’t provide that you can’t get in some other way without it.

          • Prayer is not the same as doing nothing. Think of it purely as a tool for meditation, as El Gringo said. I personally still pray, but as I am not religious I use it more as a way to organize my thoughts.
            Since we aren’t really talking about the Reverend anymore, I’ll leave her specific prayer alone. I actually would love to talk to her, even though I have no intention of joining her or any church.
            I do agree that many people do bad, horrible things in the name of religion. They also do wonderful things. I don’t agree with organized religion, but I will ask a person about their beliefs before I condemn them over their religion.

          • Lizz. I agree. I won’t judge a person based on their religion either. Many people do great things using religion as a vehicle but if there was no religion people would continue to do the same amount of good in the world. I do think it would be harder for people to justify some of the bad things done in the name of religion. Maybe I’m wrong and they would just find some other way.

  • Great profile…A “human interest” story at its best.

  • The Rev is blessed and what a blessing to share. Life is full of stories and moments that draw you closer to your spiritual existence. God is alive but, of course, it is yours to choose.

    Peace and blessings to all!!

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