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Culture & History

East St. Louis Church Ordains Women As Clergy For First Time In Its Long History

Elder Trena McGuire, left, and Rev. Felecia Phillips-Harris, right, were recently ordained as clergy at Macedonia Baptist Church in East St. Louis.
Derik Holtmann
Belleville News-Democrat
Elder Trena McGuire, left, and Rev. Felecia Phillips-Harris, right, were recently ordained as clergy at Macedonia Baptist Church in East St. Louis.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

EAST ST. LOUIS — On the morning of Sunday, July 4, Independence Day, Macedonia Baptist Church had its own celebration of freedom.

But it didn’t involve American flags and fireworks.

This was a different, personal type of freedom for the oldest Black church in East St Louis, a type of freedom that members, especially women, didn’t even deem possible.

That Sunday morning’s service marked the first time in nearly 158 years that women were ordained as clergy members at the church.

“I was very proud of not only Macedonia as a church, but I was so very proud of my pastor to recognize that women can serve in the church as well as men,” said Rita Payton, a longtime member of church who attended the ordination.

Rev. Felecia Phillips-Harris and Elder Trena McGuire are the first women to be ordained since the church was founded in November 1863. Rev. David Hardnett Sr. also was ordained that day.

All three were previously ministers in the church. Ministers are allowed to preach in the church, but aren’t able to officiate weddings, communion, funerals or pastor a church. Only ordained clergy have those privileges.

‘The First Colored Baptist Church’

Macedonia Baptist Church, located at 1400 E. Broadway in East St. Louis, is the city’s oldest Black church. It was organized by a small group of women in Venice and originally titled “The First Colored Baptist Church”. Rev. J. Martin was its first pastor.

The church, later named Macedonia Baptist Church, moved to 506 Brady Ave. in East St. Louis in 1892, 1331 E. Broadway in 1933, 1335 E. Broadway in 1953 and its present location in 2004. Eleven pastors have led the church since its founding. All of them were men. Women weren’t allowed to serve as ministers or become ordained clergy members.

That is, until now.

Pastor J. Kevin James Jr, Macedonia’s current pastor, was chosen to lead the church in 2016. A native of Baltimore, Maryland, James came to the church knowing about its history of not being receptive to women leaders. He wanted to change that.

“That has been really a part of my ministry as being the pastor of Macedonia,” said James, who is 30 years old. “Because we are the oldest Black church in East St. Louis, I’ve always tried to keep us in that mode of being innovative and staying above what the times are. When I got to the church five years ago, women were never allowed to preach at the church. They had never been licensed or ordained by our congregation, so I was very adamant in my teaching that we understand that in Christ there is equity, and that male and female should be able to operate in full scope.”

Under James’ leadership, the church appointed 11 women as deacons, which was the first for the church. Deacons serve the church through a congregational care aspect, such as administering the Lord’s Supper, making hospital visits to church members if needed and other duties. They aren’t preachers. He also licensed the church’s first female minister.

Including women in church leadership comes naturally for James. It’s how he was raised.

“I’m a fifth-generation preacher,” said James, who lives in Swansea. “My grandmother is a pastor, so I’ve always grown up seeing women in leadership and seeing men in leadership. My great-aunt was a United Methodist pastor. I grew up in a church where women were always affirmed to operate as preachers in church, so seeing something different from that was odd to me because I grew up in an environment where men and women led.”

He said he’s tried to make his church of nearly 600 members a safe space for women, given the church’s history. That effort wasn’t as difficult as it sounds, according to James.

“The practice of the church was that women were not allowed to preach, they were not allowed to receive their license or ordination, but that’s not necessarily what the people believed,” James said. “So I understood that there was some level of leverage there that if I just educated or enlightened the people or affirmed them in their belief that God could use women, that it’d be a smoother transition for us to be able to do that.”

Lack of recognition

Under James’ leadership, Phillips- Harris was the first woman minister to be licensed in the church. She was licensed and preached her first sermon in 2017. She said being the church’s first female minister and now being one of the first women to be ordained evokes mixed emotions for her.

“For me, personally, accepting my calling to ministry, accepting what God has called me to do obviously was exciting, but it has come with repercussions because it’s new and people are not so willing, especially in the Midwest, in the Baptist church to accept women in ministry”

She said even some of her friends struggled with respecting her role.

“I’m still Felecia,” Phillips-Harris said. “Many people call me by my nickname, and I still answer to that because that’s who I am. But you could just feel like they’re not sure. (It’s) like, ‘Yea, you’re still my friend, but I’m not really sure you have this calling on your life.’ From older people who are just from Macedonia and from the Midwest, they don’t see us in that position.”

Still, Phillips-Harris would’ve never imagined that she’d make history at the church she grew up in. She was used to not seeing herself reflected in church leadership. Her parents were members of the church and her maternal grandfather was an assistant pastor at the church. Even though she knew she wanted to continue her family’s legacy in ministry, she knew, because of her gender, she wouldn’t be able to. She let that passion go.

That was until a life-altering situation brought her closer to God.

“We were pretty much homeless,” Phillips-Harris, 56, said. “During that time, I was in the hotel and I’m already battling this homelessness and God just kept coming and coming, and I’m like, ‘OK, God, I can’t fight this anymore.’ In that hotel room, I made a private yes to God, even though I didn’t leave Macedonia.”

Phillips-Harris and her family became homeless around 2015 and spent about 2 ½ years living in a hotel and with family members. The time aligned with the beginning of James’ leadership at the church. He recognized her calling. Her family now resides in their own home in Collinsville.

“It was literally in months of Pastor James being here,” Phillips-Harris said. “I went into his office to talk to him and he said ‘What is your purpose?’ I’m saying all of this other stuff because I did work with the youth, and I was doing other things, and he kept looking at me like ‘Alright, when are you going to tell me the real (thing)?’”

She went through a year of minister-in-training in 2016 and started the ordination process in April of this year. She hopes her role can inspire other women to pursue their dreams.

“I hope it helps some other women to say ‘Hey, I can reach out and do some things or accept my calling,’” Phillips-Harris said. “Maybe it’s not even related to ministry. Maybe it’s something else that they’ve been fighting as a woman to do.”

Elder Trena McGuire discovered her passion for ministry at a young age. She was raised at the Orr-Weathers Apartments in East St Louis during the 1970s when she became intrigued by her friend’s mom.

“I would see her going to church,” McGuire said. “One day, I saw like a peace around her. I didn’t understand it, but I wanted what she had, and I knocked on her door. She asked me how I was doing, and I asked her if I could talk to her. I told her that I wanted what you have. She said it was God, and I wanted to get to know him.”

She gave her life to God at 16 after attending a church in St. Louis with her friend’s mom. It was something McGuire said she really needed at the time as a kid growing up in the projects.

“I needed a sense of stability and calmness,” McGuire, 62, said. “My dad had left us, left my mom, and we were struggling financially. My mom was going through a lot when our dad left us. I saw my mom hurt and cry a lot over different things, but when I saw that in my friend’s mother, I knew that I could make it through all I’ve been through.”

McGuire didn’t officially accept her calling into ministry until 1995 because she said she was young and still wrestling with her calling. Since then, she spent her time at two churches that weren’t always receptive to women ministers.

“Some people don’t like it, mostly a lot of men,” said McGuire, who lives in Cahokia Heights. “They don’t recognize you or they may tell you that you can’t come up in the pulpit. That’s a push back, but that doesn’t matter to me. I don’t have to come up in the pulpit. I know that God called me. I can stand on the floor, I can preach outside. It doesn’t matter where it is for me.”

She came to Macedonia in 2017 and received her ministerial license in 2019. She said she’s happy to serve in her current role as an ordained minister and to be able to make history with Phillips-Harris.

“It’s rewarding,” McGuire said. “She’s a beautiful person, and I’m glad that we are co-laborers together, that we’re working together. I know that it’s historic at this time in this season that we’re in. You don’t hear about women being ordained like this.”

Black women in the church

Historically, women are the foundation of the Black church but are rarely represented in church leadership. In fact, Black women are among the most religious demographic in the country, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. About 80% of Black women say that religion is very important to them. That number falls to 69% for Black men, 65% for Hispanic women and 55% for white women.

However, 16% of religious leaders at Black Protestant churches are women, compared with nearly 84% who are men, according to a National Congregations Study conducted in 2018 and 2019.

Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham writes about this trend in her seminal text “Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church”. The Black church was inextricably linked to the Civil Rights Movement and the social advancement of Black people in the United States as it became one of the only places where they could gather and temporarily escape the pressures of racism. And most of the work was led by Black women, although it’s overlooked.

One of the women highlighted in the book is Nannie Helen Burroughs, who in the early 20th century organized the women’s wing of the National Baptist Convention. During her speech at the convention in 1900, Burroughs called for a more inclusive church.

“We realize that to allow these gems to lie unpolished longer means a loss to the denomination,” Burroughs said in her speech. “For a number of years there has been a righteous discontent, a burning zeal to go forward in his name among the Baptist women of our churches and it will be the dynamic force in the religious campaign at the opening of the 20th century.”

In East St. Louis, there are roughly 35 churches, according to an unofficial list from the city clerk’s office. Almost all of them are led by men.

Rita Payton, who grew up in East St. Louis and attends Macedonia Baptist Church, said that has always been the trend for churches in the area.

“As a woman growing up in the 60s, it bothered me, but I also realized that the tradition of the Black church was in place and that somewhere somehow things had to change when women decided that things had to change….Black women of my mother’s generation were taught that their place was behind the man,” Payton, 71 said.

It’s why she’s grateful for the work of Pastor James for being adamant about including women in church leadership.

“He was able to show us a vision that maybe was in the back of our minds, but we’d never thought we’d see,” said Payton, who currently lives in O’Fallon. “My mom is 92, and I know she’d never thought she’d see a woman preaching at Macedonia. She’s been at Macedonia for over 70 something years.”

James will be leaving Macedonia Baptist Church in September. He’ll go back home to Baltimore to pastor Whitestone Baptist Church. Although he’s leaving, he doesn’t think his efforts in affirming women in the church will go in vain. The church hasn’t chosen a new pastor yet, but he’s sure that its next leader will continue the work, especially now that women are a part of its ordained clergy.

The ordination service on Independence Day is what the future of leadership at Macedonia can look like.

“When a woman has been empowered, you can’t put her back in a cage,” James said.

DeAsia Paige is a reporter with the Belleville News-Democrat, a news partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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