For the 66th time, New Hope Baptist Church will hold its annual Women’s Day celebration in March. The church has only missed the celebration once, in 1979, since it was first implemented by Anna Lee Williams and her husband Rev. M.C. Williams.
In 1952, New Hope Baptist Church in Denver had no women in leading roles. A half-century after Women’s Day had first celebrated a woman was still introduced as first name “wife,” last name “of.” Women couldn’t hold leadership positions and definitely were not called on to be pastors at religious institutions anywhere in the country.
“The deacon board was all men in 1952,” life-long congregation member Julia Gayles said. “Women did not have a strong role in the church beside a school teacher or usher.”
Gayles, who is also the board of trustees chair at New Hope, said women, especially African American women, were not afforded opportunities for leadership and personal growth in society. Nannie Helen Burroughs first petitioned the idea of celebrating women to the National Baptist Convention in 1907 because that patriarchy had followed women into their place of worship.
So on the second Sunday in March 1952, at a pictorial tabernacle in the heart of Five Points, New Hope held its first Women’s Day celebration. The churched has since hosted many prominent Women’s Day speakers including Coretta Scott King in 1958, Alberta Williams King in 1971, and Naomi Tutu in 1990. As a songstress, Williams also felt that music was very important to women’s day and built an all women’s choir.
“She was really something else; she was a phenomenal woman,” former Women’s Day Chairperson Linda Bates Leali said. “She was a lyric-dramatic soprano and professional opera singer. She brought a certain air to New Hope that she instilled when she first initiated women’s day in 1952.”
The celebration began as a Sunday service where women ran the show. The pastor would join the congregation in the pews and every person in the pulpit was a woman. The choir was all women, as were the ushers and deacons.
In 1957 Williams added a Saturday prayer breakfast and retreat to the celebration where the men would serve the women breakfast and prayer workshops, but this did not become a yearly fixture of the event until the ’80s.
“The strong women and leadership capacity of the women here started with Anna Lee Williams,” Bates Leali said. “It was just a time to celebrate the women of the church and to show how women had spiritual gifts that could be used by others and shared with others, and as time progressed, it began to show how barriers were being broken down even in the church.”
The Leadership of the church has naturally evolved and changed over time. Williams passed her torch onto Lorene Peters and her husband Dr. James D. Peters Jr. Now Nichelle Downing and Rev. Dr. Eugene M. Downing Jr. are continuing to develop and preserve an important tradition passed down by Williams and Peters.
“We hold onto history by continuing to celebrate,” Rev. Downing said. “When we arrived here six years ago, I invited Anna Lee’s daughter to talk (to my wife and me) about Women’s Day and what it meant to her mother.”
“It came about at a time when there was still a good bit of gender bias in the church and sadly in the Black churches. That was much of the impetus for Women’s Day here to really recognize that 70 percent of Protestant churches are made up of women but somehow there is this gender bias that we still have in the denomination even as a protestant faith.”
Each Women’s Day now begins with a Wednesday prayer meeting run by women and attended by all the women who partake in the planning committees for the event. Friday the women decorate the sanctuary and Family Life Center before enjoying the weekend retreat. Developing personal connections with the other women of the congregation has become as much a tradition of Women’s Day as the sermon.
“So what my wife I think has done is identify women in our congregation who appear to be engaged in ministry, who love the lord and simply, maybe, would bring a level of engagement that would reach other women in the congregation,” Rev. Downing said.
This year, Tracy Dickerson has been selected as the chairperson and Tyshia Seldon as the co-chairperson. They will work with her to select the theme, color, and biblical scripture. They also work to identify and solicit volunteers to chair the various committees.
“There are a lot of committees involved,” Bates Leali said. “It takes a huge team to get this together and they work to include members of the church and that’s one of the beautiful additional benefits from it. People get to know each other who they may not have known before. Life-long friendships have been started and established.
“Maintaining focus on what God promised,” is this year’s theme and the colors are grey and purple. This particular year’s biblical reference is Deuteronomy 5:32-33.
“So be careful to do what the Lord your God has commanded you; do not turn aside to the right or to the left. Walk in obedience to all that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live and prosper and prolong your days in the land that you will possess.”
Rev. Tamieka Gerow, who currently serves as the Executive Minister of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Spring House, Pennsylvania, will be the guest speaker. She also delivered the sermon at last year’s Women’s Day celebration.
“I pick the speaker for service and my wife prays about the theme for the year,” Rev. Downing said. “I select speakers for the whole year and identify persons whose particular gifts in ministry sort of align with those themes and where we are going as a church.”
Last year Rev. Gerow was pregnant when she spoke and Rev. Downing said that experience fostered personal growth for both himself and the congregation.
“It was really great for me as a pastor in trying to really be authentic with gender issues and trying to do some of the things I’ve come through in ministry and the patriarchal structure that exists,” he said.
“I felt that it was a blessing for her to carry that for that moment where people were kind of uncomfortable with a pregnant woman in the pulpit, and then eventually people got over it. It was a great moment and such a profound one for us that it was worth inviting her to come back again.”
Inviting strong women into spiritual leadership within the church not only fosters a strong sense of self and place in the world for congregation members, but also paves the way for women to become instrumental in the everyday operations of the church.
New Hope was the first Baptist church in Denver to have a female board of trustees chairperson, allow women to sit in the pulpit, become members of the deacon board, ushers, members of the choir, and hold leadership positions in various committees through the ministries at the church.
This is such a unique experience and the message isn’t just for women, but it’s a message that helps women recognize how important we are,” Bates Leali said. “The empowerment of women is something that the church hasn’t always had a role in and I’m so glad that New Hope recognizes and celebrates women in our Christian walk.”