Eulogy reminder of Black church, women

FILE - In this Aug. 31, 2018, file photo, the Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr., delivers the eulogy during the funeral service for Aretha Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, in Detroit. Williams, a fiery, old-school pastor who is under fire for saying black America is losing "its soul" at Franklin's funeral stands firm by his words with the hopes that those critics can understand his perspective. He told The Associated Press in a phone interview Sunday, Sept. 2, he felt his sermon was appropriate. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

A Black pastor’s controversial eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s recent funeral laid bare before the world what some Black women say they have experienced for generations: sexism and inequality in their houses of worship every Sunday.

In eulogizing the beloved artist known as the Queen of Soul, the Rev. Jasper Williams Jr. declared that as “proud, beautiful and fine as our Black women are, one thing a Black woman cannot do – a Black woman cannot raise a Black boy to be a man.”

The backlash was immediate, given Franklin’s role as a mother and a pillar for women’s rights.

Franklin’s grieving family said Williams’ eulogy, which also included references to stopping Black-on-Black crime, was offensive because it did not focus on her. Social media lit up with criticisms of his remarks as sexist and misogynist.

For many Black women, Williams’ eulogy reopened wounds and sternly reminded them that Black churches remain male-dominated institutions, where old-school resistance to women holding leadership roles is still alive.

“Women are hurting about this issue,” said the Rev. Barbara Reynolds, an elder at Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church in Washington, D.C.

“It’s like we are still not equal. Women fight in every cause for everybody else, but we are not celebrated or even tolerated in sacred spaces,” Reynolds said.

Women not only fill the pews in many Black churches, they also serve as nurses and ushers and work behind the scenes. Some are trustees, evangelists or deacons. But many are denied true leadership roles and in some cases are asked to deliver sermons from the church floor, rather than the pulpit.

Some male ministers “actually deeply believe that men are supposed to be in charge,” said the Rev. Cheryl Townsend Gilkes of Union Baptist Church in Cambridge, Mass.

Williams, pastor of Salem Bible Church in Atlanta, had also eulogized Franklin’s father, Rev. C.L. Franklin, in 1984. He prefaced part of his eulogy for Aretha Franklin on Aug. 31 by saying “70 percent” of Black households are led by Black women.

Williams apologized later, but defended his choice of topics and said his words were taken out of context.

But even during Franklin’s funeral, the absence of Black women in the pulpit was evident. The front row was occupied by Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and primarily other Black male ministers. No Black female pastors were featured on an early speakers’ list for the funeral.

Shirley Caesar, a gospel music legend and senior pastor of Mount Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, N.C., sang during the service, but also seized the moment to squeeze in a little preaching.