Rev. Lisa Jenkins has been elected the first female pastor in the 88-year history of St. Matthews’s Baptist Church.
Jenkins — a 48-year-old single mom of a college student — might appear to outsiders as an atypical choice. But the church’s majority-woman congregation saw her background as a plus (not to mention the four male rivals split the vote).
“She’s very relatable,” said Kiesha Grant, 42. “Some pastors forget about the kids, and now we have someone who has a child who’s college age, so she’s still hip to the young people.”
Parishioners hope her accessible, generation-spanning oratory will attract young people to its aging congregation’s declining numbers. Five new congregants joined this month, they said, some younger than 30.
“She was preaching, my 16-year-old grandson had his head down, but all of a sudden his head pops up, he’s listening!” said Grant’s mother, deacon Nataline Vanderburg, 66.
On a recent Sunday, Jenkins rocked the flock with a plain-talking sermon that hopped from Exodus and Isaiah to slavery and Martin Luther King in a crescendo of hand-clapping praise.
Jenkins has connected to younger churchgoers with her fiery oratory and her real life story of struggle.
“The devil likes to trick you, but I’ve come to tell you that God is in the mix, in your business, and you are precious in his sight,” Jenkins said.
Women have led at St. Matthew’s for years but never in the top spot. On Nov. 10, Jenkins formally assumes a pulpit once dominated by neighborhood patriarch Rev. John J. Sass, who hired one of the area’s first female reverends before he died in 2001. Sass also named female deacons 24 years ago, then a controversial move.
“The church became more female-centered, and the need arose,” Vanderburg said. “Women mature faster, become educated faster and are more upwardly mobile than their male counterparts. We had a very progressive pastor at that time.”
Sass initially led St. Matthew’s from a storefront, but in 1967, the church built is own house of worship — the first black church in Harlem built by parishioners from the ground up. The church still sits at 43 Macombs Pl., which is co-named for Sass.
Sass’ eldest daughter Jeanette Boyd said her father would approve of Jenkins.
“He realized a woman could do anything, so I think he’s smiling from heaven that his church has got a dynamite reverend,” said Boyd, 78, of Harlem.
Jenkins says her accession is unusual even among female pastors. Many are widows or daughters who inherit their pulpits, but she comes from entirely outside St. Matthews.
“Particularly a single female, because a lot of guys who are single find it hard to get churches as well,” she said. “This church listed this job twice, and part of their requirements the first time was a married person.”
Jenkins is no stranger to navigating unorthodox situations. She succeeded slain Rev. Phillip Mann as pastor at Blessed Trinity Baptist Church on W. 129th St. in her last job. Mann was fatally stabbed in his home in 2006 by an ex-con who claimed the 68-year-old beloved pastor propositioned him for sex.
It was, she said, “a challenging time.” But parishioners there remember her loving approach after the controversy.
“Coming in, she was like, ‘I love you guys, I will be here for you,’ She has a big heart,” said 21-year-old parishioner Isaiah Holman, who followed Jenkins from Blessed Trinity to St. Matthew’s.
Jenkins was recently appointed to another key neighborhood pulpit: Community Board 10. And with that secular post, she’s also continuing the social activism of Sass, who fought for housing and justice.
“I told them I don’t want us to live, I want us to thrive, and I want us to have an impact for as long as God sees,” Jenkins said.
St. Matthew’s Baptist Church, 43 Macombs Pl. between W. 151st and W. 152nd Sts. in East Harlem, (212) 281-0096. Source
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