“Another world is not only possible,
She’s on the way.
And on a quiet day,
If you listen very carefully,
You can hear her breathe.”
by Erin Hawkins
As the General Secretary of an agency of the Church that stands for the embrace of cultural difference in all its forms, I am confronted daily with words, actions, and beliefs that serve as an affront to the way of Christ which is peace, love, and justice. In too many places the feelings of fear and hopelessness that arise due to division within the human family is palpable. But these feelings of despair are not everywhere. Just as I am confronted with the grim realities of exclusion, discrimination, and oppression, I am simultaneously comforted by the beautiful truth that abundant love, joy, and hope are present all around. I see it in the faces of heroes and heroines known and unknown that represent and defend the power of women to change the world. I hear it in the cries of our young people advocating for change. I feel it in the urgency of the times, the insistence that a better way of living together is possible and must be found. I wholeheartedly believe that role of leadership especially that of women in the Church at this time is to proclaim in the face of anxiety and despair that God is… love is… hope is… We are called to be bearers of hope.
My journey of leadership within The United Methodist Church began as a child whose discipleship and leadership formation started at a very early age. At Christmas and Easter, I was given a speech to memorize and recite in front of the congregation. Every day as my parents would drive me to preschool, then kindergarten, and then elementary school, the routine during these times of year would be the same, “Put on your seat-belt and let me hear your speech!” When Easter or Christmas Sunday would come I knew to stand erect, lift my head, and project because there were numerous “coaches” in the church, mostly women, who “educated me” in the finer points of oratorical exposition. I laugh as I think back to those sessions that at the time felt like pure torture. One year, after reciting a particularly long and complicated speech, not typically given to one of such a young age, one of the elder church women came to my mother and said, “That girl is gonna’ be somebody!” The seeds of leadership were planted. This story may resemble the story of many people raised in the church but it is particularly representative of the Black Church experience. The Black Church, one of few havens for African Americans enduring slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, segregation, and the legacy of systemic discrimination and racism that continue even today, was and in some places still is the fertile soil where the seeds of gifting are nurtured and refined. And while my childhood during the 1980’s seems far removed from those difficult historical realities, the culture and legacy of excellence in the Black Church was alive and instilled into me. Laywomen played a critical role in my development.
I moved from Christmas and Easter speeches, to serving as liturgist during worship, to participating in my local, district and conference MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship). My senior year in high school, I was the speaker for the youth service at the California-Pacific Annual Conference. My experiences would eventually lead me into the world of diversity where wonder and creativity as well as conflict, division, and disappointment were sure to find me. Through it all, those early lessons – stand erect, lift your head, let your voice be heard would hold me in good stead.
After college and graduate school, I moved to Washington D.C. to work as a staffer for a member of the US Congress. My professional aspiration was to have a career in politics (an aspiration I now realize I have unwittingly succeeded in fulfilling as a General Secretary in The United Methodist Church!). While working as a Legislative Assistant, I was writing a grant application to the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR) for my home church back in Los Angeles, CA. I reached out to one of the Associate General Secretaries of GCORR at that time (Ms. Constance Nelson Barnes) for assistance with the application. Connie was a lay person when we first met via phone conversation. At some point during our multiple exchanges she informed me that she would soon be leaving the staff and encouraged me to consider applying for the position she was vacating. I applied and in nothing less than what I believe was a move of the Holy Spirit, I was given the job. I was a lay woman in her early twenties, with no prior General Church experience when I became an Associate General Secretary of a General Agency. I had no professional contemporaries at that time and those early years were tough as I learned “on the job”. There were many people- male and female, clergy and lay- who mentored, encouraged, and assisted me as I grew as a church leader. The number of laywomen, however, who nurtured the seeds of leadership within me by helping me as well as challenging me are too numerous to count or to name here. They gifted me with courage, confidence and a thick skin so that when the time for me to assume the role of General Secretary came, I would be ready.
Looking back over my journey to this point, I am clear that as a young child reciting her Christmas and Easter speeches, not only was I being formed as a leader, I was a leader. I was a leader because through the expression of my gifts I gave the people in my church family hope. Hope that the struggles they endured for access and opportunity would not be in vain. Hope that the next generation would indeed take the baton and carry it on the next leg of the race, striving for the liberation of all people. Those early childhood experiences have done more to cultivate my leadership and to open doors for me than most of the formal leadership development experiences I have had. I say this because for every opportunity that I have been given in this church, a door had to first be opened in my mind and heart which would allow me to step into the possibilities being presented to me.
In every church all over the world there are young girls and boys whose gifts of self-expression are yearning to the recognized and nurtured. Girls in particular face daunting obstacles to charting their own course and fulfilling their God-ordained destiny. In my opinion, one of the greatest things that The United Methodist Church can do to cultivate, affirm and engage lay women’s leadership is to be a global movement reminding girls and young women to stand erect, lift their heads, and let their voice be heard. We must encourage girls in every way we know how, to stand in the sure knowledge that they are worthy, valuable, honorable, and able. We must celebrate young women so that they know how to hold their heads high when others seek to diminish them in any way. We must carve out time, space, opportunity, and protection for women to express themselves and their leadership in ways that are authentic for them rather than insisting that they do it in a way that is acceptable to the status quo.
There is no better time than now to take on the task of encouraging and lifting up the importance of the leadership of laywomen of all ages. There is a cloud of fear and anxiety that is currently enveloping our church and I believe that laywomen are in a prime position to be bearers of hope in the midst of despair. Laywomen who have historically been the engine behind the Methodist movement that established the schools, hospitals, missions, community centers that met the needs of people all over the world are a vital resource as the church seeks to find its way toward being a movement again. No matter the fate of The United Methodist Church as we know it, a new reality and way of living together as the body of Christ and the human family, indeed another world, is on the way. We are on edge but we are also on the edge, of something new and beautiful. I believe women hold the key to the future and we will assist in the birthing of this new world when we stand erect, lift our heads, and make our voice heard and as we teach our children to do the same.
Ms. Erin M. Hawkins is General Secretary of the General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR). Ms. Hawkins is dedicated to building the capacity of The United Methodist Church to be contextually relevant and reach more people, younger people, and more diverse people by providing practical resources and support to leaders throughout the Church to help them engage and embrace the cultural diversity present in our congregations and communities. Ms. Hawkins works to share lessons in creating holy relationship with God by, “holding in tension our capacity for greatness that calls us, as Christians, to persevere in the struggle toward becoming our better selves, and to combat our worst tendencies, of racism, sexism, and classism.”
Ms. Hawkins earned her master’s degree in Organizational Development from American University in Washington, D.C., and her master’s degree in Public Policy from Indiana University. She credits these educational opportunities in providing her with an awareness of how system processes can perpetuate the sin of racism and carry from the local to the global arena.