Since I was a child, my passion has been the church. It would take a few different leaps but eventually, I found a way to fulfill my calling from God. It’s been over sixty-five years now since I made my first jump, and I can tell you that none of this was easy. The journey was not smooth. But I had a calling, I crafted plan, and I believed it would work. I just didn’t know it would turn out quite like this.
I had a very modest childhood, but it was a lot of fun. I was active in the church- in church school, the junior choir, and other youth activities. My parents made some sacrifices so that I could take piano lessons and vocal lessons. In school I envisioned myself growing up to be a music teacher, but after high school I did not go on to pursue the studies of music. Instead, I went into a comfortable but rather dead end-end job as a receptionist in the x-ray department of a children’s hospital.
I was working that receptionist job for several months when the stepfather of a young man I was dating said to me, “Why don’t you quit that job and come to my firm and learn public relations? I would like to have you as a trainee.” He said, “You’re not worth anything to me, and so I will give you twenty-five dollars a week to come and learn public relations.”
It was 1949, I was about two months shy of my 19th birthday, and I made that first jump. I went and joined his firm as a trainee for twenty-five dollars a week to learn public relations. I thought that this man was so brilliant that I could really learn something, or refine a writing skill that I thought maybe I had. See, while I was in high school I wrote a column for a black newspaper, the Philadelphia edition of The Pittsburgh Courier, which was one of the foremost black newspapers in the country, so I had a little bit of experience in writing. While working at the firm, I went to advertising and journalism at school at night. I began as a trainee in 1949 and stayed for almost 20 years, and eventually I became president of that firm.
In 1968, I was offered a position at Sun Oil Company, or Sunoco. I was asked by the director of public relations for Sunoco to come and join the public relations staff. He said, “I’m not sure what we would call you or what exactly you would do for us, but I think we need you. So would you let me know what we would call you, what you would do, and how much you need to do it?”
And so I named my own position, outlined my own job description, and named my own salary, and they bought it. I left the consulting firm and joined Sunoco as a community relations consultant. At the same time, I continued to be active in the church. I taught church school on Sundays. I was a youth group advisor. I stayed on as a member of the choir, and I started a group for young adults in the church, a fellowship of sorts.
At Sunoco I went from being a community relations consultant to manager of community relations, and subsequently I was asked to be manager of the public relations department for what represented about seventy-five percent of the company’s operations. When all of the public relation work was merged, I became a senior staff consultant at corporate headquarters.
It’s now the mid-’70s, I’m in my mid-50s, and by now I had become very involved in some church-related community organizations. My involvement in the ministry was as a layperson, acting as a visitor in county prison. I was spending Sunday mornings in church and Sunday afternoons visiting county prisons. I began to feel I was being called into a new dimension of ministry, and that’s when I made a second leap–not so much as a leap from Sunoco, but a leap within the church, into ordained ministry.
The move started when I began serving on the governing board of a parish—in The Episcopal Church, it’s called a vestry. Then I switched from the parish in which I had grown in and into a different parish that was more involved in community affairs, pretty radically so. Finally, I spoke with two priests, one the rector of the parish in which I was active, the second who was a college faculty person who worshipped in my parish. These two clergymen were my friends and my mentors. I spoke with them about feeling called to ordained ministry, and we had long, long talks about this. Ultimately, I decided I was ready to become ordained.
Only thing was, I did not want to give up my position at Sunoco, where I had a staff of about 26 people. So I said, “I have to find another way to prepare for ordained ministry rather than leaving my job and quitting my job and going to seminary fulltime.” And so I made a plan. With the approval of the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania we worked with his Diocesan Director of Education to develop an alternative program of study that would prepare me for ordination in the church.
That alternate plan meant studying at various institutions at night, on weekends, on my vacation. I even went overseas for a couple of months to study theology at a study house in England. In the meantime, I studied in ethics at one institution. I went to so many places, I don’t remember them all. But that is how I got my training for ordination.
Then I spent some time at a seminary in Massachusetts–the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts — to try to integrate my independent study into the life of a seminary community. That school is where I took the general ordination examination that everybody must take and pass in order to be ordained.
In September of 1977, while still working at Sunoco, I was ordained a deacon. I first worked as an unpaid deacon part-time in the parish where I had been ordained. Then in early 1978, I left my full time employment at Sunoco. I was assigned as a deacon in charge of a small congregation on the outskirts of Philadelphia. But because I was not earning any money as a deacon, I pitched Sunoco to put me on a retainer fee, where I could make some money consulting for them when they needed me, and I could financially support myself.
Finally, in October 1978, I was ordained a priest, and I continued to serve the congregation that I had served as a deacon. But it was a small congregation, and there was a very small salary. So this time to make ends meet, I became Executive Director of a religious publishing company called the Episcopal Church Publishing Company, which published a very, very liberal magazine called The Witness.
In addition to being the Executive Director, I also wrote a column for the magazine, that was titled, “A Luta Continua,” which was the slogan of Portuguese rebels and means, “The struggle continues.” In my column I wrote mostly about the struggle for civil liberties for blacks and other minorities.
I served as a priest in Philadelphia for about nine years when I was asked by some women in Massachusetts if I would allow my name to be considered for nomination for what we call Suffragan Bishop. Not to be confused with the Bishop Diocesan, a Suffragan Bishop only exists in large dioceses where one bishop is not enough to support the needs of the congregations, so they have another bishop assist them with their duties. And I said, “Well, let me think about this and pray about it.” And after a month of consideration I said, “All right, you can put my name forward.” But I did not expect it to really go anyplace.
It’s 1987 when my name was put forward, and the nomination process took place in 1988. All through the process, I thought, “Well, it is interesting to be considered, but nothing will come of this.” Even as the process continued and I met with the nominating committee, I did not expect anything. People from that nominating committee then came to Philadelphia to visit the church I was then serving and interviewed people about me, but still I was confident this was going nowhere.
Finally, I got a call that said I was one of five nominees for the Office of Bishop Suffragan, and I thought, “Well, that’s very interesting, but it’s not gonna go anyplace.” And so I went through the nominating process, met with the nominating committee, and then as a nominee I came to Massachusetts to meet with people in large groups who were going to make up the Electing Convention. I thought to myself, “Well, it is interesting to have been nominated, but I don’t think it’s going anyplace.”
And then as I met with these people, I thought to myself, “I’m never going to see these people again in life, and so I can say exactly what is on my mind,” which is what I did. And shortly afterward, wonder of wonders, I was elected Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts. I became the first woman in The Episcopal Church as well as in the worldwide Anglican Communion to be elected a bishop.
Looking back, I allowed my name to be considered because I thought that the people ought to have a woman’s name to consider, and as it turned out there were two women, two of us on the slate of nominees. And I thought, “Well, yes, they ought to consider a woman,” but I had no confidence that I would be elected. But what gave me the courage to let my name go forward was because I felt a woman ought to be considered. After the election, when I could not really believe I had been elected, people said to me, “You were the nominee who gave us really honest answers.” As I said earlier, this was only because I thought I would never see these people again, but it worked.
I never dreamed I would be elected, and so when I received that call I was momentarily speechless. I could not believe it. This did not, however, mean I was guaranteed to serve as a bishop. There is a confirmation process where the majority of Diocesan Bishops and Standing Committees of all the dioceses in The Episcopal Church have to consent to the election. It was a long and painful process.
There were many people who objected to one, that I was a woman, and two, that I was black, and three, that I had not formally gone to seminary as most ordained people do. They thought I was a left-wing radical.
Eventually, over the next couple of months, the majority of Diocesan Bishops and Standing Committees did consent. My consecration as bishop could then proceed, but it certainly was not pleasant. One diocese ran my picture on the front page of its diocesan newspaper with a black slash across my face like a no-smoking sign. The caption under the photo said, “The wrong woman at the right time.”
Then there were objections because I was a divorced person, and there were questions about my sexuality since I was a divorced person who had not remarried. So there were all kinds of questions, and there was a lot of hate mail, mostly from church people. You wouldn’t believe the type of hate messages and death threats that I received. I had to have my telephone number in Philadelphia changed twice and the last time to an unlisted number.
In January of 1989 I went up to Massachusetts, about a month prior to my consecration. Every morning someone walked with me to the diocesan offices and walked me back in the evening for protection, because of the threats that I had. On the day of my consecration in February, the Boston police department offered me a bulletproof vest to wear, which I refused. I said, “If some fool is gonna shoot me, what better place to die than at an altar?” That was that.
All I could think was, “I started this process, and I will see it through to whatever the end may be. Since I have started on this, I owe it to myself and the people who are supporting me to see through the process through.” That’s what compelled me to try to ride out the storm and see what the end would be. And on that day of my consecration, lo and behold, there were some 8,500 people in the Hynes Convention Center to witness my consecration, clergy from all over the country, and 60-some bishops who came to lay hands on me, which is an unusually large number of bishops to attend another bishop’s consecration. One bishop came from the Church of South India, another came from the Church of England, and bishops from all over the church here in the United States.
I was surprised in my ministry to find that my talents from the corporate world could come in handy. We had a Retired Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts commit suicide. Well, of course when the suicide occurred, the press was all over it, and we had press people who we’re demanding information about the whole event. The new Diocesan Bishop said to me, “I don’t have any experience dealing with the press.” And I said, “But I do. So come. I will stand beside you.” I leaned on what I had learned from my PR days. Together, we got through it.
If you believe in what you want to jump to, then I encourage you to make that leap of faith and not to be timid. Make that leap and see what the end may be. That being said, first try and make a plan. Think about an alternative through which you can maintain your lifestyle in case the jump is not successful. When I first considered ordination as a deacon, I had to think through how I would support myself so that I could live. You have to find or create some alternative in case your jump is not totally successful. When I became a priest, I could not maintain myself on that salary. Even as I became executive director of the publishing company, the job was only guaranteed for four years. And so I had to consider what else I could do to maintain myself if after four years that position didn’t continue. I had to have a plan.
None of this was easy. There was certainly not universal acceptance of either my election or my consecration. There were some obvious challenges. There were people who did not want to accept me as bishop, but there were others, though, who did embrace my ministry. I just tried to persevere and faithfully learn how to be a bishop and to exercise that office to the best of my ability.
But at the end of the day, what pushed me through all of this was a strong belief that I could do what I was being called to do, and that I would receive strength to do it from God. That was my firm belief, that God would enable me to fulfill what I felt I was being called to do. Had I not believed that, I would not have taken so many leaps. This was not a smooth journey, but a journey certainly worth taking.
When to Jump™ is a community dedicated to exploring the fundamental question we all think about: when is the right time to go do what you really want to be doing?