Re-Imagining the Church as Spiritual Institution


Affirming Diversity and Life-Sustaining Relationships

The following article was originally published in the May/June 1994 edition of Church & Society. Download a PDF of the original here.

Author Joan M. Martin
Author Joan M. Martin

Listen to the words of Elizabeth, an enslaved woman and minister, born in Maryland in 1766:

“I betook myself to prayer and in every lonely place I found an altar.” [1]

And to this Berber proverb:

“The true believer begins with herself.” [2]

And to our own beloved and contemporary Mercy Oduyoye:

“There is no justification for demanding one uniform system of theology throughout the Christian community, but that theology reflects awareness of the horizon toward which all believers move.” [3]

What more is a horizon than the point where our ability to see normally ends and where our imagination takes off? But that theology reflects the horizon toward which all believers move.

Across the centuries African women and African-American women in the diaspora have lived out our lives in communities of faith that suggest that spirituality is not a phenomenon that originates in any structure, including the Christian church. We had spiritual lives before the Christian church came along.


I think it’s time to believe in a spirituality of difference.

Further, our lives are offerings, which suggests that no institutional structure can command the parameters in which spirituality takes shape and is expressed. Our lives potently suggest that neither solely the self, nor solely the community, is a departure point for fulfillment of spirituality. And as African-American women of the diaspora, our lives suggest that spirituality is related to the conditions of our concretely lived lives, and that our community is in a struggle for survival, liberation, and productive quality of life—which, according to Delores Williams, is what spirituality is all about.

Post-sunset_horizon_from_aircraftI believe that spirituality is foremost not related to the Christian church as an institution. It has to do with living. I believe that spirituality is related to the demands of justice, and as such is part of the prophetic task of believers and of our communities of faith.

Spirituality is not a thing in itself. It is not free-standing from all other dimensions of life. But if I come from a traditional African-American religious perspective on the nature of life, I know that all life is spiritual, from “the rock to the river to the tree.” [4]

Spirituality is—listen to the order of these words—experienced, understood, defined, and empowering. I experienced it, I understood it, then I tried to define it, and what I really came to know is that spirituality is empowering for the integration of self and community.


Spirituality is not about right talk; it’s not about right prayer; it’s not about right theological doctrine; it’s about right living, whether your talk meets your walk, and not just individually, but in your communities.

When spirituality is perceived as related to all other dimensions of life for self and community, it must by necessity address the concrete context and situations of a believing community and the conditions of the world that impact that community. Therefore, I believe that spirituality, for members of oppressed communities—and that is the context and situation out of which I speak, from the particularity of the African American in diaspora—is and must be related to justice-seeking and justice-making, which entails a radical living and speaking against oppression. Thus it is the prophetic and the spiritual task of our time. Spirituality is a journey for the long haul.

Eugene Carson Blake with Martin Luther King Jr.We have come together in this Conference and primarily talked about re-imagining and re-imaging from the perspective of women in patriarchy. Even though we have had women of color from a variety of situations enliven our minds and push our spirits to think about what it means to re- imagine, sometimes we have not been concrete enough. Today we started trying to name the concreteness of what it means to be about spirituality. We speak from our particularity, because some generic spirituality—called “Christian,” “triune,” just Holy Spirit, just Pauline—doesn’t work, because the Christian experience is richer and deeper than that. If we take anything from this Conference, we need to learn to address, in specificities, the re-imagining of God, the re-imagining of Jesus, the re-imagining of the church as an institution, the re-imagining of spirituality, the re-imagining of work, of ethics, of the practice of ministry in specifics. That’s important.

The specific context I speak from is that of an African-American woman and from the experience of being in the Black church, even though I’m a fourth generation Presbyterian Calvinist. Delores Williams has powerfully put words to my own personal experience and belief:

The black church does not exist as an institution. Regardless of sociological, theological, historical, and pastoral attempts, the black church escapes precise definition. Some believe it to be rooted deeply in the soul of the community memory of black folk. Some believe it to be the core symbol of the four-hundred-year-old African-American struggle against white oppression with God in the struggle providing black people with spiritual and material resources for survival and freedom. Others believe it to be places where black people come to worship God without white people being present. I believe the black church is the heart of hope in the black community’s experience. [5]

Spirituality is about what kind of heart you have. It’s about whether your heart makes your words and your feet walk together. Spirituality is not about right talk; it’s not about right prayer; it’s not about right theological doctrine; it’s about right living, whether your talk meets your walk, and not just individually, but in your communities. If we do not talk specifically about things like racism and classism, and homophobia, and imperialism, our walk is valueless, because ifs merely talk.

To come together as part of an ecumenical decade for the churches in support of women means that we talk about racism. It means we talk about classism. It means we talk about homophobia, as well as talking about patriarchy. Spirituality must—if we understand that our walk and our talk must be the same—embrace a spirituality that is prophetic in our understanding of difference. Audre Lorde wrote these words, which ignited my investigation into a spirituality of difference:

Institutional rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy, which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to human differences between us with fear and loathing, and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. [6]

Whenever I speak to a women’s organization and talk about white racism in the United States they say, “But we’re all women” or “But we’re all Christians,” and I have to remind people that it was good Christians that kept my folks, made slavery the law—so that we could not even learn to read the Bible. You can ignore it: that’s one way. If it’s not possible to ignore it, then you can copy it if you think it’s dominant. This is not a critique. This is to say we have to be aware how deeply structured it is, how well we can be co-opted even with the best of intentions.

"Church." Painting by Jonathan Burstein
“Church” by Jonathan Burstein

We’ve been taught, says Audre Lorde, to destroy differences if we think they are subordinate. So all we need to do is look at how many of our urban churches are closing and how many of them are racial/ethnic. A member of the board of trustees of the presbytery to which I belong once said in a mission committee meeting, “We shouldn’t pour any more mission money into those rat-infested holes.” I know that the church where I was interim pastor was “bustin’ muchly” in order to give beyond its giving to mission the year before. But we’ve been taught to destroy differences if we think they are subordinate.

Spirituality in this time and day—and the time and day are getting late—is a spiritually prophetic task that calls us to learn to live deeply into our differences. I call in part upon an African traditional religious has held a spirituality that has enabled us to take the best of Christianity and to ignore that which tries to enslave us. I think it’s time to believe in a spirituality of difference.


We’ve been taught…to destroy differences if we think they are subordinate. So all we need to do is look at how many of our urban churches are closing and how many of them are racial/ethnic.

A spirituality of difference allows an invisible spirituality to take concrete form. That is, when we see it, we know it. This means that if I ask Violet Al Raheb, a Palestinian Lutheran, to help me better understand human rights in Israeli-occupied Palestine, and I want her to understand the situation of Black oppression in the United States, we must deal with our differences to deepen our understanding. We need more than some surface-level commonality. And when we do, the spirituality between us will become visible and empowering. We have been taught to ignore the difference, to copy it, or to destroy it. If we do those things, then spirituality never is visible. It’s never empowering, so we think that business will go on as usual, we can’t do a thing about it, and we throw up our hands. That’s not what spirituality is about.

Hands in solidarityEven though spirituality sometimes takes place because the church has structured itself as an institution, it is not primarily an institutional or structural form. It is God-presence with us; it is emmanuel-presence, in the words of Rita Nakashima Brock. We not only know it when we see it, we know it when we feel it. So get with it: when you know the Spirit is present and you can feel it, don’t let anybody try to turn you around.

The characteristics of a justice spirituality in concrete form include being able no longer to say that we ought to be all the same—so that we can ignore, so that we can destroy, and so that we can copy—and entail saying that we want to make our spirituality visible, that we want to give it a form, where we not only see it and feel it but where we want it to show God present in the world. In order to do that we need to hope for the energy, act into the situation, and believe it will come—and it will.

God provides us so many opportunities to be spiritual beings. We pass by nine-tenths of them, because we think we’ve got to get right in head first, and then make our feet go. But I tell you that walking-and-talking is one action when God is present. We also need to know that right relationship allows us to see that spirituality means that the difference between us is God-created and therefore ought to be God-celebrated by us. There is a reason that God made us the way we are. Life would be really boring if we were all the same color. Right relationship is understanding that our differences are something that we should be grateful for; not how we turn them into divisions, but that they’re God-given. We work from those differences to solve structural oppression, including the oppression by the church when it’s a denomination or an institution.


We also need to know that right relationship allows us to see that spirituality means that the difference between us is God-created and therefore ought to be God-celebrated by us.

We must take every opportunity to have our walk and our talk match. We must have every opportunity to be in right relationship by giving thanks and not letting the world divide us according to the lines that God has given us in our difference. The day is different from the night, and we need both. The sea is different from the land, and we need both. Homes are different for each one of us, but a nuclear family home is no better or worse than a single-parent family home and a lesbian or gay home is no better or worse than a heterosexual home. It has to do with the way you walk and the way you talk. They’re different. If we use them to divide ourselves, then we’ll never know what spirituality is. And we will have to pay the price, because the price of not being spiritual people and walking and talking as part of a prophetic task is that the spirits do come back and haunt us. The ancestors do come back to tell us how they blew it and how we are about to blow it, as well as to give us strength and resources.

Tubman_graveFour years ago, friends of mine who live in Trumansburg, New York, took me to Auburn, New York. We went to a little cemetery in which there were great monuments to those who had gone before. We walked up a hill, and there was a regular-sized headstone. The engraving on it was beginning to fade, but there was a little American flag there, and there was a plastic model of a pistol. The headstone stood at the base of the hugest pine tree I have ever seen. My friends said, “We wanted to show you the grave of Harriet Tubman.”

Now I didn’t really believe in spirits before then, or ancestors. I don’t trace my lineage directly to Harriet Tubman, but what she learned—that is, “Give me freedom or I will die trying to get it”—was enough for that voice to come through the ground and through the trees and through the American flag and through the pistol saying,

“You’ve stood here long enough, now ifs time to get back home and go to work.”

An Afterword about Racism

In addition to celebrating a highly successful conference, and in addition to appreciating the invitation I received to speak and to support women’s justice-seeking in church and society in this jubilee ecumenical gathering, I must address the manner in which racism/antiracism was a non-concern of the conference, placing my criticisms in a constructive framework for reflection and future work. These comments come from a deep, abiding, and long-experienced reflection on conference planning and attendance over more than twenty years, and are made in the hopes for a more fully embodied sisterhood.

I am deeply disturbed that at this late date there can be a major and significant gathering of church women, including an overwhelmingly predominant participation of U.S. Caucasian women, which does not understand the imperative of insuring that at least one major Caucasian woman plenary speaker does an analysis of institutional white supremacist racism and advocates a pro-active white feminist, antiracist posture, framework, and re-imagination.


In addition to celebrating a highly successful conference, I must address the manner in which racism/antiracism was a non-concern of the conference.

What is more critical for an audience in and of North American attendees than re-imagining a continent founded upon and with a continuing practice of white racism and the economic and spiritual exploitation of peoples of color by institutional collectivities of white people? Remember that Caucasian and white ethnic women objectively are privileged by white racism, even when they claim to be not prejudiced, not racist, and in fact, antiracist. This is not a rhetorical question but one that raises the very meaning and intention of “solidarity.”

power-to-change-2An analysis of institutional, white supremacist racism from an antiracist, feminist perspective is very different from Black women, Asian, Hispanic, and Native American women, and women from the so-called Third World analyzing the impact of racism and colonialism on our lives and peoples. We can and do speak for ourselves. Yet each part is critical to the task of undoing oppressive structures, policies, and behaviors. 

The conceptual framework of the conference began with “God” and concluded with “community,” while even during the conference asking the question, “Is It Possible? Es Posible?”

While there is a diversity on the matter of the departure point for liberating theologies and ethics, one point has a great deal of consensus: a conceptual framework that begins with concepts or re-imagining God and ends with human community replicates the Western Enlightenment hierarchical construction.


A conceptual framework that begins with concepts or re-imagining God and ends with human community replicates the Western Enlightenment hierarchical construction.

From a feminist, mujerista, Asian, or womanist liberation perspective, the human practice and experience that is the basis of the critical reflection is that of the poor and most oppressed in a particular context and in relation to institutional power relations of race, gender, class, violence, sexuality, physical ability, and the like.

The Western Enlightenment conceptual framework is also culturally a Eurocentric model, exclusive of culturally different ways of knowing and doing. It universalizes its own culture and subordinates, destroys, or ignores the cultures of “the other” while managing to tokenize, assimilate, or re-represent “the other” in the new pluralism, diversity, and inclusiveness. Thus the analysis and experiences of women from different global contexts are still heard, not in a context of new wineskins, but rather in old ones.


[1] Elizabeth, Memoir of Old Elizabeth, A Coloured Woman (Philadelphia: Collins Printer, 1863), in Six Women Slave Narratives, ed. Louis Henry Gates Jr., The Schomberg Library of Nineteenth Century Black Women Writers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 4.
[2] Terri L. Jewell, ed., The Black Woman’s Gumbo Ya-Ya: Quotations by Black Women (Freedom, Calif.: The Crossing Press, 1993), p. 190.
[3] Mercy Amba Oduyoye,Heanng and Knowing: Theological Reflections on Christianity in Africa (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991), p. vii.
[4] Maya Angelou, “On the Pulse of Morning,” The Presidential Inaugural Poem, January 1993 (New York: Random House, 1993).
[5] Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1993), pp. 204-205.
[6] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Trumansburg, N.Y.: The Crossing Press, 1984), p. 115.


AUTHOR BIO: Joan M. Martin, a Presbyterian minister, will become Assistant Professor in Christian Social Ethics at the Episcopal Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass., in July 1994. She has been director of the Justice for Women Program and administrator of the Ecumenical Minority Bail Bond Fund, both for the National Council of Churches, and has been campus minister at Temple University, Philadelphia, where she is a doctoral candidate in Christian social ethics. She has served as assistant pastor and interim pastor in Philadelphia and in Wilmington, Del. This is adapted from her address in the major presentation group on Church as Spiritual Institution at the Re-imagining Conference, November 5, 1993, in Minneapolis.

Read more articles from this issue, “Hearing the Voices of Peoples Long Silenced”: Gender Justice 2014!

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