I was 12 years old when I shared with my mother that I was sick of going to church all day and that I didn’t understand why we had to do it. As an African American single mother who hailed from Louisiana and who had raised her three older children in the fear and admonition of the Lord, I am certain the declaration of her late-in-life precocious daughter was one that caused alarm.
Deaconess Easter Mae Green was known for reminding all of us that “as for her and her house, we WILL serve the Lord.” It was then that we began visiting various Oakland churches and found ourselves in the balcony of a church to which she had previously belonged.
The pastor, small in stature but giant in presence, mounted the pulpit that almost touched the ceiling and began preaching slowly and powerfully on verses found in Matthew 28:18-20.
He spoke of the church’s mission and the Christian’s responsibility to go out and make disciples. He spoke of helping people who were less fortunate and standing up for those who could not defend themselves.
For the first time, in my 12-year-old mind church had a reason, a divine reason. Our gatherings were not to be just about singing and having a good time in the Lord. But rather there was a purpose and a mandate with a measurable objective.
The doors of the church were opened that Sunday and before I realized it I was walking from the balcony and then down the aisle.
My mother followed, never questioning or chastising my decision. That day we both became members of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland under the leadership of Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr.
I spent many Sundays in that balcony listening to some of the nation’s greatest theological voices. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would ever stand in that same pulpit or one day Pastor that same church. But divine purpose and mission is powerful. It can change the trajectory of our lives.
On April 7, 2019, my life came full circle as the members of the church where I had served as assistant pastor for the last nine years, voted to elect me as their Senior Pastor – the first woman in its 100-year history during the church’s centennial year.
I am deeply humbled by their choice and awed by their courage. Many of the members have known me and remember me in the days of youth and have watched me grow over the years. They encouraged me throughout high school. They prayed for me when I left the church briefly in college at U.C. Berkeley. They supported me when I went away to Howard University School of Divinity and while I served in ministry in Wash.., DC. They welcomed me with open arms when the needs of my mother (now 89 years old) brought me back home. While times have changed, the mission that I heard preached at the age of 12 remains the same.
We are still called to serve the least, the lost, and the left out. We are still called to lift our voice on behalf of the voiceless and stand in the gap for those unprotected. We are still called to speak to truth to power and to use what Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann calls our “Prophetic Imagination” to cast a vision of God’s kingdom in dry and desolate places.
We are still called to let our light shine in deep East Oakland and seek the welfare of our city by fighting for equity in the distribution of services, job opportunities, a living wage, affordable housing, an end to homelessness and violence-free streets.
We are still called to empower and equip future generations for the fight.
This mission still ignites me as it did that girl in the balcony many years ago. I am eternally grateful to God, Dr. Smith Sr., Dr. Smith Jr., the women in ministry I witnessed serving with excellence and the great people of Allen Temple for taking a chance on one of their own.
May God continue to use us and bless us as we endeavor to transform our community, our nation and our world, one life at a time.
I call the name of Bishop Ernestine Cleveland Reems who left her denomination to answer the call to Pastor and in doing so opened the door of possibilities for countless women like me.
Rev. Dr. Jacqueline A. Thompson
Allen Temple Baptist Church
8501 International Blvd.
Oakland, Ca 94621