As the year of 2021 closes, with all that we’ve lost due to Covid-19, we should celebrate how two treasures will always remain with us. The internationally acclaimed feminist scholar Dr. Bell Hooks and the pioneering pastor Reverend Susie B Thomas. They are now counted amongst the great cloud of witnesses. These two African American women were social activists and truthtellers who exemplified love and salvation.
Though they may not seem alike to the raw eye, their gift to the beloved community brought hope and promise. Birth as small-town girls, hooks’ was born and raised in Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Thomas in Mount Pleasant, Texas. They came from working-class families with Thomas’ father was a coal miner, while hooks’ was a janitor. Their mothers were stalwart towers of strength who rooted them in Christian morality and respectability politics. Most essential, they understood the abiding principles of love – whether delivering empowering social gospel messages from the pulpit or engaging in feminist political pedagogy in the academy.
I became acquainted with them when I arrived in Massachusetts in 1996, while at Harvard Divinity School. I was held captive by bell hooks. Her written words were like the Great Awakening. “Valuing ourselves rightly means we understand love to be the only foundation of being that will sustain us in both times of lack and times of plenty.” And, yet it was Susie Thomas’s stern pastoral guidance that made those words of love – through action – come alive. As trailblazing women, they broke glass ceilings, toppled over barriers, and journeyed over with holy scars that they used to heal others.
Reverend Susie Thomas was the first woman licensed by a Baptist church in Boston. In the midst of the male-dominated Christian church, in 1966, she along with four other women founded a non-denominational church, Mount Olive Temple of Christ. Her ministry gifts far exceeded being a Sunday morning preacher. Pastor Susie used both her mouth and feet to pray. Her notable sermon ‘Move This Mountain’ was an example of her advocacy for justice for all people, which could be seen in her work with Friends for Mission in Haiti & St. Kitts, sponsoring wells with Africare or as was one of the first pastors committed to HIV/AIDS awareness working alongside Community Serving. When gang violence was ravishing the city, she helped organize the Boston TenPoint Coalition.
Dr. Bell Hooks, as an author and public intellectual, released her seminal Ain’t I a Woman? Black Women and Feminism in 1981, titled after Sojourner Truth’s speech delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, over a century earlier. Putting pen to paper, Bell’s continued prophetic writings illuminated Black women, racism, and sexism. From USC, Yale, to the City Colleges of New York – she sermonized the contributions of Black women who have risen from the ashes of the worst conditions of any group in American society. dr hooks’ gospel message was simple, “I see it as a great movement for social justice… rooted in love and that politicized the notion of love, that said: ‘Real love will change you’.”
There are countless women nestled throughout The Bible who were prominently participants in public life and foundations of the church. Lydia was an entrepreneur of social status who founded a church in her living room. Priscilla, who is counted equal to her male counterpart, was committed to spiritual purity with a fidelity to the marginalized. Their lives, just like bell and Susie’s, have left indelible marks on the world. We must all commit to honor them as women who – saved us from ourselves and others.
It was Susie who led me through my period of discernment into pastoral ministry. Rather than choosing a woman, upon her retirement in 2001, she asked me to become the church’s interim pastor. And, a year later, through her leading and, by unanimous vote, I was consecrated and installed as the second pastor of Mount Olive. Over the course of three years, I became a better believer, equipped with living the gospel of love and learned that shepherds must smell like sheep.
Though I never sat for afternoon tea with bell hooks, her sacred texts grounded me more deeply in faith and love. hooks’ words from Salvation: Black People and Love reverberate in my being, “I tell them that love is always there–that nothing can keep us from love, if we dare to seek it and to treasure what we find.” She even challenged the very thought of (Black) masculinity – which amplified my courage to own practicing my faith, so that someday I might earn the right to call myself a Christian.
Together their shared legacies, of a sanctifying grace, have delivered many oppressed, opened insurmountable crowded minds, and set a myriad of captives free. For that, we should all be eternally grateful.
Professor Keith Magee is an international contributor on issues of social justice, politics, race, and religion. He is also the author of Prophetic Justice: Race, Religion and Politics, January 2021. Follow him @keithlmagee