As debates persist about their roles, women increasingly create their own spaces as congregational leaders
While various denominations have established policies regarding women’s roles, the number of women serving in religious leadership capacities has surged in recent decades.
According to research conducted by theologian Eileen Campbell-Reed, 20.7% of American clergy were women as of 2016 — up from 2.3% in 1960.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which represents 4 million members, reported in 2022 that 40% of its pastors were women. In the Assemblies of God, 27.6% of its ministers currently are women.
The Rev. Dr. Kamilah Hall Sharp, who is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), exemplifies a growing trend among women embracing roles as congregational leaders. Even as some question whether — and how — they should lead, women like Hall Sharp are pursuing alternative pathways to their religious calling.
Hall Sharp, along with the Rev. Dr. Irie Lynne Session, co-founded The Gathering, a womanist church in Dallas. The two ordained ministers planted the church in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, after determining that they could fill a void by bringing to the forefront Black women’s voices. On its website, The Gathering describes its context this way: “As more preachers, pastors and ministers of the word intentionally do the deeper exegetical work of interrogating the sacred biblical texts to raise up the muted voices of women, the theological landscape for womanism continues to expand.”
“We obviously still see women who are having to fight to be in spaces and to be affirmed in spaces,” said Hall Sharp, who also is the director of the Doctor of Ministry in Public Ministry Program at Chicago Theological Seminary. “But I also see a trend in which women are welcomed and starting to create their own tables. My church is an example of creating your own table — within a denominational setting.”
Hall Sharp, a former practicing attorney, pursued a theological degree because she felt a call to ministry. After earning her master of divinity at Memphis Theological Seminary, she moved to Texas to pursue a doctorate in biblical interpretation with a focus in Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School.
Despite her credentials, she encountered roadblocks. “In Texas, there aren’t a lot of spaces for women,” Hall Sharp said. “I struggled with finding a church home for a while.”
As a result, Hall Sharp and Session started brainstorming about creating a new space where people could experience womanist preaching. “It eventually evolved into a church. Because we’re both ordained in Disciples of Christ, it became a new church of Disciples of Christ.”
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The two didn’t initially consider planting a church. “As it is for a lot of women, we started the church out of necessity,” said Hall Sharp, who co-authored the book “The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons and Litanies.”
“We didn’t have support from our denomination to start the church. And even when we did get financial support, it wasn’t a lot,” she said.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which has ordained women since the 1880s, recently appointed the Rev. Teresa Hord Owens to a second term as general minister and president in the United States and Canada — the first person of color and second woman to lead the denomination — but women continue to have fewer opportunities than men, Hall Sharp said.
In her experience, she said, women are typically assigned to or hired at churches that aren’t able to pay as much. “As a result, they’re never able to really be a full-time pastor,” Hall Sharp said. “So many women in ministry have to have other jobs, because they typically don’t get the churches with all the resources.”
Hall Sharp’s experience highlights a common theme of continued inequity among women taking on leadership roles, according to Campbell-Reed, a visiting associate professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York and co-director of the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project.
“Many women are doing great, but there’s still controversy and conflict everywhere they go,” Campbell-Reed said. “We still have inequities in pay and disparities about where women can start and the extent to which they can grow. They’re still more likely to get associate roles or roles in very small churches.”
Rabbi Dr. Rachel Mikva, a professor of Jewish studies and the senior faculty fellow of the InterReligious Institute at Chicago Theological Seminary, has observed similar patterns in rabbinic roles. She noted that women are leading two of the major rabbinic seminaries. In 2020, Jewish Theological Seminary appointed Shuly Rubin Schwartz as its new chancellor — the first woman to hold the role since its founding in 1886 — and Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld became president of Hebrew College in 2018.
Those types of developments obviously have been helped by women’s movements across the United States, Mikva said. “However, it’s not without bumps. Women have been moving into rabbinic positions, but not every community was immediately ready to hire a woman to be the rabbi,” she said.
While planting The Gathering was challenging, Hall Sharp said, the rewards were worth it. She said one of the major benefits was providing other women a platform to develop. “It’s difficult to create new spaces, because you don’t necessarily get the financial support that you see others getting,” she said. “But it’s been very rewarding, because people have found a place where they can feel whole; they can come as their complete selves.”
Hall Sharp envisions a future in which women are embraced in their roles as leaders. “I hope to see more women be OK with who they are, to be able to walk authentically, and to see more spaces where they are affirmed and appreciated and their leadership is respected,” she said.
Chapter 11: Sacred Stories
The hard work of life is remembering. Remembering who you are, remembering how you want to be in the world, remembering where you last left the kids. Down through the centuries our ancestors have told and retold stories to help us find our way. Sacred stories that remind us of our true identity. Soul stories to encourage us to pursue our deepest yearnings for freedom. Told from one seeking heart to another, these sacred stories function like a lighthouse — guiding us away from the shallows, leading us toward the more gracious depths of who we are.
When asked why he spoke in parables, Jesus told his followers (as paraphrased by Anthony de Mello): The shortest distance between truth and a human being is a story. All wisdom traditions entrust stories to embody their deepest truths. The Bible is full of stories. The Bhagavad Gita is a story. The Buddha’s life teachings are embedded in story form. The life of Muhammad is transmitted through story. Jesus’s life and teachings are communicated through story.
Science is also a story that seeks to unveil reality and dispel illusion. Behind the doctrine, the rules, the rituals, and the institutions of all wisdom traditions, you find stories that not only seek to transmit teachings but invite a deeper, more liberating experience of the self and the world.
The power of stories to free us, whether religious or secular, depends on the integrity and compassion of the tellers and the openness of the listeners. The sacred stories of religion are often at first glance amusing relics, utter nonsense, even potentially destructive — unless they are shared by people who are knowledgeable and trustworthy. Only within the sacred bond of compassionate teller and seeking listener can we know a story’s worth. It is within that trusting container where we can give ourselves to the story. There we can expose our hurt and longing to its plotlines and allow the story to read us. There we can allow ourselves to enter the story. Not as fact. More than fact. As a way of seeing, as a gateway to peace, as a pathway home.
There we can allow ourselves to fall into the story’s rhythms and feel its truths. The same way we might give our body to the steps of a dance in order to feel its joy. Slow, slow, quick-quick, slow, quick-quick, slow, slow.
I was in a lost, longing-for-meaning place in my midtwenties. For about six months I could hardly sleep more than a handful of hours. All the repressed wounds of my childhood were radiating out from me like a high-grade fever. There was a terrifying emptiness gathering within me, a gnawing sense of worthlessness, and the only way I knew to address it was to stay busy and distract myself from the anxiety by working and working and working. I became mindlessly driven, physically ragged, deeply sleep deprived. My marriage suffered and my health deteriorated. I began to obsess about finding a new job, certain that different employment would give me some sense of peace.
It took a good friend and colleague to recognize my crisis was more than vocational. Tenderly, persistently, he convinced me to join him on a contemplative retreat at a Franciscan convent. I agreed — but only under the ridiculous stipulation that I could commute home each night to catch up on work.
There are parts of ourselves that can’t be known, places within us that can’t be accessed without a story. The week at the Franciscan convent was destabilizing. Full of silence, prayer, long periods of solitude, I was forced to feel the stark, despairing state I was in. I was lost and hurting and had no idea what to do. Every morning the retreat teacher gave a talk and then offered a spiritual practice. Each talk was based on a story that sought to uncover our deeper nature.
One morning he told us the story of the prodigal son, one of the parables of Jesus.
A man has two sons. The younger son is restless, impatient. He goes to his father and asks for his half of the inheritance. The father agrees. The son takes the money, heads into the nearby city, and eventually spends it all on parties, prostitutes, dissolute living. A famine descends upon the land. Broke, desperate, working for a pig farmer to feed himself, the young man decides to return home, apologize, and see if he might be hired as a farmhand — a much better life than his current state. While walking the road home, the father sees his son and takes off running. Before the younger son can fully apologize, the father embraces him, places his rings on his son’s fingers, and instructs the servants to prepare a celebration.
Meanwhile the elder son is out working in the fields. He hears music and revelry. He asks one of the field hands to investigate. “Your brother has returned,” the field hand reports. “Your father is throwing a celebration.” The elder brother is greatly triggered by this news. Filled with resentment, he refuses to join the party. The father hears the response of his eldest. He leaves the festivities, goes out into the fields, and begs his son to join the party. The elder son is indignant. He reminds his father of his loyalty, frugality, and hard work. How could he celebrate a son who has been so self-serving, disrespectful, and wasteful? The father feels compassion for his eldest boy. He reminds him everything else he has belongs to his eldest. The father adds, “But we had to rejoice because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life, was blind but now he sees.”
The retreat teacher invited us to personally interact with the parable. We were sent out to find a solitary place to meditate on the story, with instructions to try and see, hear, taste, smell, and feel the story as if we were there. He encouraged us to go wherever the meditation took us — allow ourselves to become one of the characters, place the story in a modern setting, or change the characters from a father and two sons to a mother and two daughters if helpful.
I found an empty basement classroom in the convent, sat alone in the dark, and as instructed, gave my imagination over to the story of the prodigal son. I saw the dust of the road, heard the goats and sheep in the nearby field. I saw the sons, the eldest responsibly and dutifully heading out to the fields, the younger son pacing, dissatisfied. As if it were an old home movie, I watched the story take place within me.
I have no idea how much time passed, but then something happened. Like a lucid dream, I fell into the story. I could smell the dry earth, feel the sun on my back, hear the distant laughter and music from a party. I was the elder brother. I felt depleted, isolated, hopeless, full of resentment — and then surprisingly, in the midst of this story-dreaming, I felt a visceral sense of overwhelming welcome, a sense of being held. An unburdening, a release, a compassionate embrace. I wept, and the aloneness and fear and sense of failure I had been carrying dissipated.
When I finally pulled myself together, I immediately wondered if I was having some kind of psychological breakdown. The experience was so powerful I thought I might be losing my mind. I went to find the retreat leader, Morton Kelsey, who was not only an Episcopal priest but also a trained psychotherapist of forty years. I assumed he would offer a diagnosis and recommend medication or therapy or possibly even some time in an institution.
Troubled and disoriented, I found Morton in the cafeteria and asked if he would meet with me. After evening prayer we found a quiet place to talk. I told him my experience of the meditation, fully expecting him to become alarmed. Instead he told me a story, one about growing up with a father who could be quite remote and demanding. He then asked me about my own upbringing, my relationship with my parents. I answered as best I could.
Then he told me a story about his first job. Back and forth we went, like village bells answering one another across a valley, with various experiences from our lives. Whatever note I struck in my story, he would strike a similar note, allowing me to feel heard and understood. For almost three hours we sat facing one another, telling stories, back and forth, back and forth, until there was a deeply felt connection. Eventually the hour became late, our words spent. Morton stood to leave, and I suddenly realized he had not answered my question.
“But what about the meditation? Was it a breakdown?”
“Well,” he said thoughtfully. “What do you think? We’ve been talking for hours. You seem calm. You’re speaking coherently. Your body seems relaxed. You don’t seem agitated in any way. It doesn’t appear to me you are having a psychotic break. Maybe it was something else? Maybe it was Divine Love. Maybe it was God.”
“There must always be two kinds of art,” writes poet W. H. Auden. “Escape art, for humans need escape as we need food and deep sleep, and parable art, the art which shall teach us to unlearn hatred and learn love.” My experience at the Franciscan convent is the sacred story of how I began to live from a deeper awareness of love and truth. It was the beginning of a healing season for me that included therapy, long talks with my wife, a commitment to spiritual practice, a different approach to work.
My friends who are secular humanists would tell it another way. They might describe my experience as a breakthrough of the unconscious or of transference of care from teacher to student. I’m okay with that. But since it is my sacred story, I tell it in the way that feels most true for me.
Your sacred story may have a different setting. Maybe it takes place at a bowling alley, a community center, a mountain lake, a grandmother’s kitchen, a desert plateau, a detention center, a Girl Scout camp. Maybe your story begins in divorce, the wake of grief, the ecstasy of nature, a quest for truth, a near-death experience, a restless longing for love. And in your story you might replace the Episcopal priest with a molecular biologist, a Holocaust survivor, a cognitive therapist, a Buddhist nun, a Native American elder, the old guy who lived next door. And in your story, instead of a Jesus parable, there might be a conversation about galaxies, a pilgrimage to your mother’s home village, a letter from a trusted friend, a mindfulness practice, a month of solitude in a Minnesota cabin, a heartfelt conversation with your best friend’s father, a stranger’s confession in an AA group.
There is a depth to story that we rarely take time to ponder, let alone to tell and hear. Story is how we transform pain. Story is how we make something useful out of the absurd. A sacred story is a love letter expanding your heart with kindness. A sacred story is a treasure box filled with images of what matters most. A sacred story is a map, passed down through generations, directing you toward a fountain of truth. A sacred story is a medicine, a balm to relieve your fear and suffering. A sacred story is an angel in the night. A sacred story is a window that offers perspective. Sometimes a sacred story is a shield, a protector, a source of courage and love. Sometimes your sacred story is what gives you strength to face the real and present dangers of our world. Sometimes your sacred story spends years searching for you, trailing you through all your harried days, cornering you in some blue fluorescent rehab center, looking you in the eye, and saying, “Okay, here’s the truth.”
What are the images, the moments, the stories on which your soul meditates? What are the stories that remind you to unlearn hatred and receive love? Nigerian author Ben Okri declared, “We live by stories. We also live in them. One way or another, we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted — knowingly or unknowingly — in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly, we change our lives.”
Are the stories that shape you death dealing or life giving? Do the stories you hold as sacred heal, or do they exacerbate the suffering? Do they bring out your loving nature, do they cultivate freedom? Or do they bum you out, make you more afraid, anxious, resentful, and bitter? What are the stories you hold as sacred, the ones you tell your children, the ones you want remembered at your funeral? And are they any good?
Reprinted with permission from “Between the Listening and the Telling: How Stories Can Save Us,” by Mark Yaconelli, copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.
The Rev. Jo Nygard Owens did not set out to be a graphic designer. She was a Presbyterian pastor first.
As the mother of a toddler in a busy family where she and her husband were both clergy, she saw the opportunity to reevaluate her call when their young family moved to a new city.
“We had one child who was 1 year old at the time, and we were constantly playing ‘trade the kid,’” Owens said. “It was not a very fun way to live. And when we moved, I took a step back.”
As her family settled into their new life in Greensboro, North Carolina, a church approached Owens with an unexpected offer that would lead to what has become Vibrant Church Communications and a new path for her to support others in their ministry.
The North Carolina native and University of Georgia graduate now lives with her family in Cleveland, Ohio, where she runs her own graphic design business focused on the needs of faith communities. She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Micah Edwards about her work. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: Can you tell us about your switch from pastor to graphic arts designer?
Jo Nygard Owens: I was job-hunting, and a church in Greensboro reached out and said, “Hey, would you like to come do communications for us?”
I said, “OK — I don’t really know everything about this job, but I can learn it.”
While I was there, I started learning graphic design and communications. And [since] then, I’ve sort of bounced back and forth between serving in a church as a pastor and then doing communications work and graphic design.
When we moved to Cleveland, Ohio, about four and a half years ago, I did some contract work for churches for a couple of years. In the fall of 2020, I was doing some work for a church and they said, “Oh, hey, we’re not excited about the backpack tags we see this year. Can you design something for us?”
I did, and I showed it to a couple of people, and they were like, “How can we order that? Is that a sticker?”
I figured out how to make it a sticker and put it up on my website. I ended up selling 10,000 stickers in about a month.
F&L: Was the switch from pastor to graphic designer difficult?
JNO: What I do with my work is that I create stickers, but I call them “stickers with a purpose.” There’s some sort of spiritual tie-in, no matter what the sticker is. I do back-to-school stickers, and those come with blessings and children’s sermons. I try to pull in ministry as much as I can in my digital resources. I use my theological training as a pastor to write them.
I get to do some ministry, but I don’t get to be a pastor. I miss being with people. One of the really beautiful things about being a pastor is that you get to walk alongside people through both really wonderful moments and hard moments. You’re present with them. And you get to be God’s representative in those moments. I really miss those pastoral moments and having a community.
F&L: Did you have to make any adjustments to your life?
JNO: I’ve had to learn a lot about what it means to run a business and about paying taxes, marketing. I’ve had to learn a huge number of new skills to do this, a lot of which are very useful in ministry.
Not working on a [church] staff is one of the hardest things, because one of the beautiful things about being on a staff is that you have lots of people to trade ideas with, and you get feedback.
People will say, “Oh, well, this is good, but maybe work on this piece.” And now I’m just all alone. I’m like, “OK, who can help me?”
I’m reaching out to friends. And it’s hard, because there really isn’t a duplicate of myself. When you’re a head pastor, you can reach out to other head pastors at other churches and learn from them, but there’s no one else doing exactly what I’m doing. There are similar people, but then you’re in competition with each other, and there’s less collegiality.
F&L: How does your graphic design work still help people in ministry?
JNO: A lot of what I do is create social media graphics, and churches always want to have something on social media, and they don’t have the time to create it, to make it look good or find the resources.
I’m able to create things that not only can teach people; they can provide faith formation. They give you something to think about, and they provide engagement on your social media page.
F&L: Was there any point where you wanted to give up while creating your business?
JNO: There have been many, many times. For entrepreneurs, you see all these people make all these graphics of what success looks like, and it’s the typical iceberg. There’s so much that happens below the waterline, but all you see is a little point at the top. The point at the top looks wonderful, but underneath the surface is where everything else is happening.
I started the business in the fall of 2020. I’d had all sorts of chronic health issues. I went to a new doctor in the spring of 2021, and they totally changed up all my medications and my diagnoses. I had to get sicker before I got better. I spent about three months laid out on the couch.
I had been building all this momentum. It was going great, and I knew what I was doing. Then I literally didn’t have access to my brain. I could barely move my body. I was very sick. I lost all this momentum. It’s really hard to be like, “OK, I did all the hard work of getting the gears going, and now I have to do it all over again. Do I want to do it all over again?” It turned out that I did.
There are a lot of gifts to running your own business, and there are a lot of downsides. You have to earn all your own money. It is not necessarily a daily commitment, but it is a very regular periodic commitment, especially with the size of my business. It’s meant a number of times sitting down and saying, “Is this still worth it to me?” And each time, I’ve discerned that it is.
F&L: What are some of your plans to continue to expand your business?
JNO: I have been working with a coach. Part of my problem is I can come up with a million ideas, but it’s a matter of sitting down and taking those ideas and turning them into reality.
Conferences have started happening again. That was a big part of my problem in terms of growth. Going to conferences and being a vendor at conferences is a really big way to continue to have that growth. I made it to my first conference in January and saw a big increase.
My hope is to keep going to conferences and setting up booths and finding places to send out stickers.
F&L: How did you come up with the name Vibrant Church Communications?
JNO: I went through a lot of iterations. There are all these naming resources out there; I worked through some of them. But my goal with what I do is to bring life to churches. So many churches can start to feel stagnant.
We’ve done things the same way — and with the rapid rate of how our society changes, churches have to stay on top of that. It used to be that churches could open their doors and say, “Hey, I’m Presbyterian” or, “I’m Episcopalian” or whatever denomination you were. And people would say, “Oh, I’ll go to that church.” Or, “Hey, 10 of my friends go to that church; I’ll go too.”
They didn’t have to do any marketing or things like that. As nondenominational churches and more evangelical churches pop up, they realize that they have to do marketing to get people to come, because they’re not a household name.
You start getting great graphics and catchy messages, and our mainline churches are not keeping up with that. I really wanted this vibrancy, because there’s so much life in the Bible and in our spirituality — there’s so much life that’s happening — that I really wanted churches to capture that and to be able to show that to everyone, both in their congregations and those that are hoping to come to their congregations.
F&L: Describe your creative process when making these different designs.
JNO: There’s a lot that happens in my head, for sure. I go to a writing group most mornings. Some people who are in there are pastors, some people work at colleges and seminaries, and then there are actually a number of people who are writers or run their own businesses.
We all gather for an hour every morning and take some time to write. I find that that is a really great time of grounding. Some days I have a little notebook that I write down all my ideas in and things I’m researching.
The first year, the theme was given to me. It was “Blessed with hope,” a passage from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:11).
The next year, we had been in this COVID world. Some schools were back, not all schools, but we were really itching to get back into this place where we could be together. That was when I did “Go out in joy; be led back in peace” (Isaiah 55:12). It’s kind of this blessing and benediction to go out into the world.
Then last year, I brainstormed with a friend. We came up with “Be the light.” Again, this message of, “You have a presence for the world.”
This year’s theme — the one that kind of rose to the surface — is “Together.” There are so many things in our world that tear us apart, that divide us. Not that we want to be just a homogeneous mess, but all of our individualities and uniqueness can come together to create something beautiful. It’s using the idea of stained glass, with all these multicolored pieces and lots of different shapes all coming together to make something beautiful and be the body of Christ in the world.
As inspiration strikes, you’ve got to write it down, but also as you’re reading and praying and doing the regular disciplines, they’re all a big part of it.
F&L: Is there anything else you would like people to know?
JNO: I’d like to talk about creative languages. There are so many different creative languages, and I say that my first creative language was dance. I am a dancer by training.
Even though dance and graphic design are very different, there are a lot of creative principles that overlap. And so I just encourage people to find their creative language, what feels natural to them.
That is one of the truest ways that we connect with God. I am so lucky that I have multiple ways to do that, both through dance and through graphic design. When we share our creativity in a holy way, not only does it bless you as the creator, but it draws others to God.
The unmistakable scent of curry permeates the spacious commercial kitchen in Richmond, Virginia’s East End, where a half-dozen teenagers in spotless white chef coats are sharpening their culinary skills while feeding their community.
The teens scrub, peel and chop several buckets of turnips and radishes donated by a nearby farm, the rhythmic ka-THONK, ka-THONK of metal knives against plastic cutting boards broken only by whispered guidance from chef Duane Brown: Slow down, slow down. Take your time. And watch your fingers. Yep, yep, perfect.
Brown, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has been meeting weekly since November with some of these teens, teaching them first the art of “mise en place” — having all needed tools and ingredients organized and close at hand — before branching out into food prep and production. On this particular evening, Brown will show them how to braise the chopped-up root vegetables in a curry sauce before pouring them over a bed of steamed rice and dividing them into 50 separate meals for low-income seniors and families in a nearby apartment complex.
At one end of a prep table, 16-year-old Malachi Sottile scrutinizes a red onion before peeling and finely dicing it. Sottile said he’s always enjoyed cooking. He was learning some tips from his grandmother before enrolling in the culinary training class, which falls under the auspices of Church Hill Activities & Tutoring, or CHAT, a nonprofit where Brown serves as the director of workforce development. Sottile’s skill set has expanded considerably over the last seven months.
“At first, it was challenging, keeping track of all the new information,” Sottile said. “But after a while, you get the hang of it.”
Alongside their knife skills, class participants pick up life skills, learning the importance of showing up on time, asking for help, working with a team, focusing on a task and communicating clearly, Brown said. At the end of the day, participants are gaining not only the ability to earn a paycheck but also the confidence to try new things, solve problems and advocate for themselves.
In addition to offering culinary training, CHAT operates three distinct businesses that also serve as training grounds for young people in an economically depressed part of Richmond: a coffee shop and cafe, a silk-screening studio, and an urban farming outfit that includes a cutting-edge hydroponic grow operation. Those businesses employ about 20 young people, most between the ages of 16 and 22; last year, 51 young people either worked for one of CHAT’s enterprises or participated in its training programs, said Hannah Teague, the director of marketing and communications for the organization.
“Ultimately,” she said, “as an organization, we want to create more and more opportunities for students and young people to help them grow personally, spiritually, socially and academically so they’re ready for whatever’s next.”
Which programs and ministries in your community help people advocate for themselves and their neighbors?
‘A rebalancing of the scales’
CHAT has what Teague calls a “scrappy origin story.” It launched in 2003 after a couple moved into the Church Hill neighborhood and turned their front porch into an informal gathering place, where neighborhood children could safely hang out and get some help with their homework. They were part of a wave of Christians, mostly white, who began moving into Church Hill from the suburbs, hoping to advance the cause of racial reconciliation and redevelopment in the state’s capital city.
That couple has since moved to South Carolina. But with guidance from the community, CHAT has expanded its scope, formalizing its after-school program, opening a fully accredited private Christian high school with priority given to low-income students from Richmond’s East End, and adding workforce training.
While there are spiritual components to CHAT’s programs, students can be of any faith — or no faith, and the organization doesn’t consider evangelism to be a primary focus. But, Teague said, “Christianity is in the ethos of everything we do.” In addition, she said, in a place that was once the capital of the Confederacy, CHAT’s programming is meant to prioritize the Black experience and center Black voices.
Brown said the seeds of CHAT’s workforce development piece were planted around 2005 or 2006 when the nonprofit launched Nehemiah’s Workshop, a woodworking operation where students handcrafted coasters, charcuterie boards, tables and rocking chairs. Jobs in the neighborhood were scarce, he said, and CHAT wanted to offer young people a “wholesome” activity where they could learn a lucrative trade.
Next came lessons in sewing and silk-screening, which led to the creation of On Point Prints, a screenprinting studio that produces everything from tote bags and T-shirts to tea towels and hoodies.
In fall 2017, CHAT opened its primary food service training facility, the Front Porch Cafe, which is a breakfast and lunch spot housed in the Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital’s Center for Healthy Living. There, about a mile north of CHAT’s main office, diners settle into comfy blue easy chairs while enjoying pastries, coffee, tea and sandwiches.
Framed photographs of neighborhood residents enjoying their front porches adorn the exposed brick walls of the interior. And some of the ingredients used in the cafe’s meals are grown at Legacy Farm, an urban gardening project, which encompasses a few parcels on CHAT’s quarter-acre property and some space in a church-owned greenhouse nearby.
Whose voices are centered in your work? Whose voices are minimized or missing entirely?
In addition, CHAT was invited last year to participate in a three-year pilot project, where students learn how to grow microgreens using hydroponic equipment. The equipment was purchased and installed by Dominion Energy, and maintenance and seeds are donated by Richmond-based Babylon Micro-Farms.
The entire nonprofit has an annual budget of about $3 million, most of which comes from private donations. Roughly 20% of that is set aside to support workforce development, said Jonathan Chan, CHAT’s executive director.
CHAT’s businesses are not motivated by profit as much as by a desire to equip young people with life and professional skills, so the enterprises are not expected to be self-sustaining. The goal, said Brown, is for the revenue from each business to cover about 80% of its expenses.
While not focused purely on money, the effort is still strategic. The organization paused Nehemiah’s Workshop to assess and research similar trainings and to gain a better understanding of the industry trends and student interest. The primary focus is on aligning with regional workforce goals and technology. Some of the workshop’s woodcraft items remain for sale online, as are items from On Point Prints. Shoppers can also pick up On Point’s tote bags, T-shirts and onesies inside the Front Porch Cafe.
All of the businesses have popped up at local farmers markets and neighborhood festivals to showcase their wares. The culinary trainees have hosted cooking demonstrations and tastings for family, friends and cafe customers. And, in anticipation of sourcing its lettuce from the hydroponic farm this summer, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts invited the Front Porch Cafe staff to host a pop-up event in late May, debuting its Summer Crunch salad, a mix of green leaf lettuce, quinoa, carrots, lentils, almonds and an apple cider vinaigrette that will be featured in the museum’s cafe.
Rebranding and exploring
Because the organization has evolved quite a bit over the last two decades, Teague said, CHAT is working on a rebranding effort that draws clear connections between all of CHAT’s initiatives: the social-emotional work of the after-school care program, the academic focus of the high school, and the vocational aspect of the workforce training initiatives. The organization is also exploring how best to leverage its connections to alumni so they can share their talents and life experiences with CHAT’s current participants.
Gentrification within the Church Hill neighborhood is also a challenge CHAT is trying to address, Chan said. Rising property values have meant that some of the families the organization has traditionally served have been pushed into neighboring communities, leading CHAT to expand its own service area beyond Church Hill proper into Richmond’s East End — even as far as neighboring Henrico County.
Right now, CHAT’s main office, along with On Point Prints and the Legacy garden, stands in the heart of Church Hill, within walking distance of several elementary schools and a Boys & Girls Club. But that may need to change down the road as families are displaced, Chan said.
The young people who participate in CHAT’s programs are full of promise, and their drive challenges false notions the general public may have about people who live in the East End of Richmond, Chan said.
How do your organization’s structure and work evolve when situations change? How do you transition out of what is no longer possible and refocus on what is?
“I think we want people to have a sense of the potential, assets and gifts of our students and that we have a rebalancing of the scales to do. We want people to interrogate their own assumptions of how the world works,” he said. “If they have negative perceptions of Black and brown students, the people who live in this area, we want those to change, to be disrupted, so they can learn how they can be part of God’s work of justice.”
‘They truly want to help you grow’
In a cramped room at the rear of CHAT’s headquarters, Timond Billie, 19, is flooding a silk-screen frame with all the colors of the rainbow to create one of On Point Prints’ popular tote bags. A senior at Church Hill Academy, CHAT’s private high school, Billie said he started working at the shop in October 2021 after hearing about it from his twin sister, Jamea, who had completed a six-week summer internship there.
How does your organization contribute through disruption to God’s work of justice?
Billie said he hopes to pursue careers in music production and real estate. The networking and marketing skills he’s picked up at On Point will help with both of those pursuits, he said. And learning about color schemes and design should come in handy when it comes to flipping houses, he said.
“I didn’t know there were so many colors — or that you could make colors out of other colors,” he said, laughing, as he pulled a squeegee through the ink, pushing the colors through the screen and onto the canvas bag beneath his tray.
Initially, Billie said, he was anxious about interacting with other people. But On Point manager Stephanie Albert was so welcoming, encouraging him to work at his own pace and to just be himself, he said, that he quickly felt comfortable. And after selling items at the neighborhood farmers markets, he doesn’t worry about chatting with strangers anymore, he said.
“I used to be really shy. But you’ve gotta break out of your shell,” Billie said. “Now, I’m confident with it.”
Like Billie, most of those who apply to CHAT’s training programs or to its job openings hear about those opportunities through word-of-mouth. Brown said he’s in regular contact with local schools, pastors and community liaisons in nearby housing complexes, letting them know when positions and new training programs open up.
In terms of tracking the progress of the program’s participants, Brown monitors whether they show up consistently and on time, how present they are when it comes to listening to instruction and completing tasks, and how well their communication skills progress, he said.
Though each workspace is a little different, Brown has accessed some youth-specific tutorials and webinars through the Federal Department of Labor’s WorkforceGPS, he said, and has gotten good advice from Catalyst Kitchens, a national network of nonprofits and regional workforce boards that operate cafes and restaurants offering job training and life skills exposure. Brown said he also makes use of industry tools, like keeping track of how many culinary trainees go on to earn their ServSafe certification through the National Restaurant Association.
The top measure of success, however, is how well CHAT instills confidence in those who participate in its workforce training initiatives, Brown said. Many of the young people who work for CHAT’s enterprises have never held a job before, he said, and many of them have little, if any, exposure to life management skills. Some face challenges with housing and transportation or are self-conscious about their struggles with math or reading comprehension. But Brown works hard to earn their trust and make CHAT a space where they feel safe enough to be honest about their needs and their goals. It’s rewarding when they share their victories with him, he said.
“There’s a point in the mentoring process where they’ve launched or moved on and you kind of stop hearing from the students,” Brown said. “And then you hear, ‘Hey, I’ve got this job interview.’ Or, ‘I got my ID.’ Or, ‘I got an apartment and a full-time job.’ And they’re demonstrating that they’ve got what they need and that they feel self-sufficient.”
Mareesha Randolph, 20, said she never really felt free to express herself or speak up about how others made her feel when she worked in retail.
“I kind of just stood in the shadows,” said Randolph, who applied for barista training at the Front Porch Cafe after a friend who was familiar with CHAT recommended it.
On her first day of work, Feb. 27, she met fellow trainee Rashá Coleman, 19, and the two have basically been finishing each other’s sentences since then. Both women said they were encouraged to ask questions and try new things, something they hadn’t experienced at their previous jobs.
What’s the word-of-mouth about your organization and its work within the community?
“With other jobs, they just throw you right in. And back in my old job, they used to stand over you,” Randolph said. “Here, if you need help, they’re here for you, but they’re not all in your face. Over here, it’s OK to make a mistake.”
She said she still gets nervous every time she hands a customer a cup of coffee, worrying about whether she nailed the order or not. But it’s gratifying when the person takes a sip and smiles or gives her a nod of appreciation, she said.
“You shouldn’t let fear stop you from doing things you could be great at,” Randolph said. “It’s OK to try new things. That’s how you figure out what you like and what you don’t like.”
Randolph said she’s been surprised by how much she’s learned, everything from how to steam milk “so it’s not screaming at you” to how to create latte art — she’s recently mastered making a heart pattern.
She hopes to use the practical skills to get a job at a coffee shop in New York when she moves there in the fall for acting school. But the other experience she’s gained — speaking with members of the public at pop-up events, working during the high-pressure lunch rush, learning how to read customers’ body language and respond with empathy — will be invaluable in any work environment, she said.
“They’re just so friendly, and you can feel that they truly want to help you grow. They gently push you into the areas you need,” Randolph said. “And the way they do it, you didn’t realize you really needed those skills until you have them.”
Questions to consider
- Which programs and ministries in your community help people advocate for themselves and their neighbors?
- Whose voices are centered in your work? Whose voices are minimized or missing entirely?
- How do your organization’s structure and work evolve when situations change? How do you transition out of what is no longer possible and refocus on what is?
- How does your organization contribute through disruption to God’s work of justice?
- What’s the word-of-mouth about your organization and its work within the community?