Valerie Bridgeman is the Dean and Vice-President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Homiletics & Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She holds an M.Div from Austin Presbyterian Seminary and a Ph.D. in Religion with a concentration in Hebrew Bible from Baylor University.
Rev. Dr. Bridgeman is Founding President of 11-year-old WomanPreach! -- an organization that helps bring preachers to their full prophetic voice. She has been in licensed and ordained ministry for 44 years.
Music by @siryalibeats
Portrait Illustration by: Olivia Lim
Patrick Reyes: Hey, what's going on? It is Dr. Patrick Reyes of the Sound of the Genuine. And today we have the mystic, the poet, Dr. Valerie Bridgeman. She's my mentor of mentors, my people of people and is officially the Dean and Vice President of Academic Affairs and Associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
And is also the founder and president of the 11-year-old…almost 12, WomanPreach!, an organization that helps bring preachers into their full prophetic voice. I can't wait for this interview for you all to hear this journey that Dean Bridgeman is about to take me on.
All right, Dr. Bridgeman, it is good to have you on the Sound of the Genuine. It's good to see you. How are you doing?
Valerie Bridgeman: I'm doing well actually. Thank you.
Patrick Reyes: That's good. And I just got to see yesterday in your element, doing the full Veep-Dean-Professor-academic thing, all the administrative love that comes into theological education. And we are going to get to what it takes to get there. I want us to get a little bit acquainted about the journey to doing that. So take me back to your beginnings. Where'd you grow up? Who were your people? What was your community like?
Valerie Bridgeman: That's such a Southern thing, who are your people? I grew up in the deep south. I grew up in central Alabama about 40 miles southeast of Birmingham. I used to say all the time, in the shadow of Bull Connor's "Bombingham". I was born in the late fifties so I grew up in the 1960s before schools were integrated in Alabama and they integrated when I was in the sixth grade, I believe.
A part of my first activism was around that, which is to say that they changed all of the schools that were named after black people to either nondescript names or to after white people because, and this is a quote, they didn't want to send white students to schools named after black people. So that was Alabama that I grew up in.
I ended up growing up on the 40-acre farm that my grandfather had. We lived next door to my mother's parents. It was a working farm so there was food and animals to market growing up. So I grew up on the farm and I left the farm thinking I would never go back to a farm. And as you know, I live on the farm now at the school. So that's a part of God's cosmic jokes, I think.
My dad was a holiness preacher, Church of God Anderson, and a pastor. He didn't start out that way. He and my mom moved to Cleveland, left us behind and he was converted and then he says that the thing that drew him into the church were the songs of the saints, the singing. And I tell people all the time, the hymns of the church both taught me theology, but also kind of saved my life growing up. My mom was a national Baptist so I was ecumenical from the beginning.
My mom who was a school teacher - a master's level school teacher and my dad, with an eighth-grade education, who still is one of the smartest people I ever met in my life because he was very learned, even though he wasn't educated. He read everything. He knew history and sports and math and ecological stuff and astronomy. He would take us out to see the stars and the constellations and point that out to us. I grew up in this very expansive world of knowledge. We could crawl up on my grandparents cedar block house that my grandfather built and lay on the roof and watch the constellations at night.
Cause it was dark. We were in the woods. That was kind of my introduction, both to the larger world and to God in the cosmos. So I like to say to people from as long as I can remember knowing God, my first encounters with God, although I went to church, was actually in creation. Climbing trees and sitting still and communing with animals - garter snakes and fox and rabbits and those kinds of things. So, that's my beginning.
Patrick Reyes: What an eclectic beginning. I mean, I'm thinking of all the pieces you just said, the farm, meeting God out in the wilderness, but also going back to integration, which for anyone who's listening on the liberal side of the mainline denomination is a complicated thing.
Like you said, these names of African-American folks in the south are coming off these buildings and you're engaging this at like a pivotal time in your life. Like this stuff is happening and changing all around you. And you're also out on the farm. I mean, I'm thinking about all of these things. tell me about this eclectic moment in your life. what was that like?
Valerie Bridgeman: Let me situate it even further. Our nearest neighbors were about half a mile, maybe a little bit further down the road from us, and were white. The kids would play in the woods between the farms. And when we started school, first grade, the mother of those white children came to my mother and said that we could no longer play together.
And my mother went stone faced. I mean I remember that like that was literally yesterday and it made no sense to us. No sense. And it was literally the first talk we had about white people are not better than you, you are not inferior because she doesn't know what she's missing. It was literally the first. So when I say at integration, I must have been younger than 12 because it was sixth grade when schools integrated.
Going to school was the first time I made a poster, you know, out marching trying to save Phyllis Wheatley High School, just…I'm laughing, but it was serious! The Klan in klan gear riding up and down these rural roads. We lived on a small dirt country road. It was dirt for much of my life and then it was paved before I graduated from high school. You're asking me, what was that like? I mean, it was…it's all the dissonance you hear in the story. You know, I never thought white people were better than me, but that was the narrative out in the world.
But I grew up with my parents and with the very brilliant encasing community that thought we were smart. Because we were and lived with smart people. My dad and my mom were just smart and my mother would put us all in the car and take us to national parks. She bought world book encyclopedia when we were young and we had to come to the dinner table with some new information every night.
It was funny. Sometimes we had forgotten that part and we'd be going through some world book encyclopedia. Did you know that the population of Zambia in 1960 blah, blah, was whatever the number was, you know, as if we actually knew that, but what she was teaching us, even that early, was how to learn.
My children laugh about this now because I've made them do it and I think all my siblings made their kids do it, but in the summer we had to read books and write book reports for my mother. And we would play church in the back yard and play plays in the backyard. Can you imagine black people in the deep south doing William Shakespeare? But,there we were. So I grew up knowing that learning was the thing.
And then my dad's mom lived two hours away and we would get in the car with him and we would have hymnals in the backseat and he would say, turn to page whatever. And he would start singing before we would get to it because he knew all the songs by the page number. And we would sing four-part harmony all the way to Reeltown, Alabama. So my life had a soundtrack to it and yes, it was RnB, but it was also the songs of the church.
And it was this learning that we had to do. And it was the ‘you're not better than anybody else, but nobody's better than you.’ My mother was also an activist, which I didn't understand that because we were in the rural south, people think of activists as people living in cities. I didn't know what it meant that she did the taxes for people who couldn't read. And that she helped people get registered to vote in the time when they were still doing the kind of poll tax things. I didn't know what that meant, but I saw it.
You know what I mean? And so it was a part of our lives. And the last thing I will say is we were not dismissed from grown folk conversation. Now we couldn't enter grown folk conversation, but we could listen to grown folk conversation. Listening to what was going on in the world, what was going on around us was a huge, huge thing.
My mother was kind of stoic. The only time I remember seeing my mother lose it crying was April 4th, 1968 when the news came that Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed. I was nine years old. The devastation of that, for my mom, seems stunning to me again, not really fully comprehending what it meant, but I knew it was a shift in the world, in the cosmos, like something had shifted. I grew up with a consciousness of it, even if I didn't know what it meant.
Patrick Reyes: What a formation. I'm hearing what sounds like a profound formation for a young person with the parents that you had with incredibly brilliant activists in a place that it was life-threatening to do that type of work. And you're absorbing all of this. What were some of their hopes or dreams for you? What would your dad and mom hope that you would do? Was it to stay in the south, to stick with this work? Was it to go off and do Shakespeare plays on Broadway? What was it that they imagined for you out of this formation?
Valerie Bridgeman: I don't know what my siblings would say to this because the other part of this is all of us had individual relationships with our parents. Like very directed, very intentional individual relationships. My parents never said to me, oh, I hope you become, or why don't you think about. I don't remember ever having those kinds of conversations. I would have conversations that went, yeah, I think I want to be... Growing up the thing I most wanted to be was a pulitzer prize winning poet. And so my mom was like, sure! Work on it. What are you going to do? How do you get there?
Later, much later, I actually won a poetry award in 1995 and had one of the people that I still think is extremely important in my life, which is Sharon Bridgforth, say to me at Mother's Cafe in Austin, you could make a living as an artist if you commit to that because you're that good.
But I was a mother with two kids and working and I couldn't…I didn't have an imagination for it. You know, I felt like I need to do this right now and whatever, but now I'm a woman of a certain age and I'm literally trying to figure out how to get back to the artist in me. And so we can talk about that later.
But my conversation with my parents was always about where's your heart going? And then when I became a Christian, it is what is the spirit saying to you? Now my dad knew before I knew that God had called me to preach. On the fifth Sunday in the Baptist church, my mom's Baptist church, the youth would lead worship and I was assigned the prayer. I know I was nine. I remember that part and this old deacon, Deacon Funderburke came up to me and said, “daughter, the Lord done called you to preach!” Remember I'm nine so it's 1968. And I said, oh no, Deacon Funderburke because God doesn't call women to preach. He said, “I don't think God call women to preach either but I thank God done called you!”
And I, to use a biblical phrase, hid that in my heart, you know, I was like, oh, I don't know what that means, but okay. And then I didn't do anything with it, I just was active in church because my parents were active in church. Like when you're a PK, you don't have a choice in that. My love for God was beyond the church. So I had this mystical encounter, this sort of deep commitment to God in ways that I can't actually describe beyond I knew that I knew God. And it was not tied to a denomination, it wasn't tied to a doctrine.
One of my favorite songs growing up and that I still say is the truth for me, Andre Crouch sang a song that said if heaven never was promised to me, neither God's promise to live eternally, it's been worth just having a Lord in my life. Living in this world, he gave me the light. And my experience and encounter with God was mystical and always included ancestors. Always! Even before I had any notion of what ancestral veneration was, what African connections were, I was always talking to the dead who dance just beyond the veil. Like always.
When my grandfather died, also happened when I was nine. He was in the hospital and I had a conversation with him when he died. I just wrote about this for a journal for preachers, for all saints day. And when my mother came home, because it was at a time that children couldn't go to the hospital.
I told her about it very enthusiastically. Oh, Pawpaw came to see me and he told me he was going to be all right, and everything's going to be fine and not to worry that he was always going to be with me. And it happened and I gave her the time and the blood drained out of my mother's face. Like she freaked and I thought I had said something wrong.
And I learned my grandfather died at that very moment in the hospital. I have never questioned the thin line between this life and the life beyond because of those kinds of encounters again with ancestral people's. Yeah.
Patrick Reyes: For the folks out there who listen to this, the young adults who have soundtracks playing in their life, who are mystics, who are poets, who live between worlds, between planes who can travel and do that, that is not easy. It's not an easy space because the world isn't really ready for that. What do you do as someone who, even at nine, you've been tagged with this.
You're going to preach, you can do this thing. And this kind of mystical poetic inclinations, this thing that doesn't really have a formal structure for formation. Like I'm going to train you up as a mystic. That's not really a thing that we can get in grade school or high school. So what do you do with that especially in young adulthood? How do you kind of live into these challenges that have been put on your heart and your soul growing up?
Valerie Bridgeman: So it's a two part answer. Let me start with answering the call to preach and then I'll come back to the mystical part. So I heard that when I was nine and then, when I was 15, I was kind of out there. I was a church girl leading the double life that oftentimes PK children do. And I was dating a guy who was a thug, by all definitions of that word. He would have embraced that at the time.
And something happened that threatened our life. About a week after that moment where we had this life-threatening encounter, I was in my bedroom, two o'clock in the morning, hit my knees and said, God, if you are who they say you are, I need you to show yourself. I know I need to change, but I don't know what that means. And I had a deep encounter in my bedroom. So I often say to people I'm really thankful that I did not have my conversion experience in church because it allowed me to know that I knew that I knew that I had had an encounter with God.
Now I did go do the give the preacher my hand and guide my heart, in church afterwards, but the conversion experience happened in my bedroom. And once I said yes to God, I said to God, my yes will always be on the table. So that's been a what 45, 50 year long journey of my yes on the table. When I was 18, so that was 15, three years later, I started feeling the tug of God, to preach. And I had spoken at youth events and all that kind of stuff, because I'm a PK. The people who can speak do that. And so I had spoken and I learned later, the last time I had spoken, my dad started praying that I would accept my call to ministry. He did not say that to me. He started praying that. And then our church went into a consecration where we were fasting for three days. And it was a full fast, so no food. I wouldn't do this again. No food or no water for three days.
And in the midst of that, I heard like a voice, the spirit of God, say to me, I have called you. And my response was, I am a woman, I am a child, I am young. And the spirit of God took me to Jeremiah 1: Do not say I am a child for I have called you a prophet to the nations. I had not, that I knew, read that scripture, but that is what I was told to turn to. And so when I read it, of course, because these are the things I had just said, you know, I just started boo-hooing and sobbing and snotting and all the things you do when you're like, oh my God, I can't escape this.
So I told my dad and my dad said that he had called around the country and told the saints to pray for his daughter because the hand of God was on her life and he was waiting for me to say yes or no. And once I said, yes, he would talk to me. And so I'm also thankful that my dad didn't come to me and say, the Lord has called you to preach. When I was 16, I think I was 16, I was in my mom's church and this woman came to a song fest - we used to have hymn fests from choirs around in the small rural church, Pine Grove Baptist Church, for which I am deeply thankful and Woodlawn church of God in Birmingham. Those are the churches that primarily shaped me. And this woman walked up to me and said, the Lord told me to tell you to go join your dad's church. I didn't know her. She didn't know me. And I was like, oh okay. But I was already going to my dad's church sometime and my mom's church sometimes. My senior year in high school, I said yes to the call to ministry. I started going regularly, more regularly, to my dad's church.
Cause the Baptist church where my mom was, my mom didn't agree with this, but the church did not accept women preachers. Mother Maddie Brown, who was a pastor in a Church of God in Alabama was one of my deep mentors, and Mother Stoudemire, a firebrand of a preacher and prayer warrior. So I have a lot of women pastors and preachers around me as well as my dad and my mom and other people who believed in the call. So I never once thought that it wasn't a thing you could do. Like never once did I say…once I was called, I mean when I was nine yeah I said God don't call people to preach, but I mean once I was called…yeah, this is what God is calling me to do. The mystical part of that is when you say how do you nurture it - I literally thought everybody had those kinds of encounters and that everybody was like that. I didn't know that was a thing. I mean, I call it mystical now, but I didn't call it that then.
Cause I didn't know that was a thing! I literally thought everybody talked to animals and to dead people and you know, prayed for hours. Cause my granddad used to pray for hours. My granddad would be knelt at his cast iron in bed, he prayed for two hours every evening, no matter what. And we would be running through their little house screaming and laughing and playing and nobody ever told us to be quiet. So I learned you could pray and play in the same space. These encounters, I didn't know anything that I was experiencing was weird or rare till I was much, much older.
So I didn't necessarily nurture the mystic, I just walked into it as often as I could. I didn't probably start nurturing it and noticing it and spending time with this side of my life till I had finished seminary - a little bit in seminary, but mostly after seminary, which I finished in 1990. So I graduated high school 1977, got married 1979 ,went to college, dropped out - Alabama State, because my then husband was military and we moved to Texas. Didn't get back into school until 1984 and I graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio. My mother was terrified that I wouldn't finish my degree. You know, she was worried that getting married meant that I wouldn't finish my degree, but I promised her that I would. And I got my degree in communication because I expected to be a reporter, which I did for five years.
And I ended up with a double major in religion because I got fascinated by some of the religious courses and a minor in social sciences because I was fascinated by humans. When I was a reporter, just briefly, I was at the - it's folded now, the San Antonio Light, they didn't want me to cover religion because I was religious. This is what the editor said to me. And I said then nobody on the sports desk should be covering sports because they're all sports enthusiast. And I said, so what do you know the difference between the Church of Christ and the United Church of Christ? Do you know the difference between the Southern Baptist and the National Baptist?
Do you know the…I just went through this whole thing. And so she was like, okay, you got the job. I was like, what do you mean somebody trained as a religion scholar can't be the religion reporter? That's ridiculous. Yeah. The marrying of these things has been a kind of weaving of my life together and it has happened, not necessarily intentionally, it's just who I am.
Patrick Reyes: After this moment as a reporter, after you've gotten your education, how do you weave together both formal ministry and getting all the way to your organization that you run, and you're also running the artist side of you as well. It sounds like that time of your life you were not just weaving, you were on a roll with all of it, like trying to piece it all together. Tell me about that.
Valerie Bridgeman: Well, now we would say I was multi-vocational. In Austin I was a reporter and also with my then husband, we were pastoring a new start. Because the Church of God did not require an MDiv., you know, I started pastoring when they laid their hands on me. I received a call in ‘77. I was not ordained until ‘85 because I moved in the middle of the four-year process for ordination and had to start over in Texas, which was ridiculous in my mind, but okay. I was called, we'll do the thing.
Because I also felt, this is just me, I felt like, like we needed to be connected to a communion of saints. I didn't want to be quote, an independent pastor. You know, we were both ordained in 1985 at Greer Street Church of God in San Antonio. ‘86, I was working at the newspaper and I was miserable. I loved being a reporter, but something internal was pressing in on me and I couldn't figure out what it was. And so I decided to fast because that's the discipline. I know that you can turn off things and kind of tune into God or the divine. But anybody who's fasted knows that the minute you start fasting, people start inviting you to lunch.
So I started slipping out to the Presbyterian church across the street from the newspaper before lunch - First Presbyterian, downtown San Antonio, and Lewis Zbinden was the pastor at the time. He watched me do that for about two weeks. It was a 21 day fast. About two weeks in, or actually about the third week in, I didn't know he was the pastor, I had seen him, but I was sitting in the courtyard to pray. So he said, hi, can I talk to you? And I said, sure. So he said, come into my office. Now I go into this man's office, not knowing he's the pastor, not knowing his name and him not knowing my name. So he starts telling me the parable of the 10 talents. And he says, “Are you going to be content to be a big fish in a small pond or are you going to allow the God of all creation to take you into the vastness of the ocean of God's grace?”
He didn't know my name. I didn't know his name. He handed me a tissue and walked out the office cause I started bawling. Right. So he comes back about 15 minutes later and he said, you should go to seminary. I'm on the board of a seminary and if you get in, my church will pay the first $1,000 for you going. And I said, that won’t be enough money. And he says, well what do you need God to give for you to say ‘yes’ to going to seminary? So I gave him what I thought was an exorbitant amount of money. He says, okay – go see if you can get in. Take your transcript with you from Trinity. In the meantime, the church, the district calls us and asks us if we would be willing to start a church in Austin. So we’re in San Antonio when this happens. My ex and I are in different parts of the room and the same scripture, “nevertheless the foundation of God stands sure. God knows those are his.”
And we say, you know if we started a church, I know what I would want the name to be. And we say at the same time, Sure Foundation. We had not talked. We were praying in different rooms and that happened. And so then the church called us, the district director called us. And we knew that that would be the name of the church if we went to Austin, we weren't sure. We go to Austin. I get accepted in the school. The first day I go, I fill out all the paperwork they tell me to fill out, I get the $1,000 that this pastor - now I know his name's Zbinden - has promised. I get the Jane Brown award, which is another thousand dollars. They tell me to apply to FTE which was then the Fund for Theological Education, and three other things. And when I got all of those funds to start the following year, it was almost double what I had said, God, this is what I will need for my family to move to Austin. So I couldn’t say no. I’d given God a figure, and God was like, and you thought that was some money?
So that's how we ended up in Austin. And we went with me starting seminary and starting the church. And we started with the four of us. Us and our two sons and then a friend sent somebody, then there were five and then somebody sent another family that was moving in and then there was 12. And then about seven or eight months later, there were a hundred people. We never advertised. We did all of our work by word of mouth. We believed that we would be a reconciling force in the world where we lived, worked and play - that was our little tagline. People thought we were much bigger than we were cause we told people, the work of ministry is not in this building, it's where you live, work and play. So we were doing that. I was in seminary.
My first semester of seminary I had to have major surgery and they wouldn't let me drop out. And I had gone in as a holiness person who kind of looked askance at Presbyterians and Episcopalians and everybody else, like you may be saved, but I'm not sure. But those are the people who became community for us. They cleaned my house for me, took notes for me in class, made sure I could pass my classes. The first six weeks in my bed from recovering from surgery, took care of my kids, made sure my kids got to school, the whole nine yards. That was my first real encounter with ecumenism and the beliefs that God was present in many, many ways that I had no clue about.
It was in Austin that I started really playing with my poetry. We moved there in ‘87. That's when I started school, graduated in ‘90. And when I was in school, I took to Hebrew like a fish takes to water. And my Hebrew professor, who at the time was Andy Dearman said, you need to go get a PhD. He said go to Baylor, go have a conversation with Bill Bellenger. I'll tell you more about that in a minute. But the year I graduated from APTS, I won the Charles King preaching award. And that award came with a substantive amount of money. And I won a couple of the awards that were for postgraduate study from APTS.
So I had money to start a PhD if I wanted to but I wasn't sure. I was tired at that point. You know, I was pastoring. I actually was also working another job and I was finishing school. So I did a CPE residency after I graduated, because I was by then also working with Hospice Austin, which still today is one of the best jobs I ever had.
And I think that's partly because I'm mystic, you know, I'm not afraid of death or that portal or those encounters that people are having. And then, I was invited to teach at Houston Tillotson now University. And so I did, teach in the religion and philosophy department, intro to religion. And that's where I met Marvin Kimbrough, Dr. Marvin Kimbrough herself was an amazing poet. And she said, come to Catfish Station, which was one of the big places where people read poetry in Austin at the time. And I reconnected to my poetry self. I started performing with a jazz group called Low Stars.
So I was the lead poet for Low Stars for several years. And in ‘95, Dr. Kimbrough said, you should, submit something to the Austin Poetry Book Award and see, just see. And I won that book award in 1995. In Search of Warriors Dark and Strong and other poems. It's in that time that Sharon Bridgeport said to me, you can make it as an artist if you could see yourself doing it. But as I said, my kids were young, they were getting ready to go into the teen years, the whole nine yards. ‘92, I started feeling the call to do the PhD. So I did go see Dr. Bellenger. Got the university offer that paid for full, you know, and then I also didn't have to teach there because I also got that stipend from Baylor so I could keep teaching at Houston Tillotson.
It was just an interesting time. I never felt like it was anything other than a full life and that I was living all of my life. So people used to say, how do you balance it all? And I didn't think of it as balancing it. I thought of it as living my life. This is what I'm called to do. And then I was with Texas Impact, which was a activist agency where we would go do work with the Texas legislature. I just felt like your life has to be. You know, I saw a quote recently: Activism is the rent you pay for being on earth, right? Life has to be this. That art is a part of who I am it's not what I do. That activism is our commitment to the common good and being a part of what the world needs.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, as you're living your life, for someone listening, it might sound like a lot, but it sounds like you have some harmony in this…this is what you do. These aren't disconnected pieces, this is who you are in your body. Just to get you into the academy here now, thinking about what it's like to be a black woman doing Hebrew Bible. You're still only a handful in this field. Just thinking about that to me just mind blown is as one of the pathways, one of the many pathways - you could have been a poet could have stuck with running a church, teaching. You could have done anything in any field and Hebrew Bible is where you are, what you do. How does that happen? And what do you do with that after you're out of your program? Just for anyone who is listening, this field is white and super male. Like not even sort of, it's no question about who represents this field writ large. So what does that next step feel like in your vocational journey?
Valerie Bridgeman: Yeah, so a lot of my steps along the way are guided by other people. Andy Dearmon says you need to go get a Ph.D. Yeah, okay. And then the door opens, right? So it took me 10 years to finish. Three of those years were because I had to take off for being ill. So technically it took seven years, but it was 10 years before I finished in 2002.
My mother died in May and I graduated in August. So one of my deep regrets is my mother did not get to see me with the PhD. on this side of the veil. I had a visitation from my mother. She was in a meadow with a black panther on a leash standing next to her. And a Panther has been my spirit animal for as long as I can remember knowing that. She came near to me right before I graduated, in my dreams. That was actually a dream. When I was sick, my grandmother came to me and gave me the teas that she used to give to me when we were young. We were never sick growing up.
And I went and got the herbs that she told me about in my dreams and I started getting well. You asked me how I nurture those gifts? The ancestors nurture them for me. When I graduated, we were pastoring still. I was now fully at Hospice Austin. I loved being a chaplain. It dovetailed completely in being a pastor. But I had the PhD and I graduated in August and in October I got a phone call from Memphis, Tennessee, somebody on a search committee saying we have a position in preaching and we would like for you to apply.
And I said, my degree is in Bible and hung up the phone. And a week later, Mary Lin Hudson, she called me back and she said, would you consider this? We really want to hire somebody to teach preaching in one of the classical disciplines of either Bible or Theology. And I said I did not spend all these years getting a degree in Bible to teach preaching and I hung up again.
So she called me back in maybe three or four days and she said, if you could also teach Bible and preaching, would you consider us? I said, I would only consider you under those circumstances, but I actually plan on applying to teach Bible so I'm not interested. So I hung up again - third time. My husband says to me they've called you three times, I think you need to at least get in the conversation. So I called her back and said, okay, I'd be willing to come have the conversation with you if my spouse can come. They said, well, spouses don't come to interviews. I said, oh okay and hung up the phone. They called me back and said, we'll pay for him to come.True story.
So I go to Memphis and Barbara Holmes is there. I don't know if you know Barbara Holmes. She's an amazing mystic and ethicist. And I meet her and I do my lecture and I use her to speak about God through the whole lecture. “When she calls you, God does blah, blah, blah.” And then I said, “and when the preacher is speaking, she blah, blah blah.” So this black man came up to me - he was in one of my first classes afterwards - came up to me and said, I was really disturbed that you kept…you didn't use…even when you were talking about the preacher, you kept saying she…and I said, well it was inclusive.
And he said, what? And I said, well, if I had said “he” you would've been fine cause you’d have thought that any woman that was offended should have known that it was inclusive. You should know if I said “she who is preaching” it’s inclusive. Right? He said, oooookay. So my first position was with Memphis Theological Seminary to teach preaching and worship and Hebrew Bible. And that's what I have done at every place that I have taught. I would not go if I could not also teach Bible and also the languages,
Patrick Reyes: Can you talk a little bit about your organization and how did that get started too? Knowing where you're going and saying I'm going to do Bible, you're not running an organization that ‘Women Bible.’ How did that, how did your organization get started? How's that paired with formal theological education? How'd that imagination get started?
Valerie Bridgeman: I graduated in 2002, 2003 I go to Memphis. While I was in Memphis I was invited a couple of times to events at the National Cathedral when they were still doing preaching events there. I was at one where Dr. Ella Pearson-Mitchell and Dr. Katie Cannon - We were talking to the then director of the National Cathedral and the suggestion was that I should lead one of their preaching events because they had never ever had a woman lead their preaching event. And that person said, well, I will consider it if you can find a named person like emilie townes, who would do it with you, because nobody knows who you are. In 2008.
It was offensive but I also said, oh okay. So I called emilie, cause I had relationship with her and said, hey, would you be willing to blah, blah, blah, blah? And she said, how much planning do I have to do? I said, none, we'll do all the planning. Just lend your name to it, you know, preach once and whatever. She did, she agreed to that. So in 2008, we were one of the last preaching events that the National Cathedral offered for women, it was actually for women of color and it turned out to be mostly African-American women.
So when we finished it, there was a woman who was then with the Sister Fund, which is a private foundation in New York who said, I have a portfolio. You should be doing this, what you have done, as an organization. And I said, no. So she said you don't have to keep doing it, you just have to practice this one time, whatever. So she gave us a small fund. We didn't even have a name for the event.
She bought these people together that she was going to give from her portfolio to. And we were out there and Dionne Boissiere was out there as well. And we were messing around. I said, I don't have a name. And so we start laughing and talking and somebody said, “preach woman preach!” And so that's how WomanPreach! became the name of the organization. That was going to be a one-year organization as we are now in our 11th. Yeah. I tell people all the time it's because my yes was on the table, not because I said that I was going to do that. What we do in WomanPreach! is take seriously the biblical texts, which is why Wil Gaffney has been with us since our inception and a poet has been our artist in residence since inception. People like Leslie Callahan, who you know, has also been my pastor, people who take seriously the biblical texts and also a womanist/feminist lens. We start working with men about two years in because some brothers like Earle Fisher, who you may know said, Hey, men need this too! So we created Sophie's table, which is like sitting around your grandmama's tables, kitchen table, and men learning from their grandmama. And we've had people push back and say men ain't going to come to nothing women run. And I said, and yet they expect women to come to the thing men run all the time. So okay - don't come. We're good. That's how my one-year adventure into WomanPreach! became 11 years.
Patrick Reyes: And 11 years in it's not like that became your full-time thing either. You are teaching and then now, Vice President, Dean and faculty at MTSO. So tell me about that move from doing all this stuff to academic administration. Like your yes is on the table. I mean, how many yeses do you have to offer? How many no's do you have to offer as well on this? How do you get there?
Valerie Bridgeman: So MTSO invited me the same year I went to Lancaster, which was 2000-I think 2009 is when I went there, it was my first year there. MTSO had asked me to come because their homiletics professor had just left. And I said, I do not want to live in central Ohio, but I did want to work with Ed Aponte, who was at Lancaster at the time.
My time at Lancaster was chaotic for a lot of reasons and the details of which are not even important, except for at one point, four years in I realized I was sicker than I have ever been. I was at TFAM, the fellowship of affirming ministries event, the November before I left and I was on the floor. And, again, I heard God say “leave.” And then I got a phone call from my other mentor Renita Weems that says it's time for you to leave. By the way, it was Renita Weems who told me it was time for me to leave when I left Memphis.
The voice of God has always come to me in other people. When I went to Memphis, I said, where did you get my name? And they told me Ellen Babinsky. And so when I called Ellen Babinsky, who taught history at APTS I said, I think I've heard the voice of God and she sounds a lot like Ellen Babinsky.
Renita Weems does not give out advice. So when Renita says something, I hear it as the voice of God. I was like, but God, what am I going to do? And Renita said to me, you don't always know what you're going to do, you have to know what you're not going to do before the door will open in another place. That made so much God sense to me, because what I knew was I could not continue to be as sick as I was.
I could not continue to deal with the level of virulent and violent racism that I was experiencing, some from students. It just was ridiculous, in levels I can't even talk about right now, it was bad. It was interesting to have at least one of my colleagues there says maybe you are misunderstanding, maybe you're just too sensitive. And I just thought to myself something my daddy would've said, ‘that's mighty white of you.’ My daddy used to say sometimes, white people can be saved to a point. And you the point... saved up to your black body self. And I was like, daddy, that's so racist. But I had that encounter too many times, you know? Yeah. Okay. Mighty white.
So when I decided I was going to leave the illnesses stopped, but I literally didn't know where I was going to go. I had left Lancaster the spring semester, 2013 so this is the fall 2013. I'm at the Academy of Homiletics and Jay Rundell, who's the president here, walked up to me and said you need an institution and we need a womanist scholar. Will you come to MTSO? And I said, I really don't want to be in central Ohio. He said how about you come as a visiting professor? You can move on campus. We got some housing, blah, blah, blah, And he gave me a deal that made sense. He said, you don't have to come to meetings. You can continue to do kind of the entrepreneurial teaching and preaching that you're doing out in the world right now. Because at first I thought that what I was going to do is dig in and try to make a go of WomanPreach! as my sort of income source and that didn't feel like God.
I do know myself as a teacher. Like I know I'm called to that, and as a pastor, so I knew that these calls were real and that in some ways, that would always be a part of my life. And I also knew that I was an artist. So the artist's life is a part of my sonic life. You know, it's a part of who I am. So I came here in the spring semester of 2014, taught 2014 and the fall. And in 2015, the school asked me if I would consider coming on full time. And I insisted that they interview me for the position. And let me just say it was a black woman insistence because what I didn't want, sometime in after I got the job, was someone to be able to say that I had not gone through the process.
Oh no, I am going to be interviewed as a targeted interview for this position. And they were like, but we know we want you. And I was like, nope, got to interview me. So I went through the process of interview and I started full-time as associate Professor of Homiletics and Hebrew Bible in the fall of 2015. So three semesters as a visiting professor and then full-time professor. And then I did that for two years and things start falling apart in the spring of ‘17. We lost the program here, the president decided that he would not renew the Dean's contract as Dean. There was a lot of turmoil to that, and I was sitting in a meeting and a calmness fell over me while many of the people were coming unglued about this decision of the president. I didn't hear a voice, but I had a knowing that I was going to at least be the interim Dean. The president had approached me about it, I had told him I would pray about it and think about it.
I didn't automatically say no, but I was sitting in that meeting and it was like, oh, I'm going to do this. And I really thought I was just going to do it for the interim because I really believed that the school needed an outside person to come in. Cause all the Deans had been faculty here. In some ways I feel like an outside Dean because I was not faculty long enough to be entrenched to sort of the life of the institution in that way.
But that moment sitting in that meeting where people were really angry at the president's decision, the whole nine yards. So I became a Dean at a time of crisis – leadership crisis, and all of what it means to be a pastor, all of what it meant to be a chaplain, all of what it meant to be an artist, all of what it meant to be an activist, and of course, a scholar, was what I knew I was bringing to the task. So the Dean is not a pastor.
What you don't know is one of the jobs I had when I said I was multiple vocational was I was an HR director in an internet company in Austin, for five years. So being in corporate America, I learned all money ain't real money. I mean, I was making good money - it was the internet in the two thousands before the bust! I learned how to interact and understand corporate thinking and I saw a method that seemed to work in running an institution. So one of the things as the Dean here that I have worked hard on, probably has driven people crazy is, people still like to say sometimes, oh we used to be a family.
I'm like but you're not a family. It's an institution of higher learning. You can be collegial and kind and loving to someone. Somebody said, well we're going to be the beloved community. No, we're not. We're going to be an institution of higher learning. Well we need time for blah, blah, blah. No - cry in your beer at five o'clock. We have work to do. That came from my corporate America side. Part of what's wrong here is people are trying to think of the institution like a church and like a mom and pop family. We're not that. We're kin only in our relationship in Christ, but we got work to do. And what to do when students come to us as broken pieces, people who feel like they need to coddle…like no. We are creating master's level public theologians. They have to learn how to navigate and find spiritual directors and pastors who can help put their broken pieces together. That literally is not the seminary's job. So I did it for interim and the president said, would you keep going? And I did for three years and I just re-upped. I just put my signature on another term.
Patrick Reyes: I think at least for a lot of our folks who listen, who are thinking about their next steps, especially as they're getting into the academy, they see the Dean, they see the vice president, they see these titles and they think, you know, chief scholar or that's the pinnacle of an academic career. And what I love about what you're saying is this is really about leading an organization, an institution. It's not about people's feelings. You have a family somewhere. Not here.
Valerie Bridgeman: And if you don't, create family and community among your colleagues and among your classmates. But this is not your family. This is where you come to sharpen your skills as a public thinker, to love God with your mind, to figure out what it is you really believe and don't believe, and to make some assessments about that.
Patrick Reyes: That's right. Yes.
Valerie Bridgeman: And I've led like that. Couple of years ago, I had a faculty person say to me, you care more about the institution than you do people. I was highly offended. And I said, I do my work and care for the institution for the sake of the people. That's my call. That's the Dean's job. when I record my grades with students, I say to students, I didn't give you a grade. I recorded the grade you earned based on our agreement. I'm a mystic, but I'm not warm and fuzzy. And I don't take things personally. I'm not easily offended. Don Miguel Ruiz four agreements, and I think now he's added two more, helped shape my teaching. You know, I don't assume things, if I want to know I ask. I don't make up stories about people, if I want to know I ask. And I ask people not to make up stories about me. And if they do - not my business, cause you didn't ask me. I could've confirmed that for you or denied it but you decided that the story in your head was a better story than the truth. Okay.
Patrick Reyes: I just have one last question I've asked every guest on here, as I think about the story that you have so beautifully told about your piece, my question is always, how much of this call is community or God? But I want to put a finer point on this as I think back to the farm and the forest and your dad and reading and sitting there and praying - you know, there's a deep embodiment in your stories as well. There's a piece of a poet, a mystic, but also this administrator, people who are getting stuff done in the world, and also just the kind of hearing God's voice in all of her ways of communicating through people to that still small voice in you.
I mean, there's just so many moments that you are deeply, deeply attuned to, or listening to what might emerge to the yes on the table, as you put it. So I'm curious how much in your life, and it's probably not a either/or in ways it's traditionally asked, how much of this call, this sense of self that you're living into in all these ways is about that community, the human and non-human voices that are happening, that black Panther that accompanies your ancestors as they come and meet you, and how much is you doing the work paying attention to what's emerging in the world and merging in your life?
Valerie Bridgeman: I kind of knew you were going to ask this kind of question and I'm still like...what?
There's a scripture in the Psalms that says that the voice of God is like the sound of many waters. So if you've ever been at a waterfall or at a rushing water, you know what that sounds like. These encounters, whether I'm reading poetry or performing poetry and writing it, whether I am praying for some people - people know I have a BB list, a before breakfast lists, there are people I pray for regularly, whether I am reading and struggling with scripture as a preacher or as a scholar, whether I'm having conversations with some of the best minds in the world - I count you among them - all of that is a part of the sound of the voice of God. It's like the sound of many waters. It's not one drop of water. It's not even a faucet, it's literally the waterfall. And if you listen, different pieces sound differently. And I believe in the counsel of many, that the word of God is confirmed out of the mouth of two or three witnesses. So I've never felt my call was only my call. It is the community call.
When people say things like ha ha ha, the cemetery, I am offended. So I said to somebody one time about that, I'm called as a doctor of the church. I teach as a part of my call. So you are making mockery of my call? Or I'll say to students, cause I'm holiness I understand this, do you believe God called you here? Oh yes, I do. The God who called you here is not surprised that we are here or not surprised by what we teach. So two months from now, the God that called you here is still the God that called you, who was not surprised by what you would encounter. Even when I can't see around the bend, I know the God is wherever I will be.
Wherever I am wherever I've been and wherever I will be, you know, Psalm. If you make your bed in hell, even there God is with you. If you go to the farthest ends of the earth, God is there. So there's a kind of is-ness to the presence of God. That's very Quaker of me, I know. The very is-ness to the presence of God that is wherever and whomever. So my dad used to say all the time, you can learn something from everybody. Sometimes you learn what not to do, but you can learn something from everybody. So I see myself as a student in the world, always. And listening for the voice of God, even if it's the anti voice in everything and everybody, human and non-human. They laugh at me because I weed a lot around here.
But it's just a part of my, when I'm praying for the campus, I see a weed, I pull it up. That thistle doesn't need to be there, pull it up. So it's neither. I don't think of it as personal. I have to respond. There's an I that must respond, but I'm responding in community, both on behalf of my community and in response to my community, human and non-human. I have a cat, so I include Zuri in that. Cause sometimes Zuri is like, sit down, you're doing too much. Pet me.
Patrick Reyes: It's such a gift to talk to you about that especially as someone who's got two, three-legged cats in my house. I'm grateful that we were able to have this time and have this conversation. I'm grateful for the inspiring life that you continue to lead, that you have said yes. I know our ancestors are rejoicing, that the panther meets my grandma's coyote who has been shepherding and walking alongside me - it's not accidental we're having this conversation at this moment, at this time in both our lives and the lives of the church.
As we think about what the next generation might be able to do to bring the fullness of someone's call, as you have guided us in your own life, to pay attention to what our parents, our communities, the land, what our bodies are telling us throughout our lives and learn to pay attention to that - that's some of the deepest work we can do. So thank you. Dr. Bridgman. I mean, this is amazing.
Valerie Bridgeman: Thank you. This has been fun. I want to say fun. This has been fun.
Patrick Reyes: I want to thank you for listening to Dr. Bridgman's story. And as always, if you have a story, we want to hear it. Share it with us! Head on over to our website, fteaders.org to see all the resources and contact us to let us know you would like to be a guest on the Sound of the Genuine. As always share this podcast with a friend.
Gratitude and shout outs to my team Elsie Barnhart, Heather Wallace, Diva Morgan Hicks for producing and putting this show out into the world. Thank you again for listening and we'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.