Sound of the Genuine

Kamilah Hall Sharp: The Call to Preach, Teach, & Be in the Streets

October 29, 2021 FTE Leaders Season 1 Episode 17
Sound of the Genuine
Kamilah Hall Sharp: The Call to Preach, Teach, & Be in the Streets
Show Notes Transcript

Kamilah Hall Sharp is a native of St. Louis, Missouri, and currently residing in Desoto, Texas, with her spouse Nakia and daughter Anaya. After practicing law for ten years, she accepted a call to ministry. As a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical Interpretation-Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School at Texas Christian University, her scholarship focuses on the intersection of race, gender, and class with the biblical text and contemporary culture. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Business Economics from Florida A&M University, a Master of Divinity from Memphis Theological Seminary, and a Juris Doctor from Indiana University-Bloomington. Kamilah is a co-author of The Gathering, A Womanist Church: Origins, Stories, Sermons, and Litanies. She was ordained as a minister in the Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) and currently serves as co-pastor of The Gathering, A Womanist Church in Dallas.  

Instagram: @kamilah.h

Twitter: @kamilahmh

Music by: @siryalibeats

Vector Portrait by: Rafli


Patrick: Hey and welcome back to the Sound of the Genuine, the Forum for Theological Exploration's limited audio series on vocation, meaning and purpose. I am Dr. Reyes and today we have my friend, colleague, FTE fellow, scholar, pastor, lawyer, all the things! Kamilah Hall Sharp is joining us. I cannot wait to talk to her about the church she helps co-pastor called The Gathering, a womanist centered space. Her journey from lawyer to pastor to doctor is inspiring, so welcome to the Sound of the Genuine 

All right. Reverend Hall Sharp it's good to see you! I'm so pumped to talk about your life and your journey. Tell me about yourself, where did it all begin? 

Kamilah: Well I was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, in public housing. My mother was a public housing manager and also the commissioner in public housing in St. Louis. And so that's where I began is there with my mother, a single parent, with my brother. And very early on, like from the age I was seven years old I said I wanted to be a lawyer. So everything I did was about being a lawyer. So from high school, I was very focused. I was gonna go to college. I was going to go to Florida A & M - well, first I was going to go to Clark, but then I met the Dean from Florida A & M and she made it sound like if you were majoring in business and didn't go to Florida A & M you had no purpose in life! So I decided to go to Florida A & M and I was gonna go there for four years and then go to law school.

And I was very focused, graduated in four years with business economics and then I went to Indiana University School of Law, got my law degree and started practicing. And soon as I finished, about a year out, I was like, okay now what? You know, this is good, but now what, you know?

And then I, kept feeling as you know, study to show thyself approved. And it's so funny when I tell people this story, I was like, this is the only time you'll hear me quote the King James Bible, but it literally was like study to show thyself approved. And so, I was just like, okay, I'm going to read my Bible a little bit more.

So I was back in St. Louis practicing law, then I moved to Indiana to be with my then fiancé now husband. And I started working for Carrier in their corporate law department. And so they had a program that they would pay you to go to school, no matter what you wanted to go to school for. So I actually got another bachelor's degree just to be like, okay, since they're paying for that.

When I finished law school, I said I would never go to school again because I had been to school since I was two. I was at Carrier and then I noticed seminary. I was like, um okay, so let's see, maybe I'll take some classes there, they'll pay for it so you know, why not? And just see what it was about. And so when I went it was very much like I'm just trying to figure things out. I went in, not even in the MDiv track, cause I didn't want to be a preacher. I was doing like a master of arts in religion. And my first semester I went through some praying, I went through some fasting and then I switched to the MDiv. I was working full time and going to school part-time and the MDiv was 87 hours. I'm taking seven hours a semester. This is gonna take the rest of my life.

And I was like, no. So I told my spouse, I'm gonna have to stop working and go to school full time. And he was like, what? What do you mean? You know, we are a two-income household. But you know he supported me and so I quit my job and I went to school full time. And while I was there, I ended up getting ordained. I was ordained at Mississippi Boulevard in Memphis, Tennessee. While I was in seminary, I actually met Dr. Valerie Bridgeman. She was teaching a womanist course over the summer. And that was my first introduction into womanist and figuring out, you know, it was like a term I didn't know but I realized this is what I've been my whole life. I just didn't know the terminology of what it was. And actually in seeing her, a black woman who was in Hebrew Bible was very amazing to me. 

I graduated and had my ordination all in one weekend and then decided to go for a PhD in Hebrew Bible. At the time when I was in Memphis, I was volunteering at a place called Manna House. They offer hospitality to people experiencing homelessness. Dr. Pete Gathje was one of my mentors. He was actually the Dean at Memphis Theological. You know, when I went to see him, I was like, I’m thinking about getting a PhD. And he was like, you should! 

But I was kind of wrestling like do I really want to do Bible? Cause Bible had way more requirements, you got to do four languages. And I was like, I don't know these languages like that. I was like, do I have to do Bible? And he was like we need black PhD's, no matter what it's in for one thing, you just need to get a PhD. If you want to do a PhD, get one but Bible would be great because there is not enough information.

So I kind of wrestled with that. And then I applied to Brite because it was in Texas. My husband was from Texas and if I got accepted to Texas, he'd be able to go home. We had never lived around family since we were married and we had been married like 10 years.

So coming to Brite was my opportunity to actually be around family, his side of family, as well as my side of family. And we got here and I started the PhD program. I've moved several times as you can hear it through the story. When I came to Dallas, I was Disciples of Christ at that time and so I was looking for a church home. And so we were visiting churches and, yeah it was a little different here in Dallas, you know?

So one of the things is like, you know, there's still a lot of places that women couldn't preach. And I was just like, we're still doing that in these years. Okay. I mean, even the church that my in-laws attend they didn't believe in women preachers. And I was like, but yet here I am and I'm ordained, you know, so that's not going to work.

I connected with Reverend Dr. Irie Session who is my co-pastor, but I actually met her at Mississippi Boulevard. Cause she came to visit us for another occasion. When I got here and she was actually looking at a church too, my husband was like you should start a church.

And this was like my first semester of PhD work. I was like we shouldn't do nothing. I'm just trying to get through this course. I was like, if I get out the house with clean clothes on, my daughter got clean clothes on and we both got our homework, I'm winning. So this is about as much as I can handle right now.

And so we kept looking and kept looking for churches. It must've been about 2017, we did a womanist Seven Last Words service. Cause Irie was like, what would it look like to just have seven womanist preachers preach a Seven Last Words service? Which is different here. Cause first of all they don't have that many, Seven Last Words here in Dallas, but then one with all women, but then womanist was a whole nother level. And so we did a Seven Last Words service at a predominantly white church, but it's a Disciples of Christ church here.

And it was a packed house. We promoted it on social media and a lot of people came and so people was coming up after the service, and was like well where can we hear more of that preaching? I was like, well, here in Dallas, not really. You can't really hear that much of that.

I was like, you know, sometimes me and Dr. Irie some of these other women we preach and we let people know we're preaching. But it's not really a thing. And so Dr. Irie was preaching places. I was preaching places and people kept asking us, where can we hear more? Well, you know, what's that all about?

What'll happen if we created a space just to hear some womanist preaching, you know, what would that look like? And so at the time it was three of us. It was like, okay, with three people, you probably could do it. It's not something I'm interested in doing alone, this could be work. Even at that point it wasn't in my mind going to be a church. It was just going to be a space where people could come and hear womanist preaching and kind of build their own little community, which, hindsight, that's pretty much a church right?

So we kind of prayed about it and then we put out some stuff and said, okay. The second week of October we sent out an email to our regional minister and was like can you ask some churches if we could nest with them for, permanent nested space?

And within one hour of us sending an email five churches responded offering us space. Whoa. Okay. But they were all kind of north of stuff and so at the time Dr. Irie and I both had been kind of visiting Central Christian Church, which is in Dallas. They had just got a new pastor and so he came back and offered us space so we was like, that's the one. Cause you know, it's a good location, they were supportive, and she had been going to church there. So we set up in a fellowship hall cause we didn't want it to be church. 

We were inviting people who didn't necessarily feel comfortable in church so we just gonna set up in a fellowship hall. It's gonna be a one-hour service, strictly one hour, we're going to do everything in one hour and we did it. You know, the first week we did it, we had communion, and all three of us preached, we did tag team with three sermons in one hour.

And so try it again, let's see if somebody's going to show up again. So we did it the next week and people showed up and so people kept showing up. And then finally in December of that year, because the church that we were at, they rent the building out for a lot of things they have like, narcotics anonymous, AA anonymous. They have all types of organizations in here. So one group had already rented the fellowship hall for the first Saturday cause we had our services on Saturdays instead of Sundays cause we didn't want to compete with churches. And we also wanted a space where people who were working in churches like pastors or things like that could come and enjoy worship. 

And so we couldn't go into the fellowship hall on this particular Saturday, cause it was rented out and I was like, aww man this is not going to work. You know, people are not going to want to be in the church. This ain't that group. And we went into the church and the people loved it.

And they're like, this is where we want to be. I was like, what is happening here? When I say we became church is when we went into the fellowship hall. That's when we became church. And so Dr. Irie was like, well if we gonna be a church, we gonna be a womanist church. We're going to say we're a womanist church. Let it be explicitly known, we're a womanist church. And so we started saying The Gathering: A Womanist Church in Dallas. And then we started talking to our denomination about being a new church plant. And they gave us some funding the following year and we've been going ever since. 

Even when we started we were always broadcasting on Facebook as well as in person so that's been something we've done the whole time, so covid didn't really mess us up on that one. So our ongoing joke before COVID was like, okay, is this the week that nobody's going to show up? But somebody has always shown up every week. And we're still going. We're going into our fourth year as a womanist church and we co-pastor. 

Our church model is very different because we don't have members we have what we call ministry partners because we believe we're partnering in the work with the people. Our idea is not to have a church of hierarchy where there's no over we're all on the same, which is why, if you've ever saw us preach in person, we preached on the floor. We didn't preach up in a pulpit because we want it to be down with the people. To give the visual of being in this thing together, but we also have other churches who partner with us who are ministry partners. So people who are doing the work that we want to do, we just join with them like Friendship West, Dallas Black Clergy, which I'm a part of we joined with them and some other organizations, so our people can be involved. Even though we're a small group, we're being able to do a lot of stuff in three years and it's been a great journey. 

Patrick: You say the word great journey, all I can think of is you just gave me the coolest church startup training montage ever. Like that was going from all the way back to when you were seven, this call to lawyer to now starting a womanist church. I mean it couldn't have been easy. So I'm wondering if you could take me back to that moment. When you're seven, what made you want to become a lawyer? And then why did you walk away to follow this call and who was there to kind of guide you or pull you? You mentioned some professors, but what was the tug there to actually pursue this and leave law?

Kamilah: So my mother was a single mother, but in her house, education is it. You were going to grow up, you're going to do something. You know, when I was a kid, a lot of people talked about being a lawyer or a doctor. I was like I kind of like the idea of doctor, but I was like, how long they go to school? Yeah, that's not for me. So I was like, let's talk about this lawyer thing. I enjoy speaking for one. I didn't mind speaking in front of people and like in high school I did my trial and stuff like that. I actually enjoyed the trial parts and stuff like that. Like I enjoy it, it's competitive. So I enjoyed that part. It was also an idea to me to be able to help people. So, you know, I figure I can help people in this way. My brother went away to college when I was like in seventh, but I never was in a house by myself with my mother cause somebody was always there. We were always taking people in. And my mother was just the person who was a very giving person.

I know that that came part of me, but like I wanted to be a lawyer because in my mind I was like, I don't want to be doing all that kind of work that she doing, but I can still help people, but still maybe make some money. You know, so that was my idea about law, like, no, I'm not going to do that.

And then when I got in seminary, and I'll never forget, I took a class, with Ed Loring. In Atlanta they used to have, it was intentional community where they actually lived with people experiencing homelessness. And so with my experience in that class, cause that was when I first had to start working at Manna House and things like that. But talking about it, it's like that was the first time I realized like as much as I tried to escape being like my mother, it was still there. Like it was just in my DNA, like this is who I come from - a people who are about helping people to improve and, and by helping the community. You know, you can run away from it all you want to, but this is really who you are at the end of the day.

I enjoyed working with people experiencing homelessness. I don't know, the people gave me, gave me more life. And so just listening to people and stuff like that. You know, when I was going through ordination, you have to write out all that stuff that's when maybe I was  able to finally articulate and I tell people, you know, I realized my call was to preach, teach and be in the streets, like literally this is what you're supposed to be. And that's how I see where I am now. You know, I'm, I'm preaching, but I still want to teach cause obviously I'm trying to get PhD, hopefully teach somewhere, but also work with people in the community and being in the streets is, you know, everything from protesting to whatever else needs to be done, but literally being on the streets and being with the people, staying connected to the community.

Cause I think that's the important part of who I am and who I've come from. We're a very communal people. And as far as like talking me through, getting to those points of people, Actually my cousin, Melva Sampson, cause you know, when I was going through a lot of this we would talk about stuff cause I was still like, I don't want to be a preacher. I don't really want to do that. And when we were having conversation and talking about how the voice comes and stuff like that. And so I was like, yeah, I guess I could go fess up to this, this is what it really is. 

And so that was helpful to me. And then also Virzola Law she's a pastor here now she was actually one of the pastors at Mississippi Boulevard and helped shepherd me through the ordination process. But just working with her and seeing her heart for the people, but also because she called me out first. She was one of the first people to call me out. Cause like when I got to the Boulevard, I was presenting to a group of ministers and she happened to be there and she came up.

She's like, so when are you going to come talk to me about ministry? And I was talking to a group of women. I was like, what is she, who is she talking to? Like you, you're not talking to me. She was like, no, you, when are you coming so we can have this conversation about you in ministry? And I was like this lady trippin!

And then, you know, later on I was like, okay, let me go on and call her. And, you know, we had the conversations and stuff. So those are some of the people I would say kind of helped me. The shifting from law really wasn't hard for me. And I will say this the hardest part for me in leaving, it wasn't leaving a job. I was like I'm not going to have a check every two weeks.

Like this is kinda serious. Like, I really got to get my eyes and get my mind around the financial thing. Cause I was like, I like going to the beauty shop. I can't do all the things that I like to do once I make this commitment. But I did it and you know, it's been great. Honestly, not that it's always been easy, but it's been great.

Patrick: And it's not just the church. I mean, we didn't even talk about, and I'm hoping that you will about doing a PhD. and you're doing Hebrew Bible, which includes languages and deep textual study and like 50 layers of peer review in a way that theorists and other folks in other disciplines just don't have to think about. Tell me about that call to do Hebrew Bible in particular. And what is it that you're trying to excavate? Why add this onto pastoring and everything else going on in your life? 

Kamilah: The Hebrew Bible came before the pastoring so let's be clear. So, but when I was talking about, you know, deciding what to do, if I was going to pursue a PhD, because like you say, it's four languages, you gotta do Greek, you gotta do, Hebrew. And then you've got to do two modern languages. And I was like, yeah, that's going to be something. But what I realized is how much people have been harmed by bad interpretation of the Bible. When I was working at Manna House, hearing people blame their situations on something that's in the Bible.

That's really a bad interpretation for what is happening and seeing the harm that it's doing and seeing how people have been harmed in so many ways like that. And that's a big thing in my church. We see people who have come, who have had, and I say, had the Bible used as biblical bullets.

I want it to be something, find something that is life giving, because my thing is, as problematic as the Bible can be, at the end of the day, people still turn to the Bible. Some people want us to just throw away but it's not going to happen because it's such an influence on our culture. So how can I understand it in a way and help people understand it in a way that is more life giving than oppressive to them? How can I help people interpret things and question the way that that things have been taught to them?

And so for me, this, this is probably the best way for me to go. Just cause like when I decided I had one year of Hebrew. I think by the time I graduated, I didn't even take Greek. Because I decided so late in my program that I audited Greek, like a semester after I finished my classes.

And then I was like going to the synagogue, taking Hebrew at the synagogue to try to understand it. Cause I was like one, one year is not going to get it. Even with that, I struggled - it was a real struggle with me and languages, but I finally got done and I was like thank God. I'm glad that I did though, because I know, like the work I'm doing, I know can help somebody. And so at the end of the day, that's what I'm really hoping. Cause like even the way we preach and stuff like that, it's interpretations and teaching people to question interpretations. That's a whole different thing, but that's something I want people to do because if you don't question it, what happens? You know, we, we get stuck with these interpretations that are killing our people.

Patrick: That's so powerful. And I think about the way that you're using scripture in your own preaching your own teaching, the way that you mentioned getting down on the floor, you know, I've been able to witness on Facebook and be present to the worship service you do. I mean it's a reframing of interpretation, but also reframing on how to explore the interpretation. Talk a little bit about the pedagogy of this and what stories in particular are you trying to lift up and re-interpret or teach others to interpret? 

Kamilah: So, one of the biggest things at our church that's different from most churches is after every sermon we have what we call talk back to the text. So after the person preaches, they get a couple minutes to just kind of think about what we heard, because that's another thing. I think a lot of times we preach and people can preach from 20 to 45 minutes and you don't realize people have heard a lot in 20 to 45 minutes. You might understand what you said, but you don't know what they heard in that time, so that the talk back to the text is a great opportunity to not only hear what people heard, because we give people a chance they can ask questions about the sermon, they can ask questions about the texts. They can ask questions about how you interpret it, why you interpret it that way and we also encourage people to make connections with their own life, you know tell stories of their own experiences.

And what happens is first of all, it makes people be a better preacher. Cause you gotta be ready because you don't know what they're going to ask. So that's been the big thing, it has allowed people to interrogate some of the things that may have been harmful to them.

I'll never forget, like the first time I preached about like self-care and this lady was like I've never in my life heard a preacher talk about taking care of yourself. And I was like, and why not? Or when we talk about mental illness and it's okay to get medicine and still love Jesus. To hear those types of things and people be able to specifically say, I've never heard that. We often do lift up stories of women, cause a lot of those stories don't get preached. You know, you hear about three women in the Bible, the woman with the issue of blood, the woman bent over, you know, about three or four of them you constantly hear, but there are two hundred and some, unnamed women in the Bible that can be preached about. So we preach about them.

Like we're not necessarily lectionary preachers, but sometimes I'll intentionally preach from the lectionary on a text that does not have anything to do with a woman, just to show how womanist preaching can be done. Because people always act like womanist preaching can only be done about a woman or a womanist, but to show how womanist preaching can be done in so many ways about any text.

And so doing that, people are like, you know, I've never heard the text preach that way, or they start asking questions or they start talking about how this has made them think differently or changed certain things. We actually got a book put out last September, but part of the book is ministry partners writing their own stories about their experience in The Gathering. And to me, that's like one of the most beautiful parts of the book, because to see what they say, how they experienced it and how they experienced our worship and how they experienced our church and being welcomed. And so we got white men and white women and black and LGBTQ and straight, like it's a variety of people who all feel welcome and to hear them talk about that, it shows. And I just think that talk back to the text is just one of the best things period. It's one of the best things for our people to help them in their faith formation, their discipleship in their interrogating things that's harmful to them, and making their own interpretations or even, you know, questioning us.

It's so different because you know, typically in a church, you don't question what the preacher just said. You just don't do that, right? But we're saying you can question it, but that's also a part of the process of us letting people know, it's okay to question stuff in the Bible.

When I'm teaching my classes, getting people to the point and be like, yeah, you can ask questions or say this ain't right. It's okay to interrogate. It's okay to think about this stuff. And getting people to the point where they're free enough to do it. It makes a difference.

Patrick: You're redefining so much here. You're redefining how we interpret texts, how we build community, how we do church. And how I think about time. How do you have time to do all this? Honestly, you know, I'm thinking of all those doctoral students are going to come or they're going to be listening to this and I'd be like, all right. Yes, this is what I want to do. I'm going to start a church. I'm going to do Hebrew Bible. I'm gonna get through my exams. I can do all of this. Tell me about what this is like on a vocational level. How are you sustaining yourself in all of this? 

Kamilah: It's a, t-shirt that says "I can do all things through black women", it’s black women that’s gettin me through! The reality of it is I have to account for my time very carefully. So I have to use timers, I really have to craft my day out, but also it's not only me. Like I can do a church cause I got another person helping me. Now we have a virtual assistant because it got to the point at the end of last year, I was like, oh no, this is giving me too much! I can't get everything done! I still do a lot of administrative stuff, but some of the other stuff, I was like we gotta figure out a way.

And so, you know, we got like a virtual assistant to help us with that. But because I have a person who is another co-pastor, so I don't have to do everything. To me that's one of the biggest things that I tell people - because we talk about we started to gathering to create space for black women to preach or womenist to preach, especially in this time where social media has opened up the opportunity for people to create their own spaces. But the thing is you can go create something new, but you ain't got to do everything by yourself. It's dangerous when you try to do it by yourself. I tell people, if you go get another table, have somebody pick up the other end. So you can build your own table with somebody. Working in community is a better thing. So that's the only reason I could actually do the church while I'm working on my PhD. 

I'm at a much better place now that I'm writing, cause I'm not gonna lie it was rough. When I started the PhD program, my daughter was starting kindergarten, we had just moved to Texas, it was all things new. My husband was traveling back and forth, and even, to last year he was actually literally commuting from Georgia every weekend. And so it was really rough, but I have family here so my sister in law can help if I had to go to a conference or something like that. So having family and community support is the only way I can do it. And I have to sit on my couch every night and watch something funny and have myself something to drink. That's my truth.

Patrick: Yeah, that happened to me last night. Didn't have my funny show and was up all night, you know, thinking, you know how that works. You got to turn it off. Well, I just got one more question for you. I love the image of you moving the table, holding the table, you pick it up one end. And just going all the way back to the beginning of the story I see your mother picking up that other end, carrying all this, showing you a way, helping people. The Gathering is a space where you're not carrying any of this load on your own. But I also see these moments where you were following some desire to go to ministry, to go to seminary, to think about how you might shift your life a little bit differently. I'm wondering how much of your vocation is driven by community and how much is driven by a sort of inner sense of call, purpose, meaning?

Kamilah: I think it's kind of evenly split, maybe. That's a good question.

I guess the best way I can say this is like, I kind of feel my sense of call, sense of meaning in community. I don't know, everything that I'm doing is I'm trying to do it so that my community can be better. Even down to my inner circle, you know, the work I do, I do it cause I want my daughter not to have to go through a lot of the crap that we go through right now.

I don't want her to have to ask me some of the questions she has to ask me and I don't want her kids to have to ask her these same questions. It’s just a…I don't know, a sense of wanting something better. I don't know if that really answers your question, but yeah, it's just, I really, really want something better for everybody.

And I think that just comes down to being just the basic definition of womanist - committed to the survival and thriving of all people. I think the communal part of me is just, it's just so embedded from my family. Like I'm really into ancestry stuff like to genealogy. That'll take you down some rabbit holes, but learning like my family's history - we didn't have a whole lot information on my mother's side about her family history and I've been able to go back to like 1800, but to learn the stuff like that, like I can literally see how this is just played out in generation versus generation of what you're doing for the community. And so I literally kind of feel like it's in my DNA. 

Patrick: That's incredible. It is in your DNA. I hear in your voice, I mean, not just your story, but the story of your ancestors. And I think you're absolutely right. You are making a better way, not just for your daughter, but for your daughter's daughter, the daughters that will come a long time from now, and for my own daughter. You're making space for a broader community and the way that I really imagined that church can and should be, the way that biblical interpretation can and should be. Should they ever want to go seminary, my kids, I hope they do, I hope they learn from someone like you. So, I mean, I'm just so grateful for you sharing your story and just inspiring me to just be a better human. So, I'm, I'm so grateful to know you and thank you for sharing. 

Kamilah: Thank you for allowing me to talk about myself and share my story and for this invitation and just for being the great people that you are FTE. You know I love y'all.

Patrick: Love you right back!. 

I want to thank you for listening to Reverend, future doctor, Hall Sharp's story. And we're glad you got inspired here on the Sound of the Genuine. Like and shared this limited audio series with a friend and as always, you can find this and many other great stories at fteleaders.org. Special thank you’s as always to my very cool colleagues Elsie Barnhart and Heather Wallace, who put this story together. And @siryalibeats for that super cool music. Thank you for listening we'll see you next time on the Sound of the Genuine.