Ratona Stokes-Robinson, a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church who was appointed to lead St. James AME Church in Thorofare, New Jersey, in June, is still waiting to preach her first sermon from the pulpit as congregants have kept her locked out of the church building because of her sex, pastors in the denomination say.
Orsella Hughes, the pastor of Allen Chapel AME Church - Hartford and executive director of the Prosperity Foundation in New Haven, Connecticut, highlighted the standoff in a Facebook post on Sunday after visiting St. James AME Church.
“Today, when we pulled up to the church, we expected to see our Rev. Sister, Ratona Stokes- Robinson in her pulpit. Instead, she was still locked out of her church,” Hughes wrote.
“Again, the officers have not given her the keys to the church since her appointment began June 20, 2021. Since that Sunday, she has shown up every week and preached from the front steps, without receiving any of her salary or other benefits,” Hughes added.
“She has asked for email addresses so that she can at least hold service on zoom; and still, she hasn’t received anything. Imagine preaching in the heat of the summer, the chill of the fall, and at times, even in the rain and not even having access to the bathroom to refresh after preaching.”
Hughes said she personally witnessed church members who live in the parsonage across the street from the church refuse to give Robinson access to the building because of her sex.
“Imagine all of this is happening to you because you are a WOMAN! Yes, the members have declared they do not want a woman as their Pastor and that’s why she’s been locked out! I didn’t have to imagine, I watched this happen today and my heart hurts,” Hughes said, adding that "nobody deserves" to be treated in such a manner.
St. James AME Church and Robinson were not immediately available for comment when contacted by The Christian Post on Tuesday.
However, the Connectional AME Women in Ministry, the official professional organization for women pursuing excellence in ministry in the AME Church, acknowledged the situation in a statement on Monday.
The group said: “Connectional AME Women in Ministry has been made aware that a woman in ministry, because of her gender, has been locked out of her church and prohibited from proclaiming God’s word from the pulpit since June 20, 2021. As we celebrate a woman as President of the Bishops’ Council, a woman as President of the General Officers Council, a woman as President of the Presiding Elders’ Council, and an all-woman Executive Board of the National Council of Churches (USA), we are greatly distressed to hear of women in ministry concurrently being oppressed by systematic strongholds and discriminatory behavior."
The AME Church, which was formed in 1816 by Richard Allen and others who fought against segregation within their churches, has developed a reputation over the years for its activism on social issues, including women’s rights.
In 2000, the denomination, which boasts some 3.5 million adherents, elected Vashti Murphy McKenzie as the first woman to the office of bishop — the highest rank for a church official.
Earlier this year, Elaine Flake became the woman pastor with the largest congregation in the United States after being she was appointed lead pastor of the more than 23,000-member Greater Allen Cathedral of New York, an AME church, at 72.
Flake took over the position formerly held by her husband, the Rev. Floyd Flake, 76, who also spent 11 years in Congress fighting to improve life for constituents in his church community in Jamaica, Queens.
In light of this history, Deborah Blanks, the pastor of Mount Pisgah AME Church in Princeton, New Jersey, condemned the actions of the St. James AME Church officers, stressing that “this is not us.”
“There is much that can be said about the unconscionable act of being locked out of the church, but what disturbs my soul is the reprehensible assault on the dignity and personhood of this preacher that is inextricably tied to that lockout. No one should ever be treated in this manner. Period! Full stop!” Blanks wrote in a post on Facebook Tuesday.
Blanks noted that she served as Robinson’s dean at the New Jersey Annual Conference Ministerial Institute.
“I watched with pride via Facebook Live in June as her first official appointment was read to serve as a pastor in African Methodism. Just for the record, she is a devoutly faithful, extremely gifted, passionately prophetic, and an extremely industrious woman. She is a social worker in her secular job doing the important work of serving people,” Blanks noted before denouncing the actions of St. James AME Church.
“This is not African Methodism, which knows deeply in its own history the indignity of being forced from our knees at an altar by those who did not honor our humanity,” Blanks said.
“… This is not us — a denomination that has elected five women to serve in the episcopacy, female general officers, a considerable number serving as presiding elders, a host as pastors, and an incremental number of pastoral appointments of women to ‘first churches.’ The AME Church is known for preaching a liberating gospel; thus, it behooves us to be a liberated church: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.”