For the past six years, I have been researching the life and ministry of Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall (1940-2002), a civil rights activist, Baptist preacher, and womanist scholar. Little did I know at the beginning of this journey that Prathia would become a spiritual mother to me, a “shero” who continues to inspire me about the real meaning of life and faith.
Prathia was born in Philadelphia and grew up helping with her father’s social gospel oriented church ministry. In high school and college, she became involved with Fellowship House, a Philadelphia ecumenical social justice organization, where she studied the philosophy of nonviolence.
In 1962, Hall joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Southwest Georgia and Alabama, canvassing door to door to register voters and teaching in freedom schools, educational programs to help potential voters pass registration tests. She was arrested many times in Georgia and Alabama, and she suffered a minor gunshot wound in Georgia in September, 1962. She resigned from SNCC in 1966 when the organization transitioned away from nonviolence, though she described her time in the movement as the best education she ever received.
Prathia became one of the first African American Baptist women ordained by the American Baptist Churches of the U.S.A. (1977), was the first woman accepted into the Baptist Minister Conference of Philadelphia and Vicinity (1982), completed her M.Div. and Ph.D. (1997) degrees at Princeton Theological Seminary, and became a well-respected professor of Christian ethics, womanist theology, and African American religious history at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio and Boston University.
In 1997, Ebony magazine named her first in its list of “15 Greatest Black Women Preachers,” and she was the only woman considered for its list of “10 Greatest Black Preachers,” ultimately placing eleventh. She pastored Mt. Sharon Baptist Church in Philadelphia, her father’s church, for nearly a quarter century.
She mentored over two hundred aspiring African American clergywomen, and there is a prominent blog for young African American clergywomen named “Prathia’s Daughters.” She remained active in the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches USA, the New York Board of Education, the Association of Black Seminarians, and domestic and international advocacy for liberation and equality of men and women of all ethnicities.
After a long battle with cancer, Prathia died in 2002.
Though she led an amazing life and accomplished great things, Prathia was a modest woman. She worked tirelessly for justice. And not in front of the camera like some of her colleagues, but among the people. She wasn’t afraid to be with the people. She spent hours on the front porch listening to stories, building trust, and walking alongside people. She valued every person, not just those with formal credentials. She empowered people to realize their giftedness and calling in spite of obstacles, and her faith inspired others to find their own.
As I read Prathia’s sermons, I was moved by the power of her preaching, by the way she transformed her suffering into prophetic proclamation. She lost her father in a car accident in 1960, survived four years of police brutality and constant threat of harm during the movement, earned an Ivy League graduate education as a single mother while teaching and preaching, endured painful injuries from two car accidents, and lost her brother and her daughter under tragic circumstances.
Rather than let these difficulties silence her, she allowed her own theological journey to radiate through her preaching. She articulated the deep emotions of these experiences in her preaching in a way that welcomed all who had suffered to find refuge in the presence of God and reminded them that God’s justice will always prevail over evil. She used to say that she had to preach, had to write, had to let it out to keep from being consumed by anger. And by anyone’s standards, she had righteous cause for anger.
Instead, she turned ashes into beautiful breaths of life.
I found myself, and still find myself, being formed by her words, being challenged to speak truth to power and to stand in solidarity with the oppressed. Her courage to cut through the excuses given for delayed progress of gender equality in Baptist ministry leadership inspired me to follow my calling in spite of those who say that because of my gender I must be mistaken about God’s call. She taught me to not feel selfish or divisive for wanting opportunity to preach, but to see this as obedience to God’s call for my life.
When I was a single mother trying to finish my PhD, her words reminded me why I must keep going no matter how difficult the journey. When I was finally brave enough to name my suffering and speak truth to power against those who had oppressed and abused me, and when my oppressors attacked me for doing so, Prathia’s words surrounded me, lifted me up, and breathed new life into me.
I wish I could have met Prathia, my single most profound preaching mentor. I am blessed to know many people who knew her and who have shared her spark of life with me. I will never stop sharing that spark with others. I will forever cling to her wisdom, to her heroic bravery in the movement, to her unshakeable conviction that the God who calls us will see us through.
And as Prathia reminded us, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes….”
Rev. Dr. Courtney Pace Lyons is mother to Stanley and works at Baylor University, where she studied Prathia Hall and earned her PhD.
*Portions of this blog post were taken Courtney Pace Lyons, “Prathia Hall,” African American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).