Weems, Renita J. 1954–
Renita J. Weems 1954–
Theologian, author, educator
Renita J. Weems is a minister, Old Testament scholar, and author of several books that examine religion from a feminist point of view. An elder in the African Methodist Episcopal church, she teaches at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School and has been ranked in an Ebony poll as one of the most respected black women clergy members in the United States.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 26, 1954, Weems had a difficult early childhood. She was one of several children; her mother drank heavily and then abandoned the family when Weems was 12 years old. In her 1999 book, Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt, she describes the day in 1967 when her mother took a taxi across town, but says she does not remember if she was home to witness this, nor any of the other details. Despite having buried the painful memory, Weems writes that the day continues to shape her life. “I have flip-flopped over the years between being angry at God (the gods) for allowing my mother to abandon me,” she admits, “and blaming myself for not being the kind of daughter a mother would want to stay and protect.”
Enchanted by Bible Stories as a Teen
Weems’s father remarried his children’s Sunday-school teacher, and the couple had several more children. It was a deeply religious family, and Weems grew up steeped in the exuberant, yet strict Pentecostal faith. She was an avid reader, and recalled in Listening for God that her true spiritual awakening did not come in the revival tents of the Pentecostal creed. “My appetite for reading and studying the Bible came along just about the time I was a teenager, when I started taking reading seriously, and it was awakened in a setting that augured the work I’d embark on as my life’s journey,” she wrote. That setting was a weekly study class at her church, for which she served as recording secretary. Weems was the only teenager in the room as her church’s elder and deacon hotly debated that Sunday’s lesson, and she was fascinated by their interpretations of biblical tales. “With little more than a high school education between the two of them, the two men taught me what they knew best, namely, the sacred art of reading stories,” she recalled in her book.
Weems headed north to Massachusetts for college, where she earned an economics degree from Wellesley College. She abandoned her Pentecostal faith along the way, joining a Methodist church in the Boston area but, as she wrote in Listening for God, she did miss some of its fervor. “Even though my new church family, well known for both its spirited worship and socially progressive ministries in the community, better suited my newly acquired Brahmin tastes,” she wrote, “I missed, nevertheless, the close-knit, insular, partisan world of Pentecostalism and the sense of moral superiority bred among Pentecostalists, believing as they do that they are the elect.”
After college, Weems worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street in New York City, but gave it up to pursue a career as a freelance writer. She also began studying theology and was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church in 1979. Five years later, just after receiving her divinity degree from Princeton
At a Glance…
Born on June 26, 1954, in Atlanta, GA; daughter of Willie J. and Carrie (Baker) Weems; married Martin L. Espinosa (a minister); children: Savannah Nia Weems Espinosa. Education: Wellesley College, BA, 1976; Princeton Theological Seminary, MDiv, 1983, PhD, 1989. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Stockbroker, 1976-late 1970s; freelance writer, late 1970s; African Methodist Episcopal Church, minister, 1979–, elder, 1984–; Vanderbilt University Divinity School, Nashville, TN, professor of Old Testament studies, 1987–; author, 1988–.
Awards: Wilbur Award, Religious Communicators’ Council, 1999, for Listening for God.
Addresses: Office —Graduate Department of Religion, Vanderbilt University, 411 21 st Ave. South, Office 221, Nashville, TN 37240-1121. Web site —www.somethingwithin.com.
Theological Seminary, she was made an elder in the church. Her first book, Just A Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible, was published in 1988. She continued her studies at Princeton, eventually becoming the first African-American woman to earn a Ph.D. in Old Testament studies in 1989.
By then, Weems was teaching in her field at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. She explained in part why she forsook the ministry for a career in academia in Listening for God. “Women who entered the ministry [in the late 1970s], when I was ordained, endured the mocks and jeers of family, friends, and male ministers in order to be ordained and had nothing to look forward to but assignments to a string of some of the smallest, poorest, and most difficult charges in the conference,” she wrote. Instead Weems went on to a career as an author who could reach far more listeners, writing I Asked for Intimacy: Stories of Blessings, Betrayals, and Birthings in 1993, and Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets in 1995. In each book, she takes stories from such Old Testament authors as Hosea, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, which often recount appalling tales of abuse toward women. Weems believes that the prophet-authors may have embellished the tales in an effort to deliberately shock their listeners. In ancient Israel, she explains, the prophets thought it necessary for the Israelites to submit to God’s will, and Weems writes that such stories of sexual violence may have helped listeners make comparisons with their own lives.
Weems was a contributor to Essence magazine for a number of years, and her articles have also appeared in Ms. and the New York Times Book Review. Her high profile as an author and minister helped her claim fourth place in a 1996 Ebony poll ranking the most respected African-American woman clergy leaders in the United States. She is married to a Baptist minister, Martin L. Espinosa, the pastor of a Nashville church. When she became a mother, she found that the demands of home and office far outweighed her ability to find appropriate moments for spiritual communion. She wrote about the crisis of confidence she suffered in Listening for God, which won the Wilbur Award from the Religious Communicators’ Council. Even as a minister, she confesses, she has undergone painful times of spiritual drought in her life. She wrote the book with the hope that it might yield “a first-time glimpse into the private yearnings of a minister who is also a wife and a mother, who, unlike many of the poets, celibates, and mystics who have written on various aspects of spiritual formation… cannot get away to the mountains or to a monastery for quiet time with God.”
At times, Weems writes, she felt that she was a fraud, and that her faith had left her for good. “Neither my years in the seminary nor those devoted to doctorate work in biblical studies prepared me for these periodic pulls into darkness, when prayer hurt and when journeying inward felt like a walk through a burning corridor,” she wrote. Her book is divided into four sections: the “mysteries” of silence, ministry, marriage and motherhood, and miracles, and in them she exhorts readers to seek out the new epiphanies in which the voice of a higher presence may be heard. “God speaks through burning bushes to get our attention so as never to have to speak again that way,” she reminds those who, like she once did, are still looking for a more obvious sign. Listening for God was commended by Christian Century writer Susan Wesley Hartley for its candor and inspiration. “Weems grasps her spiritual ‘silent seasons’ firmly and wrests blessing from them,” Hartley noted. “She discovers that God’s silence is ultimately God’s new way of communication with her, and emerges with a deeper intimacy with God.”
In 1999 Weems co-authored the spiritual autobiography of gospel star CeCe Winans, On a Positive Note; Her Joyous Faith, Her Life in Music, and Her Everyday Blessings. In 2002 she returned to her own writings with Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wisdom and the Blessings of God, a book which explores an unusual area of faith for a Protestant clergy member, the Virgin Mary. The work examines the significance of the story of Christ’s mother, who became a figure of religious devotion in Roman Catholic iconography in the Middle Ages, but remains largely ignored by other creeds. Weems explains that Mary was just a teenager when she became pregnant by immaculate conception, according to the Bible, but recounts the story of how she sought out her older cousin, Elizabeth, who was also expecting, for advice and guidance. Weems’s book urges women to meet the crises in their lives at any age by asking for support from others of their gender. A Publishers Weekly critique liked the way in which Weems “combines personal anecdote, exhortation and an effective blend of cheerleading and poignancy, revealing a genuine comprehension of the lives many women lead.”
Weems runs an annual retreat called “Just a Sister Away,” and manages a website and on-line newsletter titled Somethingwithin.com: An E-Journal for Women Seeking Balance and Wholeness. In one article, she invites readers to write a letter to their younger selves. While she notes that she would never want to return to her younger days and the search for herself as a college student or Wall Street stockbroker, she does occasionally want to “go back and bless myself with the love and confidence I desperately longed for back then. I was wracked with anxiety in my twenties, and there were lots of reasons for that. But if I’d known then what I know now I could have spared myself all the recriminations I heaped on myself. I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself.”
Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible, LuraMedia, 1988.
I Asked for Intimacy: Stories of Blessings, Betrayals, and Birthings, LuraMedia, 1993.
Battered Love: Marriage, Sex, and Violence in the Hebrew Prophets, Fortress Press, 1995.
Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt, Simon and Schuster, 1999.
(With Cece Winans) On a Positive Note: Her Joyous Faith, Her Life in Music, and Her Everyday Blessings, Pocket Books, 1999.
Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wisdom and the Blessings of God, Warner/Walk Worthy Press, 2002.
What Matters Most: Ten Lessons in Living Passionately from the Song of Solomon, Walk Worthy Press, 2004.
Notable Black American Women, Book 3, Gale, 2002.
Weems, Renita J., Listening for God: A Minister’s Journey Through Silence and Doubt, Simon and Schuster, 1999.
Black Issues Book Review, May 2001, p. 53.
Booklist, May 15, 1999, p. 1659.
Christian Century, September 8, 1999, p. 870.
Ebony, March 1999, p. 32.
Interpretation, April 1997, p. 200.
Library Journal, March 1, 1999, p. 93.
Other Side, November 2000, p. 27.
Publishers Weekly, April 26, 1999, p. 74; December 11, 2000, p. 82; April 29, 2002, p. 62.
Virginian Pilot, April 25, 1999, p. J2.
Somethingwithin.com www.somethingwithin.com/soul_journ.html (February 16, 2004).
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