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Martha Simmons: I love the work of the church

The creator and director of the African American Lectionary talks about why she created the online resource and also about her groundbreaking career.

October 8, 2013

The Rev. Martha Simmons felt called to preach as a teenager. But when she told the adults in her church, they didn’t take her seriously.

“They kind of patted me on my head, like, ‘Is she crazy?’ But I was so young they just chalked it up to my being young and stupid,” Simmons said.

They shouldn’t have. Over the past three decades, she has emerged as an influential preacher, teacher, homiletics expert and mentor -- all in the interest of promoting excellence in African-American preaching.

In 1997, she was named on Ebony magazine’s honor roll of outstanding African-American women preachers in America.

She is an expert on homiletics and is one of two general editors of “Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present.”

Simmons, who has an M.Div. from Emory’s Candler School of Theology as well as a law degree, is the creator and director of The African American Lectionary, an online repository of resources from clergy, worship leaders, historians, cultural anthropologists, poets, musicians and others. It was launched in December 2007.

Simmons spoke to Faith & Leadership about the African American Lectionary while at Duke Divinity School giving the Gardner C. Taylor Lecture. Her lecture, along with previous Taylor lectures, is online.

Q: How did you come to create the African American Lectionary?

The lectionary came to me as I was sitting one evening trying to figure out how we could help preachers preach better.

Methodists use the lectionary. Same for the Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., etc. But overall, the largest African-American faith communities, the Baptists and the Church of God in Christ, they’re not lectionary preachers.

Lectionaries are given very little attention, so in the [African American] Lectionary, I wanted to make sure we were helping preachers do a better job of preaching more of the Bible, preaching more of the big themes, and helping them preach about those moments on the calendar that they normally wouldn’t.

For instance, believe it or not, it’s only been in the last five, six years that African-American clergy in the largest faith communities really started to preach Advent.

We did not do Advent. We’d say it was Advent season as we were doing our Christmas homily, but we did not do Advent. We didn’t do Lent, other than in passing, so there are some days on the lectionary calendar that were not a part of our faith story, or certainly not a big part of it.

Q: Why was that important to you, if not the tradition from which you come?

It was important because, as I said, I wanted to help preachers preach better. It doesn’t hurt you to know all of the historical calendar moments of the church, even if they’re not a part of your faith community.

And some of them are just important. Advent is important. Lent is important. It doesn’t matter to me that I didn’t grow up hearing about those days, and that they’re not a traditional part of what my faith community tends to preach; they’re still important.

The other reason the lectionary came to me, I believe, was because preachers -- black preachers, Latino preachers, Asian, white, all preachers -- need help in fleshing out their sermons. The sermons are too bare-boned, and they don’t have enough culture, history, sociology, psychology. They just don’t. They do surface treatment, because too many preachers are not well-read on a particular occasion.

They’ve gotten too busy to put together a solid sermon of depth. So on the lectionary, I decided that we could also include a cultural resource section so that people would know -- when I say I’m going to preach the third Sunday in Advent, give me some history on what has happened in the African-American community on third Sundays of Advent.

The other reason for the lectionary was because there were some days that nobody’s preaching, and we needed to preach.

No one was having an anti-domestic violence Sunday. No one was having a Sunday to honor associate clergy. Not in my community. We’re honoring pastors, but not the associate clergy. No one was doing an anti-incarceration Sunday. We’d say we wish our folk weren’t in jail, but no one was preaching about it.

So we put those kinds of days on the calendar, too.

Q: How do you decide which of those issues are on the lectionary site?

Oh, that’s very easy. You stay in touch with the faith community. The first thing that I did was I sent out an e-blast. We ended up with information from about 8,000 to 9,000 preachers about the things that they believed were of most concern to their congregations, communities, and to them.

That list has always stood as our marker for what most needs to be on the calendar.

We’ve done some updating of it from time to time by looking at things like the National Urban League’s State of the Union piece, State of the Church, State of Black America thing, so we updated it that way, but we got our info from the preachers, so we know what the issues are.

Plus, you don’t have to do much reading to kind of know what the issues are, because most of them attach to numbers. You know that education is a problem. You know that crime is a problem. You know that teen pregnancy, poverty -- so you know, it’s pretty easy to get at the list.

Q: Do you think it’s the role of the church to get engaged in political or systemwide issues, such as prison reform, drug policy reform?

Oh, the African-American church, and the Latino church as well, we don’t have a choice. We don’t have a choice. Unless we step up and say the systemic issues are really what the problem is, we’re wasting our time. We’re wasting our time. There’re some things that you’re only going to be able to change if you attack -- if you approach them as systemic issues, because that’s what they are.

Q: You felt a call to ministry at a young age, and you have become a leader. What motivated you, especially since it’s a difficult profession for women?

You think it’s difficult now. Imagine almost 30 years ago.

There’s not one particular thing that I can think of that motivated me to preach. I’ve always loved preaching. Just fascination with it. Just always loved it. Always loved the work of the church and worked very hard at the church at an early age. So you had a child that -- you had a teen teaching Sunday school. I was teaching Sunday school, singing in the choir, cleaning out the garage. I loved church. I loved church.

So I can’t think of any one instance that just said, “You need to do that.” It was just in my bones. It was what I’d always done, and I loved doing it. I loved doing it.

Q: Were there obstacles in your desire to be a preacher?

Oh, absolutely. When I was a teenager, I remember saying to this pastor that first I wanted to be a deacon. In a Baptist church then, many times the deacons became preachers, so I thought that was the first step.

I told them I really wanted to be a deacon. They kind of patted me on my head, like, “Is she crazy?” But I was so young they just chalked it up to my being young and stupid.

So that went on for years and years and years and years, and finally I was at the point where I could say I was called to preach, and then it really just got nasty. Really. People were unkind and just childish and uninformed, and some were just nasty. Some were just nasty and mean. So there was all of that, but once I was clear that it was a calling, I developed rather thick skin.

The other thing I came to realize in time is that I really wasn’t interested in pastoring. People offered me churches. I did interim stuff.

But I wasn’t interested in pastoring, because, for all of my love of the church, back then I did not possess enough patience to pastor someone. So then I had to say, "OK, if you’re not pastoring a church, what are you going to do? You going to practice law? You going to teach? What are you going to do?"

Q: So you felt a call to preach specifically?

Absolutely. I just wanted to preach. Still just want to preach. I was clear. I had it right the first time. Of course, at some point you think that’s going to lead you to pastoral ministry, although no women were getting those opportunities then. I did, but like I said, it was never, never really my interest. Pastoring is hard, hard work. Really, really hard work.

And it dawned on me that African-American women, and I think many women period, stand a chance of being more successful -- and I use it for lack of a better word -- in ministry if they can build their own, own their own, be their own bosses. So that’s what led me to all the things that I’ve done.

I’m working right now with some folk to try to pull together a women’s project for the next 10 years that would help women of color to get jobs, mentorships and become tenured professors. It’s one of those that I’m going to have to run myself, because there’s nobody out there saying, “Oh, yes, come on, we’re going to put you in a position to do that.”

So I think that’s how I ended up doing what I do. All of the things that I’ve done, from editing to writing books to teaching classes, etc., it was because I felt a sense that I could get more done if I called my own shots and didn’t have to worry about putting a roof over my head, because, see, churches can put you out without notice.

So that’s how I came to do all of that, and I believe that’s a big model for women going forward. The ability to feed yourself without the aid of a church and the option of saying, “No, I don’t need to do that. I don’t have to do that.”