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My First Experience at TGCW

I had the distinct honor of representing the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) alongside its Managing Editor, Elodie Quetant, as an exhibitor at The Gospel Coalition 2016 National Women’s Conference (TGCW16) in Indianapolis, Indiana. It has been two weeks since the conference, and in that time, I’ve processed the sessions I attended and the conversations I had with various women while at the conference. What I offer here is my reflection and impression of the conference as a woman of color and a first-time attendee.

The conference theme, “Resurrection Life: In a World of Suffering,” was based on 1 Peter. The letter was divided among six plenary speakers, and applied to the persecuted church during a panel discussion. Of all the plenary sessions, Mary Willson’s talk entitled “Following Jesus Far From Home” resonated with me most deeply and encapsulates the heart of the conference. In keeping with the conference theme, Mary pointed us to Christ’s finished work on the cross by using her platform to center marginalized people inside and outside the church.


After laying an exegetical foundation centered on Christ and the glory of God, Mary explained that we are children of God whose citizenship is in heaven and who are called to abstain from evil and do good for the glory of God. Importantly, Mary then demonstrated how the text, 1 Peter 2:11-3:12, bears this out practically in the world.

She acknowledged the egregiousness of the Orlando Massacre and admonished us, saying that instead of reacting to Orlando with fear, we should “visit our Muslim neighbors and our LGBT neighbors and express our deep commitment to their safety and their security. The word of God says, don’t use your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but live as servants of God.”

Mary Willson wasn’t the only speaker to highlight the LGBT community. Rosaria Butterfield, speaking as if Mary passed her the baton, did an excellent job of centering the suffering of our marginalized LGBT neighbors. In her workshop: “Sexual Identity and Christian Faith,“ Rosaria explicated what it means for them to suffer for the sake of the gospel. She began the session by saying, “People are never our enemies; sin is our enemy.”

For far too long, Christians have treated our LGBT neighbors as less than what they are—image-bearers of our Triune God. We have treated them as abstractions, as if affirming their dignity, humanity, and significance is akin to affirming their sexual orientation.

When Christians share the gospel with our LGBTQ neighbors, Rosaria noted that we are not calling them out of a “lifestyle.” We are calling them out of life itself, for it is the only life they have ever known. The term “lifestyle” trivializes the depth of sacrifice the gospel requires of them. None of us are exempt from gospel imperatives, but for some the sacrifice is greater than for others. We cause great harm to our LGBT neighbors when we fail to recognize what the gospel is calling them to forsake: husbands, wives, daughters, and sons (Mark 10:29-30).

Yet Jesus promises that those who respond to the gospel will receive back what they leave behind a hundred times over. Rosaria made a convicting point: “The LGBTQ community understands the importance of family and they often put the church to shame in this area…If you want to share the gospel with the LGBTQ community…the gospel must come with a house key.”

Women of Color

While at the RAAN exhibition booth, I had the pleasure of meeting many women from different parts of the country—about half of the women who stopped at our booth were African-American. Through the course of my conversations with these women and those of other ethnicities, a flood of tears began to pour in as several of them shared the struggles they have had with being the only or one of few ethnic minorities in their congregation, and the loneliness they experience as a result. They wept. We listened.

Perhaps Mary Willson has been listening too. In connection with the sad reality that civil authorities do—at times—violate God’s law, she not only celebrated the fact that the face of former slave and abolitionist Harriet Tubman will be on U.S. currency, but she also used Mother Tubman’s civil disobedience as an example for us, saying that she “defied the government in the areas in which it defied God. She did this because of her ultimate allegiance to God.”

As a black woman who is numbered among the marginalized in this country, that brief yet powerful acknowledgment touched me in a profound way, because Mother Tubman is the embodiment of orthodox activism par excellence.  Black women are often unseen and silenced. Their world-changing work often goes unacknowledged and is co-opted and commodified by the masses. So the acknowledgement of Mother Tubman’s work before a predominantly white audience sent reverberations through my soul. Although black women were few in number at the conference, in that moment—brief as it was—we were seen.

Thoughts for the Future

As I reflected upon my conversations with other “unseen” women during the conference, I could not help but notice the lack of racial diversity in the speaker line-up. Out of forty-nine speakers, there were twelve women of color and three male speakers (including the pre-conference plenary sessions). Of the seven plenary sessions (one was a panel), men preached twice. All of the women of color involved either led workshop sessions or had an integral and visible role in those sessions. I was also invited to help with one of the breakout sessions, but prior commitments prohibited me from participating. I make mention of this because that invitation seems to indicate that those in charge of the conference aspire to be more racially inclusive.

Nevertheless, it is one thing to have a minority lead a breakout session and another thing entirely to designate plenary slots for minorities. The racial homogeneity among the plenary speakers was conspicuous, not only in skin color but also in worldview.

One plenary speaker began her talk with a story that included an impersonation of a man with a foreign accent, a figure she returned to a few times during her plenary talk. As the daughter of African immigrants, whose parents who have been the recipients of such jokes made at their expense, my ears are attuned to jokes of that nature. The audience found it amusing, but as an ethnic minority, I know the exorbitant price of a few giggles: the mocked are other-ized, belittled, and reduced to a caricature.

I highly doubt that it was the speaker’s intent to offend. In fact, I’m certain she thought the joke was innocuous. Judging by the raucous laughter each time the joke was delivered, it was evident that the audience shared her assumptions. I only highlight this vignette to show that racial blind spots are a byproduct of racial homogeneity.

This is why conferences need to include people of color and other marginalized voices within the church with divergent backgrounds and worldviews on the plenary stage. In a practical sense, including more minority women in visible roles alongside our white sisters would inevitably lead everyone involved to consider their audience and carefully select illustrations that will resonate, rather than repel. Additionally, we will get a full-orbed picture of the reality of the visible church and a preview of what the universal church will look like in the new heavens and new earth. In this way, we will be enabled to see that God is in fact redeeming a people for Himself from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

Representation matters. All too often, minority representation within evangelicalism—particularly within the Reformed branch of evangelicalism—is a sight unseen. In light of the conference topic of Resurrection Life in a World of Suffering, imagine how glorious it would have been to hear and see Karen Ellis exegete a portion of 1 Peter with implications for the persecuted church; Nastaran Farahani on Christians in the Middle East; or Mi Xue on caring for children with special needs, instead of having two of the six plenary talks given by men.

In light of the hotly contested debate concerning complementarianism going on in Reformed circles, perhaps this is the time to reevaluate mens’ role at TGCW conferences in the future. This is not a plea for tokenism,[1] which is a woefully deficient response to racial homogeneity. On the contrary, I am advocating for women of color in hopes that minority representation will happen under the bright lights of the conference stage, and not merely in the shadows of the breakout sessions.

At the close of Mary Willson’s message, Mrs. Karen Ellis blessed us with a rousing acapella cover of an old folk song entitled “Wayfaring Stranger.” I’ll close my reflection with an excerpt of the song:

I’m a poor wayfaring stranger
While traveling through this world of woe
Yet there’s no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright world to which I go
I’m going to see my Father
I’m going there no more to roam
I’m only going over Jordan
I’m only going over home

[1] Tokenism is a symbolic or superficial effort that gives the appearance of a genuine push toward racial inclusivity and equity by including one or two minorities in order to fend off criticism.


Photo by Pascale Lourdes Anty
IG: @pascale.lourdes

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