By Pat McCaughan
Episcopal News Service
The unique blessings, joys, frustrations, challenges, and realities faced by the first five African American female diocesan bishops in The Episcopal Church are explored in candid conversations in “This Band of Sisterhood: Black Women Bishops on Race, Faith, and the Church,” compiled and edited by Westina Matthews.
Matthews, an adjunct professor at the General Theological Seminary’s Center for Christian Spirituality, wrote in an August 1984 New York Times op-ed article, of her own sense of loneliness as, “the first, the only or one of the few” Blacks, a feeling she began having as early as age 4 when she was enrolled in a newly desegregated school.
Membership in this “exclusive club” continued throughout a 40-year career in leadership positions as an educator, researcher, grant-maker, public servant and author. Committed to education, particularly for women and people of color, she holds bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees in the field—and was the first woman and first person of color to be elected a trustee of the Merrill Lynch Foundation, where she grew the company’s annual charitable giving from $5 million to $35 million.
“Blacks who have worked hard, played by the rules and attained prominent positions,” enjoy this exclusive membership, but “even in the 1980s we are considered anomalies,” she wrote back then in the Times. “We are continually scrutinized and, yes, asked for explanations” as if to have firsthand knowledge about the motives of other African Americans whose actions are less than perfect.
From a long line of African Methodist Episcopal ministers, including her father, uncle and grandfather, her leadership qualities were apparent early, when she ran for president of her Yellow Springs, Ohio, third-grade class—and lost by one vote. She hadn’t voted for herself, an early but enduring life lesson.
Matthews became an Episcopalian about 15 years. She has served on the Trinity Church Wall Street vestry, written three books and numerous articles, and for a decade as an adjunct professor, has taught and supervised prospective spiritual directors at GTS.
A chance conversation in a Colorado airport in 2018 with West Tennessee Bishop Phoebe Roaf became the inspiration for “This Band of Sisterhood.” The book includes frank, vulnerable conversations with Indiana Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows (consecrated April 29, 2017); Newark Bishop Carlye Hughes (consecrated Sept. 22, 2018); Roaf (consecrated May 4, 2019); Colorado Bishop Kimberly Lucas (May 18, 2019); and Vermont Bishop Shannon MacVean-Brown (Sept. 28, 2019).