By Beverly Wallace
This summer I taught a course entitled, “Congregational Care from a Womanist Perspective.” A womanist perspective is a perspective focused on the experiences, conditions, and concerns of women of color, especially Black women. In that course, I taught a session on stewardship emphasizing community care. I thought it was important to understand how Black women, who explore theological principles through distinct race, class, and gender lenses, would also reframe, and perhaps even reclaim, stewardship as Vita Nova—a way of life.
Traditionally, we understand a steward as anyone who manages the property of another. In the Greek language, a steward is understood as a slave or hired servant to whom the owner entrusts the management of his household.
From the Sacred Text we read: “Who then is the faithful and wise STEWARD whom his master will set over his household to give them their portion of food at the proper time?” (Luke 12:42) And from Matthew 25:21 “Well done good and faithful servant.” A faithful steward was therefore one that acted as the master intended. How might this be problematic for some, particularly when viewed through a Womanist lens? How does this contribute to our understanding of stewardship as care for community and Vita Nova?
A Womanist Reframing
Womanist theologians have begun to re-read the sacred text through the eyes of Black women. One of the premier womanist theologians, Dr. Jacquelyn Grant, suggests as she re-reads Matthew 25 and examines the lived experiences of African American people, that “Some people are more Servant than others.” She suggests that servanthood has often been used to enforce the subordination of women in church and proposes that the focus of stewardship should be on discipleship—on community care, rather than on servanthood.
Dr. Clarice Martin in “Stoney the Road We Trod”, critiques the “household code” in her work, “The Haustafeln (Household Code) in African American Biblical Interpretation – Free Slaves and Subordinate Women.” In unpacking the original meaning and purpose of the household codes found in Colossians 3:18-4:1; Ephesians 5:21-6:9; and 1 Peter 2:18 – 3:7, Dr. Martin notes that the codes affect the “dignity” of women.
How might a womanist interpretation of these texts lead us more deeply into understanding stewardship as a way of life?
Black Women and Stewardship
Black women have always engaged in stewardship as Agents of Philanthropy through volunteering, collective action, financial contribution, and social entrepreneurship. Our history began in Africa with African societies. Black women have a long tradition of collective giving in missionary societies, fraternal orders, and national advocacy organizations that benefited Black women and families. Funding for orphanages, retirement homes for formerly enslaved people, and care of neighborhood families was common. Stewardship was all about community care.
In the biography, Madam C. J. Walker’s Gospel of Giving, by Tyrone McKinley Freeman, the author writes about the ethical principles of one of the richest Black women in the history of the United States. McKinley describes how Walker’s work began in the church and her sense of responsibility to “lift as she climbed” stewarded the community by encouraging others to use their activism, advocacy and services as a gateway to giving. Madam C. J. Walker saw her first duty to that of “humanity”. She is quoted as saying: “I am unlike your white friends who have waited until they were rich and then help, but have, in proportion to my success, I have reached out and am helping others.”
Stewardship as Vita Nova is in fact the practice of the Christian religion. It is neither a DEPARTMENT of life nor a sphere of ACTIVITY. It is the Christian conception of life as a whole, manifested in attitude and actions. It includes recognizing the other and engaging in partnering work where the dignity of the other is recognized and trusted to do the work of God.
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