A Band of Sisters

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By Joy Howard | Twitter: @DrJoyAJHoward

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In 1841, a young woman in Boston named Julia Foote dreamed that God handed her a scroll that authorized her to preach the Gospel. She dreamed that God said “You are now prepared, and must go where I have commanded you.”

She woke up terrified. She had felt a call in her heart to preach for some time, but the dream was something she could not ignore. When she opened her eyes from her dream, she saw a group of women she would later name “a band of sisters whom I loved dearly.”

Julia Foote was barely twenty years old when God called her to preach. She appeared to be, like many of us SheLovelys, unlikely for greatness in any way that is recognized by our culture. She was the daughter of former slaves; she had very little formal education; she was the wife of a rough and tumble sailor; and she was black.

Unlikely as it seemed then, Julia Foote would become the first woman ordained a deacon in her denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) Zion Church. And when she wrote her spiritual autobiography in 1879, she emphasized two aspects of her life: God’s grace and her band of sisters.

I have watched this community of SheLovelys unite together online in a grand chorus lately and I want you to tell you a little bit about Julia Foote’s band of sisters to encourage you to keep going, to keep singing, to keep saying “yes” when your sisters share their hearts.

Julia Foote’s band of sisters was much more than her support system. They were a part of a hallelujah chorus that drew out the best she had to give.

After Foote dreamed that God called her to preach, her band of sisters sat in her bedroom with her until she was strong enough to get herself out of bed. Her husband called for a doctor, thinking she was out of her mind with fever. The doctor could not find anything wrong with her and when he left, her band of sisters were still there. The pastor of her church told her that this nonsense about being called to preach needed to stop. He ordered her to stop talking about this dream. Interestingly enough, he also ordered her friends to be quiet.

You see, they were still with her. They had not gone anywhere. Her band of sisters refused to be quiet however, because they knew how to say “yes” to God’s call. I think their “yes” made all the difference in Julia’s life.

Julia Foote was terrified at the idea of accepting her call. She did not want to go against the rules of her denomination. She had experienced great joy in joining the AME Zion Church. The church was made up of black people at a time in 19th century America when they were not welcomed in many churches. Foote had found community in the church as her sailor husband was away at sea most of the time. The leadership structure of her church was sorely unprepared for a woman with a call on her life to preach. Foote even wrote that she too believed what she had been taught; women should not preach.

But her band of sisters refused to let her forget her dream about the scroll. “As my friends told me,” Foote remembered several decades later, “[the scroll] was in my heart, and was to be shown in my life.” Her band of sister believers, she wrote, “advised me to do as God had bid me, or I would never be happy here or hereafter.” They reminded her how often they came to her for advice and teaching. They pushed her to see her own talents.

This band of sisters sat in Julia Foote’s bedroom as she fitfully slept after the dream. They sang hymns and worked on their sewing through the night. When the pastor returned to see her again, Foote no longer shrank away. Her friends had been correct. She just needed some time to accept this call on her life.

“My gifts are very small, I know,” she said to her husband and her pastor, “but I can no longer be shaken by what you or anyone else may think or say.”

Foote started preaching to immediate success even though church leadership filed papers to excommunicate her.

She joined the Holiness movement and preached in houses. Soon, pastors were going against their own bishops and inviting her to preach in their pulpits. She traveled through Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, and as far away as California, preaching to crowds of black and white believers. On the roads, she risked bands of men who kidnapped free black people and sold them into slavery. In cities, she narrowly escaped attacks and she faced all sorts of sexual harassment.

For over 50 years, until she died in 1901, she filled the sanctuaries and summer revival tents of the AME Zion Church, the same denomination that had tried to excommunicate her. She became a beloved, respected, well renowned evangelist. She wrote A Brand Plucked From the Fire in 1879 in order to encourage other black women in their faith and in their call to ministry. When congregations struggled, pastors and bishops wrote to “the Rev. Julia Foote” for help in stirring people’s heart to hear the love of God.

And for the same number of years, there was her band of sisters saying “yes” to her call.

They said:

Yes, you can do this difficult thing. 
Yes, this dream could be God’s voice.

Yes, I believe you.

Yes, answer this call.

“Sisters, shall not you and I unite with the heavenly host in the grand chorus?” Foote wrote near the end of her autobiography.

Oh, how Julia Foote believed in the power of a band of sisters when they heard the call on their lives. She knew first hand that the rest of our world will often say “no” to women, but that we sisters can rise up and “yes” to each other.

Her band of sisters interpreted the prophetic call in her life.

They prayed for her as she traveled.

They traveled with her when they could and carried her bags full of books so she could study.

They stood together on dark streets when confronted with racist and sexist violence.

They sat up all night in sleazy hotels, protecting her so she could get some sleep before her next service.

They made her meals when she returned to the East coast to fund raise.

They handed her cups of tea for her exhausted throat, hoarse from speaking to thousands at a single time.

They washed her clothes, mended her hats, and her sisters made sure she had a bed to fall into.

They cared for her so she could follow her call.

We need our sisters to say: “yes.” (And sometimes, we can cook for each other and make each other tea. But mostly, we need a “yes.”)

We need a strong, loud chorus that affirms our being in God as we understand it.

We do not need to worry about approval—your call might not be mine.

We do not need an “okay” or a “whatever”—a shrug or neutrality.

We need to join with the heavenly hosts in a “yes.”

I need you to join in for a “yes.”

We can say to each other: 
Yes, you can do this difficult thing.

Yes, this dream could be God’s voice.

Yes, I believe you.

Yes, answer this call. 
Yes, I am here. Yes. Yes. Yes.

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SheLoves readers can read Julia Foote’s autobiography online: A Brand Plucked From the Fire: An Autobiographical Sketch. 1886. New York: The Digital Schomburg, The New York Public Library.

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About Joy:

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Joy Howard is an early Americanist and an Assistant Professor of American literature in New Jersey. She reconstructs the stories of early American women who have been silenced in history one way or another. Joy lives in the Mid-Atlantic region with a husband who studies fire ecology and a sister who is an artist and crafter. Joy and her sister took a leap of faith this year and started “Sistercraft” — a broom, basket, and blanket business that emphasizes women’s crafts and a handmade life full of goodness.

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Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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