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Continuing our January Sunday series on women in ministry, today we’ll learn from the life and reflections of Rev. Dr. Denise Kingdom Grier.
Pastor Denise, the first African American woman to graduate from the Reformed Church in America’s Western Theological Seminary, was born in Harlem, New York to an 18-year-old single mother who died of a drug overdose when Denise was just an infant. Orphaned, she spent her first five years in foster care. “Foster care was not care but a four-inch strap to the back for responding “huh” instead of “yes,” and nobody came for me,” she writes when telling her own story of trauma and abuse.
Denise was adopted at the age of seven by a mother in her 50s whose father was born into slavery in 1864. It wasn’t until Denise was fourteen and moved to North Carolina that she was introduced to the Black church, a place where she found a home. It was here she gained an appreciation for the cultivation of biblical curiosity and a deep spirituality steeped in the Black church tradition.
However, as an adolescent with eyes wide open and beginning to make sense of a new faith, she was also struck by what seemed to be an incongruence in what she heard preached about social action and what she actually saw lived out. When as a teenager, Denise began to follow Christ, she was encouraged by her church mothers to count the cost. “I said to God, ‘My life’s a mess, but I offer myself to you. I pray that I can help others like me.”” Denise committed her life with the strong conviction that faith is not only about what we do on Sunday mornings, but who we are and what we do every day.
As a young Christian, Denise was immediately enamored by the idea that God loved her. Reconciling the difficulty of the pain, trauma, and loss of her first years of life with her faith and adoption into God’s family became part of her life’s work. Denise lives this out today in her “part-time job in South Africa,” where she works as an RCA mission liaison to Setshabelo Family and Child Services. It is an organization that works to keep vulnerable children in their own homes and to place orphans into loving foster or adoptive families.
Denise’s mission — in both her work with Setshabelo and her daily work as a pastor — is to tear down the “indelible separation between those who are family and those who are not,” to be an agent of change, to lead the charge to fill in those gaps of incongruence she felt as a teenager between faith and practice. She challenges the church to step into the places they are called to attend to hurt, heal divisions, and love and care for each other as siblings in Christ.
A student of the word, Denise was a teenager who never complained about attending Sunday School, who devoured and memorized scripture, even when she couldn’t fully understand it. Pastor Denise attended Shaw University, one of the oldest historically Black colleges in the South, and another place that blurred for Denise the boundaries of families. At Shaw, a place built on giving people a chance, she met “other misfits,” who took each other in and modeled unconditional love.
After college, Denise moved to Michigan and worked as a social worker, fulfilling that early promise to take care of children like herself. Though she had no intentions of becoming a pastor, she felt moved to enroll in seminary to dig deeper into scripture, her understanding of Jesus, and make herself a better social worker. Tim Brown, then the president of Western Seminary, “twisted her arm” to join them, despite the fact that she had no prior affiliation with the Reformed Church, asking her “Come help us be different.”
Through her time in seminary, God revealed a new path, clearly calling Pastor Denise to “be a bridge.” Though she had few doubts about her call, Pastor Denise recalls the trepidation she felt when she first began preaching. “I’d pray the church would burn down, just anything to get me out of this,” she laughs, recounting the hours and hours she spent preparing for sermons. “My knees were knocking and my voice was weak, but when I got up there, God made it happen. Then I’d sit down and say, ‘I hope I never have to do that again.’”
When it comes to the question of women in ministry, she says the better question is not “can women do ministry,” but “Where’s the fruit? And does it look like and act like Jesus?” This question should be asked of anyone who claims to work in God’s name, regardless of gender or race. “Examine the fruit,” Denise says. “See if it has Jesus seeds in it.”
The generational impact of Denise’s twelve-year tenure at Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, a multi-ethnic, multicultural, and multi-generational congregation of the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America is clear, evidenced by a fourteen-year-old young woman who recently stood at a celebration of her ministry to attest to Pastor Denise’s impact on her. Denise smiles to remember her ministry and witness to that young girl’s mom when she was also a teen. Stories and examples of maturing fruit, and that fruit producing vibrant seeds that plant their own trees for God’s Kingdom, are evidence, Denise says, of the Spirit’s work through her, of how she is faithful to her call to be an agent and means of grace. And it speaks to God’s blessing of her ministry. “How could God do this if God didn’t approve?” she asks.
Though still indelibly connected and “clapping, honoring, and blessing” her family at Maple Avenue Ministries in Holland, after much prayer and discernment, Pastor Denise recently transitioned into a new position at Mars Hills Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan as a Mobilization & Renewal Pastor. Her new position lives into her long-term focus of bringing about sustainable change and fits well with her doctoral research that interrogates a system of apartheid in the American church in order to redirect outreach practices.
An adopted daughter, an agent of change, a student of the Word, a reconciler of the lost: Denise’s life — all of it, the hurt, pain, joy, and freedom — bears fruit and plants good seed. “If the Lord calls me, he wants me, not some other version of me. I must bring my whole self,” Denise says. “And if God calls, then who are we to argue? It’s simply our job to say, ‘Amen.’”