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Prathia Hall

A Lifetime of Speaking Out

hen Prathia Hall (’82B, ’84M, ’97D) was a little girl, not tall enough to look over the top of the lectern in Mount Sharon Baptist Church in north Philadelphia, adults in the congregation lifted her up to stand on a chair or table so that she could read Scripture during the Sunday services. She was encouraged early on to make full use of one of the talents that God blessed her with—her speaking voice.

How surprised and delighted the members of that small congregation (some of whom probably remember her as a youth) were when, last year, Hall was named the top African American woman preacher by Ebony magazine!

While Hall is honored to have been affirmed by her peers, she is hesitant to claim the distinction. "Ebony obviously hasn’t heard of all the African American women preachers," she says. "And even if they had, the way that I preach one day may be very different from the way I preach the next."

It is not only Ebony magazine that has acknowledged Hall’s abilities, however. As a student at Princeton Seminary, she was validated by W. J. Beeners, the Carl and Helen Egner Professor of Speech Emeritus, who said of her talent, "I didn’t do it! She was good before I got her!"

In fact, Hall, who identifies with the story of the prophet Jeremiah, believes that she was called before she was born.

"God said to Jeremiah, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’

"Like Jeremiah, I have always had a sense that my life wasn’t mine to simply do with as I please," Hall says. "My earliest memories have some spiritual character. I have always been aware of God’s presence in my life, and I knew that would have something to do with how I would live my life."

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"My parents trained us in elocution. They stressed that gifts take work. They put a great deal of effort into making sure that we spoke well."

Hall grew up in and was nurtured by the African American church.

"A wonderful part of the African American church tradition has been the way in which it has nurtured children and put children at the center," she says. "The church helped build young people up to be strong in the face of racism. It was a wonderful place for growing."

She was also encouraged and supported by her parents, both of whom were very involved in the education of Hall, her sisters, Theresa (now a health physicist in Pennsylvania) and Betty, and her brother, Berkley. "They sent us to schools outside our neighborhood, into the wider society. We went to a music school for piano and voice. I remember the woman who ran the school was married to a plumber, and she would pack a dozen children into his plumbing truck and take us to Rittenhouse Square [in center city Philadelphia] to the Society for Ethical Culture to attend concerts and sometimes to perform."

Early on, both her parents and Hall were aware of her being blessed with the ability to speak well. "My parents trained us in elocution. They stressed that gifts take work. They put a great deal of effort into making sure that we spoke well."

As Hall matured, she became active in debate. In high school, she was president of the debating society. She also participated in many oratorical contests, sponsored primarily by the Elks and the Masons, and won scholarships that helped finance her college education at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Then, in the 1960s, she began to use her voice to speak out against racism. In 1961, during the time of the Freedom Rides, Hall joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and, with other college students from Delaware and Maryland, participated in freedom rides along the Eastern shore.

"I had my first experience of being arrested in Maryland," she recalls. "That was just the beginning of a much more active role in college."

Hall then went south to work with SNCC in Georgia and then in Alabama, also becoming an itinerant speaker for the movement.

Today, Hall is dean of African American ministries and lecturer in Christian ethics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, where she has been since 1989. (Hall first served at United as associate dean for community and spiritual life and director of the Harriet L. Miller Women’s Center.)

"I love what I do," she says. "I love teaching and being involved with the next generation of church leaders."

But her itinerant days are not over! She travels and lectures throughout the country on womanist (Black female liberationist) issues. In the month of April 1998 alone, she traveled to Connecticut, Illinois, Massachusetts, and the Bahamas to speak.

"My students say that I am the real itinerant," she laughs. "They say that the Methodists have a lot to learn about being itinerant from Prathia Hall."

Still, there is a part of Hall that yearns for the time to walk by the ocean or in the lovely Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where her mother grew up. She looks forward to the day when she will have time to catch up on her reading. (She is especially interested in the Black women’s literary tradition and authors like Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou.) She anticipates immersing herself in recordings of jazz, classical, and gospel music.

In the meanwhile, she is busy. Busy preaching. Busy teaching. Busy at Mount Sharon Baptist Church where she is a member of the team for ministry. There she works especially with the children.

"I bring them to the altar and pray for them by name," she says. "I minister to them personally, looking into their faces and eyes and with the laying on of hands. I try to give them the message ‘you are our hope for the future.’ To let them know that they are special. To give back to them what the church gave to me." z


Prayer and Presence

Kathy Crane Practices the Attentive Life

S.gif (1363 bytes)pirituality is an awareness of God’s presence in our lives, and ministry is the way we live out that awareness. Ministry is more than what we do in church," says Kathy Crane, who earned her Master of Arts degree in Christian education at the Seminary in 1982.

"It is more about being than doing," she continues, "recognizing that God acts in and through us."

Crane has devoted decades of her life to helping individuals and congregations develop, or renew, their relationship with God. "We need to be connected to God in order to know what we are called to do and how we are called to help others."

Her interest in spiritual renewal deepened in 1980 when she represented New Brunswick Presbytery at the moderator’s prayer retreat held at Princeton Seminary and led by the Reverend Dr. Howard Rice, who was moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that year. It was during one of the three week-long retreats organized by Rice that Crane had what she now understands to be a defining moment in her own renewal.

"For a week, we spent seventeen of twenty-four hours a day in silence," she recalls. "That had a profound effect on me. I rediscovered the life of the Spirit."

crane.jpg (12853 bytes)Since that experience, Crane has both explored her own ministry and helped others, particularly the laity, to discover their sense of call. In 1993, she was the director of a conference on the ministry of the laity held at the PCUSA’s Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina; in 1992, she taught a weeklong course for the Seminary’s Institute of Theology titled "Ministry of the Laity: Revitalizing the Church." She has taught workshops, given lectures, and led retreats on the topics of prayer and evangelism, spiritual renewal, preparing for ministry in the twenty-first century, and the ministry of the laity. And she has loved every minute of it.

"It is important to help people connect their faith with their life," she says.

Many times that connection and the subsequent discernment of God’s will is rooted in pain, or what Crane calls "burning bush experiences." In her workshops and retreats, she encourages participants to examine their own deep pain or need because, as she says, that is where God frequently calls us to our ministry.

"Through our own healing, we help others," Crane observes and offers several examples. "Thomas Edison was afraid of the dark. Alexander Graham Bell’s mother and wife were both deaf. On a more anonymous level, one of the women who participated in my workshops identified her affinity for sixteen-year-olds, and then recalled that her own father had died when she was sixteen."

If pain enables spiritual growth, what impedes individual and collective renewal? Crane identifies two dominant issues. First is the human tendency toward busy-ness, which is rooted either in the desire to be in control or in the (misguided) belief that "whoever has the most toys (degrees, money, cars, awards, etc.) wins." Lives grounded in activity and acquisition have little space left for God.

A second obstacle to spiritual renewal is lack of awareness. "We don’t realize what we are missing when we live our lives apart from God," says Crane.

When Crane leads a workshop or retreat on spiritual renewal, she emphasizes the personal nature of the experience, rather than the institutional one—even when she is working with an entire congregation. She reminds participants that, first and foremost, renewal comes from God. "It is not something we can do or make happen," she says, "but we can focus on some experiences and practices that make us available for the Holy Spirit to work in our lives."

Among those practices that she sees as central to renewal are living in the present, because that is where we meet God, and paying attention to interruptions. "The Bible is full of stories of people whose lives were interrupted by God…. When we read through the New Testament, much of Jesus’ ministry was ‘on the way.’ He was willing to be interrupted."

Crane also suggests reading and being read by Scripture, a practice known as lectio divina. "I view Scripture as a mirror and let it reflect back its meaning to me," she says.As a note of encouragement to those engaged in spiritual renewal, she says, "The more you practice, the more you want to be quiet, to turn off the music, and to listen for God within. Practice increases both our hunger and our desire."

This concept of daily practice was introduced to Crane when she was at seminary by then-president McCord during one of his Monday morning chapel teachings. She recalls his words: "He said, ‘Remember to pray every day. It will be the most important thing you will do.’ "

McCord was just one of the many memorable teachers whom she encountered at Princeton. Years later she still recalls Bruce Metzger’s course on the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). She feels indebted to Bernhard Anderson "who taught [her] to love the Old Testament." She speaks of Freda Gardner as "a model teacher who gave me excellent ideas on how to teach." Gardner, whom she knew before coming to seminary, remains a good friend.

After graduating from Princeton, Crane became the director of Christian education at Crescent Avenue Presbyterian Church in Plainfield, New Jersey (a position that Freda Gardner held before coming to Princeton). From 1985 to 1988 she served at the First Presbyterian Church in Cranbury (also in New Jersey) before she was called to a pioneering position in the denomination as coordinator of lay ministry at the First Presbyterian Church in Ithaca, New York. (Gardner preached at her installation in Ithaca in 1988.)

"I felt that this was a real call, and I wondered how to develop the position," Crane recalls. "I prayed and read a lot of books by Elizabeth O’Connor [the author of Journey Inward, Journey Outward and Cry Pain, Cry Hope, among other texts]. I was convinced that I needed to develop ministry of the laity based on renewal, and I implemented programs that turned the congregation around 180 degrees in its understanding of what ministry is all about.

"Most of us have grown up hearing that ‘ministry’ means ‘the clergy.’ But the word laity comes from laos, which means ‘all the people of God,’ and ministry belongs to all the followers of Christ," Crane says.

She challenged members of the congregation to become actively engaged in praying for all of the ministries within the church. In order to acquaint members of the congregation with the diversity of ministries, she developed a series called "Ministry in…" that sought to link work and faith. During the series, which ran for three-and-a-half years, participants discussed ministry in a diversity of careers including law and government, health care, office work, education, homemaking, and business."We need to serve God in the world, not just in the church. We need to live out our relationship with God by serving people wherever we are," Crane says.

In 1991, Crane left Ithaca, but her commitment to the topic of spiritual renewal has not wavered. That same year she became active in the Coalition for Ministry and Daily Life, an international (mostly North American), ecumenical organization composed of educators, pastors, lay people, writers, publishers, and more, both Catholic and Protestant, who are advocates for the professional ministry of laity.

Crane is currently teaching, writing, and leading retreats. She is also maintaining her own renewal by participating in the group leaders program at the Shalem Institute of Spiritual Formation in Bethesda, Maryland. There she practices the contemplative tradition—praying, reading Scripture, and practicing centering prayer.

"When I was a little girl," Crane remarks, "I felt called to live a life that fulfilled God’s purposes."

In reflecting on her life today, Crane expresses deep gratitude for the opportunities that she has had to grow deeper in her faith and to teach and lead others in their spiritual development. She carries with her an awareness of God’s presence and blessing in her life.


Copyright 1998 Princeton Theological Seminary
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