God began calling me to preach in late 2002 when I was 26 years old. In October 2004, As a layperson, I preached my first sermon, "I'm Every Woman" based on Luke 10:38-42 for Women's Day at the Bethesda Baptist Church of New Rochelle, NY. I was quite comfortable in my career as an arts educator and diversity practitioner, so I ran from my call to preach. Plus, as fairly quiet woman and introvert, I could not imagine being a preacher. And then in late February 2007, I could not imagine myself not being a preacher and I surrendered myself to God's call to preach the Gospel. I preached my initial sermon on June 8, 2008 after completing my first year at the Theological School at Drew University. In Seminary I took the required Introduction to Preaching class with Dr. Gary V. Simpson and went on to take his Advanced Preaching Class: Preaching a Matter of Death and Life, focused on funeral sermons. In seminary I won preaching awards. After seminary, I served as a teaching assistant for Dr. Simpson's Introduction to Preaching Class for two semesters. I love preaching. I love hearing good preaching.
Even though I love preaching, it took me some time to get acquainted with and come to appreciate my preaching voice. Voice matters in preaching. In "African American Preaching Perspectives" in The New Interpreter's Handbook of Preaching, Dr. Cleophas J. LaRue writes of the viva-vox (living voice) which brings the written manuscript to life. He notes that the completed manuscript is an "arrested performance" only completed through the oral performance of the preacher. Reared in an African-American Baptist Church with strong preachers, you would think I would have a whoop. You would think I would mimic the style of those I grew up hearing. You would think I would appropriate the cadence and sing-song delivery of my favorite preachers, those I’ve witnessed in the flesh like Rev. Dr. Allen Paul Weaver and Rev. Tracy L. Brown and those I’ve watched on social media like Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale and Rev. Dr. Otis Moss, Jr.
But I don’t.
As Gary Simpson—my preaching professor and mentor from seminary—used to say, “Donna, you’re not the most excitable preacher.” This was not a critique as much as it was an invitation to know my voice and to preach into it, rather than preach against it. To be sure, I get excited during preaching; On Palm Sunday on 2012, eight months full with child, Dr. Weaver thought I was going to deliver Big Girl in the pulpit after jumping so much during my preaching. But for the most part, mine is a rhythmic, but quiet, excitement. It is clear that I love Jesus and I find the word exhilarating and live giving, but the evidence of my excitement is not in song and dance. I remember once, after a pulpit supply engagement, being told how soothing my voice and preaching was--this was after preaching (what I thought was) a particularly convicting message. The responder shared that she felt convicted in a loving way rather than beat over the head.
If viva-vox matters, then authentic viva-vox is necessary and vital. Too many preachers mimic the style of others to the demise of their own voice. If God in God's infinite wisdom call me--Donna Olivia Owusu-Ansah--then God intended for me to preach like me in style, delivery, and voice. Sure, we can be inspired by others and learn by those who are proficient in their preaching, but to parrot another preacher dishonors and does no justice to the the call of God on their life.
All that said, I found my preaching voice. I located my living voice, viva-vox.
And then I became a mother. Let me clarify—I became a stay at home mother. As the Assistant to the Pastor at Bethesda Baptist Church of New Rochelle, NY I preached monthly, sometimes more. I had opportunity and space to hone my craft--both in sermon preparation and delivery--with a people that loved God and loved me. But I found myself home knee deep in motherhood with an infant, not preparing messages and not delivering much more than Please, Baby, Please and Good Night, Moon. (As a side note, being a stay at home mom provided some of my richest experiential learning in practical theology and pastoral care!) From monthly preaching to not preaching at all, I lost my preaching voice.
The sad part is, I didn't know it. Until 2013 at Concord...
I can recall Dr. Simpson inviting me to preach a night of the Holy Week Revival at the historic Concord Baptist Church of Christ in March 2013. I spare you the details, but it wasn't my finest preaching. I knew it. He knew it. I have to imagine the people knew it. And I'm sure God knew it. Because Dr. Simpson mentored me and knew the gifts that God placed within me, he invited me back to Concord the following year for the same occasion. This time around Big Girl was almost two and I was almost six months pregnant with Baby Girl. This time I around, not only did I not deliver my best sermon, but I stunk up the joint. In a gentle way, Dr. Simpson encouraged me. Without telling me that I bombed and that he was going to have to do damage control on Sunday, he shared that every preacher has moments when they swing and miss. The good news for Pastors is that they have an opportunity at bat the following week and the week after and the week after with the people that God has entrusted to their care.
It was after that experience that I realized I lost my preaching voice. Viva vox amissa. I cannot say that I actively did anything to remedy it at the time, besides prayer. Years have passed, it is now over five years later, and I am grateful to God that my preaching voice has been recovered. It has come back through prayer, but also my partnership with the God that I preach of: I have been more intentional about my study of the Holy Scripture, where ultimate knowledge of God arises; I have been reading widely, from self-help and theology to fiction and autobiography; I have been writing daily; I have been engaging in theological reflection personally and with colleagues in the Gospel. and I have been actively writing sermons, even when I do not have a preaching engagement on the calendar.
And in relocating my authentic preaching voice--viva vox--the voice that I once struggled to accept, I have grown more confident as a proclaimer of the Good News of Jesus Christ--even delivering challenging messages that motivate God's people to move from comfort and complacency to challenging the status quo and being agents of God's compassion here on earth.
Dear Readers, are there any areas in your life where you struggled to live authentically into the gifts that God has placed within you? If so, how did you overcome outside pressure or internal insecurities to be who God called and created you to be?