There’s not a lot of literature out there to specifically address the spiritual lives of African American women. When I worked at Publishers Weekly we received tons of “women’s books”—devotionals, marriage guides, parenting manuals, you name it—but most of it seemed to assume a default white audience. So I was really interested recently to read Jacqueline Holness’s After the Altar Call: The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship with God, a collection of real-life stories of black women.
There’s a broad definition of “altar call” at work here—sometimes it’s overtly religious, like in the opening story of a woman who left the Jehovah’s Witnesses after being publicly shamed for sleeping with her boyfriend, and then finding Jesus at another church. Some of those interviewed are religious leaders, like Linda Lee, a pioneer African American female bishop in the United Methodist Church; and Vashti Murphy McKenzie, the first female bishop in the AME denomination. But just as often the stories are more human and relational, like a woman whose entire life course changed when she received an unexpected infertility diagnosis and had to decide whether to use every means available to conceive or surrender it all to God.
A number of the interviewees are involved in one way or another in the entertainment industry, including American Idol contestant Kinnik Sky (who gives some fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses of the show) and Sherri Shepherd of ABC’s talk show The View, who calls herself a Jesus freak. An altar call for her meant quitting a stable job as a legal secretary to step out in faith and go after her dreams.
There are other inspirational stories about women who were inspired to dream big, like Kiley Russell. She was part of the studio audience for a now-famous 2004 episode of Oprah in which every audience member won a car. Though it was tremendously exciting, she decided to sell the car and invest the proceeds in her start-up business, Big Girl Cosmetics. Now she balances her business with being a full-time mom, and finds that the Lupus symptoms that used to plague her when she worked long hours as a school administrator have receded.
There are some painful stories here, including a woman who’d been molested through childhood by her mother’s boyfriend, who would make her read Scripture beforehand (!). I appreciated the fact that the women interviewed here didn’t try to gloss over pain or harsh realities, but still found hope and faith in God.