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Helivete Bezerra: “the evangelical church will advance in the anti-racist struggle when it includes black women in the ministry”

 

As part of Black Women’s July – and for 25 July: International Afro-Latin American and Afro-Caribbean Women’s Day (in Portuguese) – ALC News interviewed CESE’s new President, Pastor Helivete Bezerra.

Helivete Bezerra is a graduate in Psychology from the University of Pernambuco (Universidade de Pernambuco, 2014) and in Theology from the Methodist University of São Paulo (Universidade Metodista de São Paulo, 2015). She is a member of the coordinating team of the Vozes Marias Collective, the Women in Life Group, the Centre for Bible Studies and the Bultrins Women’s Group.  She works in the Women’s Pastoral for the First Baptist Church of Bultrins.  She has experience in Psychology and works principally in the following areas: Feminist Theology, Gender, Violence Against Women and Public Policies for Women.

 1- What are the main obstacles and, therefore, challenges for black women in Brazil?  And are their other challenges as a black evangelical?

 

As a black Brazilian woman I understand that structural racism is one of the greatest epidemics that exists.  So, some of our greatest challenges lie in confronting and overcoming the consequences of racism, which is always associated with the patriarchy, sexism and classism.  These are forms of oppression that have a violent impact on the lives of black women, principally those from the peripheries and the impoverished who are at the bottom of the social pyramid, where there are few public policies to guarantee social justice for them or to strengthen the fight for gender equity.

As a black evangelical women, I know that we still have a long road ahead, that the racism in our society is reflected in the faith communities.  Few black women are pastors, deacons or seminarians.  There is a lack of representation in the churches, in history and in the Christian tradition, which often remains white, Eurocentric and heteronormative.

But I believe that some steps could be taken in our communities of faith, such as giving legitimacy to the words of black women in the evangelical sphere, enabling their leadership though religious ordination and the occupation of lay leadership posts.  Enabling the construction of a more inclusive theology and liturgy, incorporating elements from black culture without demonizing it, so as to value black identity.

2- What do you think should be the strategies to change this context?  In the social, political, educational and religious sphere.

Slavery was certainly a key factor in normalizing racism in Brazil.

Being women and black places us in constant and extreme fragility, for example in situations of loneliness, abandonment and permanent invisibility.  We are in constant movement to overcome obstacles. The right to work, for example, is an issue of survival and never an achievement, because we are treated as inferior; a black woman is constantly objectified and therefore opportunities almost never arise spontaneously.  Having to be strong the whole time is challenging, when there is a tendency to be demoralized wherever we tread.

Black women work mostly in informal labour and in precarious professional categories, such as caring for old people or as domestic workers, where women represent 93% of workers, while 70% are not in formal employment, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística: IBGE).

As Djamilia Ribeiro, the female black Brazilian writer says, self-questioning, understanding where you are and questioning what appears to be “natural” is the first step towards not reproducing this type of violence, which “privileges some and oppresses others”.

The black movement in Brazil won a victory when the Ministry of Health included the profile for race and colour in its analysis of the pandemic.  Data published on 10 April 2021 reveal that COVID-19 is more lethal for black and brown people, who accounted for 1 in every 3 deaths (34%).

In the educational arena, we need to restore public policies to combat racial inequality and promote diversity that are being destroyed by the current federal government.  There have been cuts to funds for educational programmes that combat the racism, chauvinism and sexism so profoundly embedded in our culture.

We could support and honour the research and development public policy institutes.

In the political sphere, we could support male and female candidates who defend inclusive, effective and transformative public policies.

In the religious sphere, in all known societies it is man who holds religious power.  He mediates between humans and gods. It is man who has the power to talk to and hear divine voices. That’s why we are surprised when we come across a woman occupying a central position of power in a religion.  Luckily, in Brazilian culture we can find women occupying arenas of power in the religious environment, both in the churches and in ecumenical institutions.  However, despite having advanced in terms of female representation on the evangelical scene, as black evangelical women we still have a long way to go.

I have heard that a black person is accepted in the evangelical community if, and only if, they abandon what it is that make them black. As an evangelical woman, I understand that we have to study the universal liturgy, which accepts all people without discrimination.  Some writers claim that there is less racism within the church than in society nowadays, but we cannot deny that there is a rejection of African cultural and religious heritage, which has led many of us to deny our racial identity in order to be a good Christian.

Recognizing myself as a black woman, I have to assert myself in arenas of power, such as in the Brazilian evangelical church, on a daily basis, as Lélia Gonzalez, the female black writer says, “becoming black is an achievement.”  Being a black woman, an evangelical pastor, an activist, divorced, yes, that is an achievement.  This is not just about me, but about a significant group of women. The evangelical church will advance in the anti-racist struggle when it includes black women in the ministry of services, seminars, congresses and assemblies.  Including the themes of chauvinism, misogyny, sexism, discrimination, prejudice and racism in these ministrations.  Adopting anti-racist and anti-misogynist education in the churches and raising these themes in the light of the Bible at Sunday school.

3- How do you see the general role of women in the evangelical church? As a pastor it’s assumed that “we are equal to men”, but we know that it’s not like that ecclesiastically…

By going beyond the gender roles that are explicitly delineated between the authority of the man and the submission of the woman, in explicitly or implicitly imposed rules in the church, there is an intention to shape women’s behaviour in all areas of their lives, beyond the spiritual.  Control that becomes self-control, in many ways this is also how this domination is imposed.

4- What reflections would you like to summarize for black women in religion?

Giving legitimacy to women’s speeches in the evangelical environment enables their leadership through religious ordination, producing their own theology, deconstructing the chauvinistic and racist thinking that still exists in the evangelical churches and incorporating elements from their black culture or talking about them without demonizing them, in order to value black identity.

From the Latin American and Caribbean Communications Agency (Agência Latino Americana e Caribenha de Comunicação: ALC)