The Rev. Danielle Rogers, a young clergy woman, serves St. Paul Community A.M.E. Church in Bozeman, Montana as the associate pastor. But there's a couple of twists. First: her life and ministry in this town have been filled with work against hatred and racism. Second: her senior pastor, the Rev. Denise Rogers, also happens to be her mother.
We hear from this amazing mother-daughter duo in an interview about life, following God's call, and what it's like to be on the front lines against hate.
Right: Rev. Danielle Rogers giving communion after her ordination in 2006
Fidelia's Sisters: How did you come to minister in Bozeman? What path brought you here?
Danielle: My call to ministry came as a complete surprise. I graduated from American University in 2000, with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and a minor in religious studies. I remember feeling uncertain and anxious about my future, and I hadn’t decided on a career. In essence, I was stuck. Later that year, my mother Rev. Denise Rogers felt called to begin a church. Being a preacher’s daughter, I often engaged in ministerial duties without realizing I was doing Godly work, so when my mother said the Lord was calling, I knew I had to stay in Montana and help her get started. A few years later I began the road towards ordination, something I never considered. I didn’t know if I was qualified enough, or religious enough, or nice enough to be a leader in ministry. Finally I let the Lord lead the way, and the Lord’s way was leading me to seminary and ordination.
Denise: I came to Montana to take a position as a United Methodist Campus minister at Montana State University. Pastor Danielle was fifteen at the time. I was the first African American in the Methodist Yellowstone Conference and the first clergy woman in Bozeman. It was 1992. We moved here directly from Princeton Seminary where I received my M.Div. degree. Pastor Danielle has always supported my choice to follow God. It was she that suggested I apply to Princeton when she was twelve.
FS: You both have spoken out against hate in your community. What in your personal life story brought you to do this? How did God call you to this work?
Danielle: Activism is something that is inherited and learned from one person to another. As a child born and raised in New York City, I was introduced to many types of people; I didn’t hold preconceived opinions based on race, gender or sexual orientation. In the early 1980s I attended a church who taught and encouraged activism as a central part of its ministry. I remember trick or treating with my orange Unicef box, collecting coins for children in developing countries. When I was seven, our church fostered a young poor boy by sending monthly tithings and encouraging letters. I felt extreme pride in my “foster” brother and told people about the letters my church school wrote.
When my mother received a call to teach at Montana State University as a campus pastor, I was faced with a type of extreme racism I hardly knew still existed. Bozeman, Montana is a lovely college town surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains. The majority of our community is White. In the early 1990s, white supremacist hate groups targeted states in the Pacific Northwest as recruiting opportunities. Our small town was one of them. My mother held a rally, calling all of our community to come to a peaceful rally and declare our town as a safe “Hate Free” place to live. The rally was a success and these hateful groups tried planting their insidious ideas into other parts of the state.
Last year a Korean restaurant owner had a hate flyer left on her car, and her restaurant was painted with racist slurs. My mother and I responded again with a rally declaring our town as a peaceful “Hate Free” place to live. As a clergy person, we are called to activism by our faith. We faith leaders must hold the reins when injustice is present. Another white supremacist group came to our town in 2009. Our community responded with 2000 people saying no to hatred and racism.
Denise: I was born in 1952 during a time of segregation. I also dealt with racial riots as a child in Cleveland, Ohio. I saw how hate divided communities. When we moved to Montana, white supremacist groups had come to Montana. They saw Montana and the Pacific Northwest as part of the “Promised Land.” They threatened people of color with death. As Christians, our only response is love as is commanded by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Pastor Danielle and I started the Montana Hate Free Zone to educate the community about the KKK and the principles of Christ and Dr. Martin Luther King. God called me to this work by sending me to Montana. Pastor Danielle and I are from New York City—we never thought we would be doing rural ministry.
Above: Rev. Denise addresses the crowd at a rally for the Montana Hate Free Zone.
FS: Did you ever doubt your ability to do such powerful and dangerous work?
Danielle: Doing the Lord’s work isn’t always safe and there are times when I have been afraid, but fear can sometimes be turned into activism. The stories in the Bible are written about people facing dangerous situations, and most were afraid. Our humanity makes us fearful, but the Lord can turn that fear and make us braver than ever imagined.
Denise: I doubted my ability, but NEVER God’s ability to protect us and to guide us. We did receive death threats, but we knew God would be our shield.
FS: I understand you have co-founded a number of community groups and projects to fight hate in your community. Can you tell us about those briefly? How has the community responded to your mission?
Danielle: One of the areas my mother and I try to develop are community programs focused on people’s similarities rather than differences. By learning and hearing each other’s stories, we can find common ground based on our shared humanity. Every day we all face the same dilemmas, raising children, overcoming sickness, paying bills, etc. The majority of people want to provide a good home for themselves and family, eat three meals a day, and provide a good education for their children. When we strip down our own barriers, we become receptive to our commonalities. This is how we start a discussion about racism and prejudice.
Denise: We founded the Montana Hate Free Zone and the Tapestry Project. The goal of the Hate Free Project is to be a voice that can tell the truth in light of White Supremacist groups that propagate lies regarding people of color. The Tapestry encourages individuals to share family histories to show that humanity has so much in common that we can build upon. Our community has been very supportive and enthusiastic.
FS: I also understand you co-founded the church you serve, St. Paul Community AME Church. How did you come to name it after St. Paul? Could you briefly describe your congregation for our readers?
Denise: The Church is named after Paul the Apostle, the greatest evangelist the world has ever known. Paul’s transformation by God is a reminder that God can also transform us! Paul was tireless in wanting to spread the Gospel message. Our hope is that we too will have the spirit of Paul and reach around the world to tell others the transforming power of God. We have a small rural congregation and an international ministry called SMALL AND RURAL CHURCHES UNITED. We provide support and resources to small and rural churches worldwide through our website.
FS: So many Christians and churchgoers would admire what you do, while at the same time believing they could never do the same powerful work of speaking out publicly against hate and prejudice and racism. What would you say to them?
Danielle: Being a Christian requires us to be active in social justice issues; the principles of Christianity include helping others less fortunate and being a voice for the oppressed. Many Christians believe they should be passive—but following Jesus’ teachings means being active to the needs of the community you live in. In our community, racism became a real threat, something needed to be done, and the Lord will call his children to lead the troops to his glory.
Denise: Sometimes we are put into positions where we have to make a choice, speak up, or stay silent and become a victim. Pastor Danielle and I are not extraordinary. We just have an extraordinary God, Savior and Holy Spirit. God is faithful and he says he will protect the righteous. We stand on our faith!
FS: While there have certainly been father-son duos in ministry before (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself was part of such a duo), our readers don't often hear about mother-daughter ministry teams. Can you share a little bit about how the dynamic of being mother and daughter influences your work?
Danielle: When my mother told me God was calling her to ministry, I said “God called you, he didn’t call me.” I was ten years old. I always say the Lord has a sense of humor! Being in ministry with my Mother is wonderful. She is a smart, talented theologian, and I learn so much from her. Each week we host a Bible study at my Mother’s apartment. I have on occasion called her “mom” during our lessons which can be embarrassing. Like any relationship, communication with one another is crucial; our ministry is special and it stems from our love of God and one another.
Denise: Pastor Danielle and I are very close! I have been a single mom her entire life. She grew up in the church. We have a great sense of humor. Pastor Danielle is fearless and it is contagious. Coming to Montana from New York City was crazy! But we love it here. My favorite story is about starting the first MLK celebration in our town in 1993. We planned it together. Today others in the community have taken the lead.
FS: Danielle, as a young clergy woman, do you ever feel isolated in your ministry setting? What issues do you face that you would say are unique to your role as a young clergy woman doing the type of work you do? How do you deal with them?
Danielle: I thank all the many women who paved the road for me to lead a faith community. It is important to recognize and honor our “sisters” who helped open a road once barricaded from all sides. I have been blessed with the opportunity to meet and work with a lot of clergy women. It is important to find a faith mentor to share concerns and ask questions.
The majority of clergy women I’ve met find dating very challenging. It is hard enough finding a mate that shares the same spiritual faith as you; add a clergy title and the number begins to dwindle significantly. As a clergy woman, I am always trying to maintain an equal balance of professionalism and sincerity. When a woman is at the pulpit, we are representing God, and womanhood. Things like hem lengths on skirts, crossing your legs a certain way, and holding an extra sense of decorum when talking with your male parishioners are all concerns that cross my mind. This is something our male colleagues do not worry about.
It is important to please the Lord first, but ask other clergy women how they face certain issues. Gender equality in the work force is still not present, and it will take a much longer time before we reach equality between the sexes on the pulpit.
FS: Denise, what did you think when Danielle expressed a call to ordained ministry? Do you also feel isolated sometimes in your call? How do you deal with that?
Denise: To be honest, I was surprised. I had no idea. Pastor Danielle had a degree in journalism and I thought journalism would be her path. I am so happy she answered her call. We need more clergywomen under thirty-five and we need more young clergy women mentors. Sometimes I do feel isolated. But the Bible, prayer and my daughter strengthen me.
FS: What spiritual practices undergird your ministry and give you the strength to do the things you do? From where do you draw your inspiration?
Danielle: My strength comes from prayer, reading the Bible, and congregating with other believers. It is so important to be spiritually refueled during the week. I would suggest attending a Bible study led by another faith leader in your community.
Denise: Prayer, and the knowledge that God loves me and called me by name to serve him, give me the strength every day to minister. I am disabled with a spinal cord injury in a wheelchair with a service dog. I can honestly say it is not me that does these things but God.
FS: Some are saying that the recent shooting in Tucson, Arizona was motivated by a rhetoric of hate. What are your thoughts on this event and what may have been behind it?
Danielle: What happened in Tucson was a devastating crime, led by one man who is said to follow a specific political agenda. I do not know what motivates a person to commit acts of violence on innocent people, but I believe this individual was mentally ill. Certain political ideas can provide a motive for one individual to act in aggression, but the person who acts in violence does so because of other factors. Having a certain political opinion doesn’t lead everyday people to widespread violence.
Denise: I think the events in Tucson were motivated by mental illness, not hate. The issue of mental illness is a topic that society shuns. We as Christians should be advocating for more mental health facilities and be supportive of families dealing with this disease.
FS: What do you plan to do to celebrate Martin Luther King Day this year?
Danielle: This year I celebrated the day quietly. Usually my Mother and I plan a community celebration, but this year she was being discharged from the hospital. I celebrated the day praising the Lord for his goodness, and spent time with my Mother.
FS: How would you encourage readers to combat hate in their own settings?
Danielle: I encourage people to strengthen their moral compass by reading the Bible and engaging in a weekly Bible study. When a person is spiritually fed, they are able to listen to the Lord. God will call his children to action when it is needed.
Denise: We can combat hate spiritually. Jesus did! Prayer is powerful, as is love. Organize your communities in “hate free zones.” Contact me for more info at [email protected].
FS: In a nutshell, what are your hopes for the world?
Danielle: I hope for peace, spiritual prosperity and compassion.
Denise: My hope for the future is summed up in Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech. To all the wonderful clergywomen reading this article, do not give up! God set you apart and he will provide everything you need. If God is for you, who can be against you? I am so proud of all of you.
FS: Thank you, Rev. Danielle and Rev. Denise, for sharing your stories with us. Rev. Denise, we at Fidelia's Sisters wish you a speedy recovery and return to health. May God continue to bless your ministry together.