November 29, 2022

A collective of mostly Black women seeks to create a church that prioritizes their needs

By Cynthia R. Greenlee


Attendees of The Root Cause Collective’s service move dirt from barrow to garden bed as part of a land blessing at Elijah’s Farm.

Photos by Jade Wilson

The Root Cause Collective aims to provide a flexible space for those marginalized by mainstream churches.

It’s an overcast October day, but despite the autumnal pall and the chill in the air, a line of visitors files through a fenced-in plot of raised beds at Elijah’s Farm near Durham, North Carolina. One by one, they shovel dark, rich soil into the beds where a farmer will soon plant another season’s flowers and microgreens.

Just minutes earlier, the Rev. A.W. Shields had exhorted a crowd of about 40 people to make their hands instruments of growth and transformation.

“We don’t just talk about liberation,” she’d said. Instead, liberation is an embodied practice that requires doing collectively and individually. To the sound of West African drums, Shields reminded attendees that freedom means putting hands, back, mind and heart into the quest for a better world.

service at Elijah's Farm
Members of the Root Cause Collective gather for a healing justice event called Root Church.

Versions of that message recur throughout this gathering of The Root Church, an intentional community that Shields and partners have created. The “farm service” was only the second formal service for the church, which strives to provide a worship space for Black people, especially Black women, LGBTQ people, and those who want their faith to walk in step with their politics.

The Root Church is an outgrowth of Root Cause Collective, an organization composed of clergy, counselors, social workers, and health experts who offer physical, mental, and organizational health and wellness services.

How does your congregation embody its most important commitments?

Melanie Harris, a professor at Wake Forest University, performs a baby dedication ceremony.

The collective began after Shields and other women convened to study the story of Deborah, a military strategist, prophet and judge whose reach has long been debated because she likely did not have authority over the men of her time. Deborah’s story resonated with Shields and her collaborators, mostly high-achieving Black women who experienced loneliness and isolation in churches and professional settings.

Shields formed “trauma-informed spiritual support groups for Black women and queer folks impacted by gender-based, race-based and religious trauma.”

The groups found their time so meaningful that they wanted to continue in spiritual formation together which eventually led to the church gatherings like the one at Elijah’s Farm.

In Deborah’s story of power within patriarchal restraint, of fighting ceaselessly for her people but getting little credit for important victories, “we really read her as a Black woman,” Shields said.

The collective and the fledgling congregation are both volunteer run, and in addition to the congregation, the collective has founded a nonprofit wellness center which provides free to low cost mental health and wellness services

Who in your community is gathering those who are excluded, overlooked and marginalized? Who is trusted to do that holy work?

woman preaches to group
A singer leads at a healing justice event for the Root Church.

Shields, a graduate of Union Theological Seminary and Columbia’s divinity program, also has a master’s in social work. Before becoming executive director of the collective, she created one of the nation’s first denominationwide mental health programs at the National Benevolent Association, a ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

During her work in church organizations, she couldn’t help but see — and couldn’t “unsee” — the ways in which religious institutions have either actively harmed people, both inside and outside their congregations, or otherwise not lived up to their missions of spiritual and material care. Shields is a tried-and-true devotee (and former student) of the late James H. Cone, the Black liberation theologian who challenged white supremacist Christianity that justified slavery and segregation, criticized Black churches that depoliticized worship, and recognized Black Christianity’s radical potential.

In her career as a social worker, Shields understood that people damaged by churches that dehumanize queer people or expect women to fill the pews but not the pulpit might still seek relief in the church. They have been socialized to want or need a spiritual connection but may be wary about reentering a sanctuary.

So Root Cause Collective morphed into the barely year-old church, which might be best described as an experiment in exploring Black womanism, liberation theology and community building.

The vocabulary and structure of The Root Church defy the conventional. Attendees aren’t “members.” Services may be called “sacred moments.” Participants may read texts such as James Cone’s “Black Theology and Black Power”or Katie Cannon’s “Black Womanist Ethics.”

There is no denominational wing financing a capital campaign to build a brick-and-mortar presence, and rather than serving as a senior pastor from whom all direction flows, Shields pastors with a handful of “community chaplains,” all Black women.

According to Pew Research Center data collected in 2019 and 2020, 7 in 10 Black Christians in the U.S. say that combating sexism is key to their faith, and an overwhelming majority of Black Americans (85%) believe that women should be in senior leadership positions in churches. But only 28% of the Black congregants surveyed said they’d heard sermons opposing sexism from the pulpit in the last year.

And while almost two-thirds of Black Americans polled said that homosexuality should be accepted in society, a significant number of Black adults (51%) balked at their clergy officiating same-sex unions.

What Biblical passages resonate with your experience and empower you to act?

Drummers play traditional West African drums during the service.

That doesn’t make for a warm reception for those who identify as Black, queer and believers. And should Black worshippers attend predominantly white or multicultural churches, the disconnect may be different but still quite uncomfortable.

The Rev. Chalice Overy, one of the community chaplains who work with Shields, has seen the disconnection in real time. She began her ordination journey as a 17-year-old preaching in eastern North Carolina and has since occupied positions at both historically Black and predominantly white Baptist churches. During a previous stint at a Black church, she’d meet people and tell them where she pastored but hesitate to invite them to services.

“I didn’t think it was the safe place for them, because they were queer or somehow unorthodox in their beliefs. So I didn’t invite people, because I didn’t want them to have to lay down a part of their identity at the door,” she said.

But at the same time, she felt that Black queer Christians would feel out of place at progressive white churches as well.

“At a white church, Black members or would-be visitors would say, ‘Let me know when YOU preach, but the worship services are so white,’” she said.

“So in one place they might have to lay down part of their identity, their sexual orientation or their gender identity, or [in another place] they may have to lay down certain aspects of their culture,” Overy said. “For about four and a half years now, I’ve just been like, ‘Oh man, we need something else. We need something more.’”

The collective is now inching toward that “something more” by convening like-minded people for events such as the farm service. The Root Church has served about 100 people, linked through an email list and a web of personal connections. Shields had quietly attended a church where Overy pastored for about six months. Amber Burgin-Brothers, the creator of Elijah’s Farm, is also ordained and knew Shields through local divinity school circles.

As part of the October plein-air service, attendees gathered at Elijah’s Farm. Situated on former plantation land, the farm, a community agricultural ministry, is not far from Durham’s well-preserved Stagville state historic site — a once-sprawling antebellum plantation that housed more than 900 enslaved people.

Shields called the service a modern-day “hush harbor,” recalling the secret outdoor worship spots where enslaved people would assemble outside the fearful gaze of enslavers and define their own relationship to God.

For Overy, part and parcel of that project is making room for African-descended practices in the lives of worshippers and the theological canon.

“We have accepted the hermeneutic of a very small group of people, white men from Germany, primarily. And we’re saying that whiteness and oppressive models have convinced us that those are the only opinions that are valid when it comes to God. But I know God. My people knew God. My grandmother, my grandfather knew God. What did they have to say about who God was?”

Who in your community is silenced or excluded by conflicting commitments? Who notices and includes those who are left out?

families sit on a blanket during service
Amber Burgin-Brothers, creator of Elijah’s Farm, gives a testimony.

During the farm service, Burgin-Brothers gave her testimony of trying to ignore God’s call to become a farmer. She quipped, smiling, that there was never a call she didn’t try to ignore first. Knowing laughs reverberated around the yard, as children toddled under the watchful eyes of adults, toting mini-buckets of play tools. And a key component of the farm service was a blessing of children conducted by Wake Forest University professor Melanie Harris. An invitation to the blessing had been extended to all families, but particularly those whose families are often excluded from traditional church settings.

None of the invited queer families came to the blessing, but Shields took that in stride.

“I can’t promise that it’s a safe space,” she said, because safety is relative and she knows well the wounds that churches can leave. But she promised that “safer” is a goal of the utmost importance and that The Root Church, whatever it becomes, wants to listen and learn how not to duplicate the sins of the mainstream church.

How can you create “safer” conditions that invite people to test the welcome you offer?

Later, after participants were invited to roam the property and commune with the soil, a liturgical dancer sketched wide arcs with her legs and arms to the tune of Beyonce’s “Bigger,” whose chorus echoed The Root Church’s focus on growing together:

I’ll be the roots, you be the tree

Pass on the fruit that was given to me

Legacy, ah, we’re part of something way bigger.

Questions to consider

  • How does your congregation embody its most important commitments?
  • Who in your community is gathering those who are excluded, overlooked and marginalized? Who is trusted to do that holy work?
  • What Biblical passages resonate with your experience and empower you to act?
  • Who in your community is silenced or excluded by conflicting commitments? Who notices and includes those who are left out?
  • How can you create “safer” conditions that invite people to test the welcome you offer?

By Cynthia R. Greenlee


Cynthia Greenlee is a scholar and journalist who frequently writes about race, history and the U.S. South. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The New York Times, Oxford American, The Washington Post, Vox, Vice and Yes! Magazine, among other publications.

She won a 2020 James Beard Foundation Award for excellence in food writing, and she currently serves as senior editor for The Counter, a nonprofit newsroom that focuses on the business, politics and culture of food.

Greenlee holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a doctorate in history from Duke University.