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Interview with Brenda Tapia

Tapia, Brenda
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
Davidson, NC; Gender and religion; Women and ministry; Religion; Pastoral counseling; seminary; Parish ministry; Segregation; Religion; African Americans and religion.
The Reverend Brenda Tapia discusses the African American church on both a personal and a societal level. Tapia discusses her journey from aspirations in general counseling to her calling to the ministry. She credits the influence of religion in her childhood and specifically the biblical teachings of her grandfather as foundations for her spirituality. More generally, she discusses the strong influence of the church on the African American community and argues that it served as a touchstone for education, pride, social fulfillment, and mutual aid for blacks during the era of segregation. According to Tapia, the modern-day African American community has replaced this religious focus with a more secular one to its detriment. Tapia also addresses the role of women in the African American church. While she recognizes the strides that women like herself have made toward leadership positions, she maintains that the church is still patriarchal.
Interview Setting: 
Interviewed in Davidson, North Carolina
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
Collection Description: 
Interview Audio: 
VC (Vickie Crawford): What's today's date?
BT (Brenda Tapia): 15th.
VC: August the 15th. I'm here in Davidson, North Carolina. The interviewer is Vickie Crawford. I'm interviewing Reverend Brenda Tapia, T-A-P-I-A. She's the creator and director of the Love of Learning Program here at Davidson College. The program began in 1987. It's an innovative program that's designed to increase the number of African American students prepared to go to college. Reverend Tapia is also an ordained minister. What I'd like to do is begin by having you share a bit of your personal history, your early history that will give us some insight in terms in how you were led to the ministry. Just talk about growing up and--. You said you're from Davidson.
BT: You know, I, I grew up here in Davidson, and I don't think that ministry was something that I was consciously thinking about, although when I informed my parents that I was going to seminary when I was thirty-three, they were not as surprised as I thought they would have been. Because they said as a child, I often--. I was either playing church or school. And I was always the preacher if we were playing church or I was the teacher if we were playing school. So they really weren't surprised that I, I have chose to go into the ministry, but that was not something I was consciously aware of. In fact, when I went to college, my goal was to be a counselor, and I was blessed by God to be able to hold a lot of different counseling positions for the first ten years after I completed my undergraduate degree without a master's. I always managed to stumble into situations where there was a lot of support and an opportunity to learn in terms of counseling in terms of counseling, and I counseled in a lot of different areas and situations. And in fact, it was the counseling that led me to seminary, not so much a feeling of a call to ministry. After about ten years of counseling in a variety of different situations, I came to the realization that people don't suffer from psychological problems but from spiritual problems when there is a dis-ease in the soul. The body or the mind will take on a physical or psychological manifestation of that dis-ease. So, I realized that what I wanted was a spiritual basis for the counseling. I realized that when people don't know who they are and whose they are they can have all sorts of problems that may manifest physically and some type of physical disease or psychologically as some type of psychological disorder. And so I went to seminary looking for spiritual basis for counseling. In fact, it was my late uncle who suggested seminary because I was thinking at the time of going to Georgia State and getting a degree in religion and then getting a Ph.D. in clinical psych and going into private practice. But he suggested that if I really wanted a spiritual background, I needed to be immersed in a spiritual environment, and he felt seminary would give me that. So it was his suggestion that I go to seminary and that would--. He suggested ITC which had a Presbyterian seminary at Johnson C. Smith, and that's where I went. And it was not until my senior year in seminary that I started feeling like God was calling me to the ministry, to the parish ministry. I thought I was being called to a church, and I realized that, well, if I was going to be a parish minister, I have to deal with sick people and dying people. And I didn't like to be around sick people, and I thought I was afraid of, of, of death and dying people. So when I finished seminary, I decided to face my fears head on and since my area of concentration was pastorial counseling, I decided to do an internship in clinical pastorial education at Grady Hospital. So I went there for a year as a chaplain intern and got used to being around sick people and, in a very short time, found out that I was not afraid of dead people, but that what I was afraid of was dying, my own death, my own immortality and, you know, started dealing with that.
VC: Could talk a bit about your parents and your grandparents. You said your grandfather was so important in your life. Share with me a bit and what he taught about religion and the black church.
BT: Well, my grandfather was a teaching elder. He was not a minister in the, our church, which was a Presbyterian church, but he was a teaching elder. And he's the person that taught me about Jesus Christ and about God. I can remember being about two years old and him telling me the story of the birth of Jesus and teaching me my first Bible verse, John 3:16, "For God so loved the world." My grandfather thought two things were important. He felt that if you had a strong relationship with God and a sound education, no one could ever take your freedom for you, from you. That was, that was freedom to him because his mother was born in slavery and, just as slavery was ending. And so he lived in a very segregated and oppressed time just as I did growing up. Black people did not have the advantages and the opportunities that we have now then. And so he felt like what we could have that couldn't be taken from us was our education and our awareness of God, so that was very important to him. And he was always doing Bible study groups, and things with my family. And I remember as a young child, he would call us together and he would read scripture, and we would get into discussions. He would ask questions, and it would seem like the only person that understood him was me, although I had not yet started school. And I can remember it being frightening to my mother and to my aunts and uncles, my awareness and understanding of scriptural passages that they couldn't understand. In fact they, at family reunions they're always telling the story about how when I was three or four, definitely before I started reading, we used to--. Whenever there was a thunderstorm we would unplug everything, and everybody would come in one room and we'd sit quietly because we felt that, that when it was thundering and lightening, that was God talking and you needed to listen to what God was saying. And I had an aunt who was very, deathly afraid of thunder and lightening, and she was always jumping around and screaming whenever a crack of thunder would come. And they said that I got up and I went to the piano bench, and I took a hymn book out of the piano bench and I flipped through it like someone who could read. And I walked over to my aunt and said, "You need to read this." And the song that I was pointing to was "In the Time of Storm." A very perfect reading for her to calm her. And they were definitely amazed because I couldn't read, but yet I went to this particular hymn. And it was not one that we sung or anything or even one they said I had heard before. But that was what I handed her. So to me God has always been moving in my life and, and speaking in my life. And it was at a very early age I feel that I realized the importance of the church, because growing up in a segregated time, the black church was the center of our community. It was the source of everything. Whatever you needed. That was the welfare office. That was the educational center. That was the crisis assistance. Everything came out of the church. And it's something we need to get back to.
VC: Could you talk a little bit about role of women in church, as a minister. What's it like to be a woman?
BT: Well for me, I don't have any problems, and that's because I don't choose to be a parish minister. I feel that the ministry that I'm called to is a church without walls. I believe very strongly that the church is wherever two or more are gathered in, in, in God's name. And so if I were striving to be the pastor of First Presbyterian Church or Third Street Presbyterian Church as a woman, I think I'd probably have some difficultly because I find a lot of my female colleagues are not being able to get churches, pastorates in churches, being the main pastor or the senior pastor as easily as males are. It's interesting to me that women are definitely in the majority in our churches, yet the upper echelons of leadership in our churches are male. The church is still a very sexist organization, and it needs to be liberated because God created us all in, in God's image. And he created us all equal. But the church doesn't always function that way. Even though I think my denom--, particular denomination is much more enlightened than many others, we still have a long way to go. Women in my denomination still have a tendency to get small and dying churches. It's rare that you will see a woman being called to a First Presbyterian or to a large Presbyterian church. If anything, she'll be called as an associate but definitely not the senior pastor.
VC: Could you talk a little bit about roles of women in the church historically. What are some--? Like mothers of the church, and can you think of any church mothers that had an influence on you growing up?
BT: [Pause] Church mothers, no, because in our church, again, men were very much in the leadership. I think the person growing up that influenced me most was my grandfather and my uncle who was also a Presbyterian minister. I didn't really see women in the forefront. In fact, I think that may have a lot to do with why I don't have any interest in being a parish minister. I didn't see my first female minister until I was thirty-three, thirty-four years old when I attended Hillside Chapel and Truth Center in Atlanta and had the opportunity to meet and hear Dr. Barbara King. She was actually the first female minister that I had ever seen. And to not really see a woman in the pulpit in that role until I was well into adulthood, I feel has strongly had some affect on my even thinking about that as a role for myself. But I feel like the church has to be taken beyond the walls. And when you take the church beyond the walls, when you begin to help people realize that we are all called to the ministry, some ordained, some unordained, whether you're male or female really doesn't matter because everything that we do is a ministry and should be do to the glory of God. And that's where I get excited, that's the ministry I feel called to, is helping people to see God in all aspects of their lives, not just some narrow, pigeonhole of time, eleven to twelve on Sunday morning, but twenty-four hours a week, everyday of the week. There is no time or place where God is not, and that's the type of awareness that I want to bring to people. And I think it's interesting a woman has really contributed to my feeling that way about God. As I mentioned to you earlier, my spiritual mentor is a woman who is now working on her doctorate in pastorial counseling in California. She had a lot of influence in how I look at God and how I think about God. She was the one who helped me to realize that what prayer really was. That it's talking to God. It's not something formal where we always have to bend our knees and fold our hands and bow our heads, but that God is always with us, and we can talk to God just like we talk to one another. That was the whole significance of Jesus' death, that any barrier between us and God had been destroyed when that curtain tore in the temple. Anything between us and God has been destroyed, so we can go directly to God and talk with God. But to really experience a lot of women doing things in the church, I really didn't have that experience. And, I'm really happy to see that women are becoming more visible and more vocal in the church. I understand now that most of our seminaries are over half of the population is now female. Where when I went to seminary, when I started in 1981, there were only five women in my entire seminary. We had a student population of 300 and only about five of us were female. So I think women have a more important role now, but we still have a long way to go.
VC: Let me ask you this. What has, what has remained the same about black church historically? What has changed?
BT: What has remained the sa--, the same about the black church is it's importance to the black community. As African, African American people, we are God-centered people, and it's important that we come back to that awareness, come back to that realization that the church is the center of our community and that everything that we need is in our relationship with God. And so everything in our community needs to stem outward from that church. That was very evident in our lives, I think, before Dr. King died. But since then, I've felt like the black church sort of died with Dr. King on the balcony that day, because we've stopped seeing God as the source of our supply. We've stopped seeing God as the center of our life. We've come away from the basics. We're not teaching and living the values that our ancestors and fore parents lived, and you can see the difference in our community. We're going to everywhere but where we should go for the help and knowledge and wisdom that we need. We're going everywhere but to the source, which is God. So the sameness is that the church is still the most powerful, or should be the most powerful institution in our community. The change is somehow we've become so sophisticated, so miseducated that we've come away from that source of wisdom and strength, and we need to go back.
VC: OK. What do you think about when you hear the hymn "Amazing Grace?" Is that a favorite of yours?
BT: It's one of my favorites. "Blessed Assurance" is by all means my favorite. But "Amazing Grace," every time I hear that, I'm aware, I'm reminded of how all God's power can change our lives, can change circumstances. That things are not as they seem. It's sort like, people say trouble doesn't last always; tomorrow, you know, is a better day. When you have an awareness of God, when you have a relationship with God you realize how easily you, situations, things, places, other people, can be changed by the transforming grace of God. Things do not have to continue the way that they are. But that's what "Amazing Grace" does for me. It reminds me of the power of God, the enabling of God's holy spirit and the impact that it can have on our life and life situations.
VC: I want to get you to go back and talk about the role of the church when you grew up. We've been kind of skipping about and that's because we've talked for almost an hour before we started taping this interview. But talk a bit about that a moment.
BT: When, when I grew up--. I was born in 1949, so I grew up in the early 50s and everything was still segregated. I, I remember seeing "White Only" water fountains and "Colored" water fountains. I remember going to the doctor and sitting on the black side of the office and not being able to sit on the white side. I remember riding the back of the bus. During those times, the church was the source of everything for us. It was a social outlet. We didn't have--. We couldn't always go to parks and restaurants and other places of amusement, so the church was, was the source for everything. Not only did you go there for spiritual nourishment and, and knowledge and wisdom, but for picnics and, and Bible school and plays. Everything was done through the church. I remember it was, it was just everything. That's all I can think of. And it was very important. You would not think about getting up on Sunday morning and not going to church. The only way you wouldn't go to church was that you were deathly ill, because I can remember my mother making us go to church when we felt sick, but, you know, we weren't deathly ill, so you can go. And even if you were deathly ill it was a good place to go because the saints could pray for you, and you would feel better. But the, but the church was the one time the whole community came together. If there was some information that you needed to get out to the community, if you wanted to see someone, you knew you were going to see them at church. Everything just centered around the church. That's where--. Growing up for me in the church was--. That's where I learned public speaking. That's where I developed leadership skills. [Pause] That's where I became interested in playing the piano, singing in the choir. Everything just came out of the church. It was, the church was everything for us. When you were in trouble, you went to the church. When you, you were happy, you went to the church. Our whole life centered around the church. Wednesday night prayer meetings, revivals, the church was packed, not like today when you only see a few older people there and not many of the youth. Sunday school was important. I remember I started teaching Sunday school when I was twelve years old. And I think the reason I started Sunday school was that I was always very inquisitive. The Bible always fascinated me. And I used to ask questions, and the pastor couldn't answer them. So to keep from having to deal with my questions every week, he gave me a Sunday school class, so I started teaching the younger students. And then I started teaching Bible, Bible school. And I remember speeches. We don't do that anymore, and many of our children now days have problems speaking in public and articulating, but we learned that through Easter recitations and children's day recitations and Christmas programs and dramas. The church was just a source of everything for us because so much was, was cut off from us because of the way society was segregated. It's funny, in many ways that was the worst of times but in other ways, it was also the best of times. And it was because of the church. Because it was the church where people who had no dignity or were not allowed dignity through the week were able to experience that on Sunday. Monday through Saturday you were Mr. So-and-so's maid or Mr., Mr. Somebody's janitor or something, but on Sunday morning you were deacon or elder, you know. And it was just, was different. People stood erect, and they wore their best clothes and they actually radiated. And you could see some of the same people during the week, and they would look sort of down and drabby. But on Sunday morning, it was a whole different thing. And we somehow lost that.
VC: Do you remember your baptism? Being baptized?
BT: Well see, I'm Presbyterian.
VC: Uh-huh.
BT: And we believe in infant baptism, so I was baptized as a child. I remember joining the church, which I did at the age of twelve. It was during revival, and I can't remember what the sermon was but I remember this irresistible pull to get up and walk down the aisle and to give my life to Christ. And I remember something that people always said, whenever you, you try to get closer to God, the devil seems to be right on you. No sooner than I had gotten back to my seat from giving my life to Christ, I remember some, some of the other teenagers around me saying some things that made me angry and, and my going off on them and thinking, oh, I shouldn't do that because I'm a Christian now, you know. But, you know, we did--, we didn't have the dunking baptism at that point.
VC: Um-hum. Um-hum.
BT: We were christened as children.
VC: Um-hum.