At the corner of 116th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, there sits what looks like a palace from the Italian Renaissance, complete with a loggia on its upper level and a ground-floor arcade. Originally one of the city’s glamorous early movie theaters, it is now home to the First Corinthian Baptist Church, which 10 years ago had just 300 members. Today there are 9,000, and the church has become both a spiritual and political force in New York, at the forefront of such issues as the minimum wage, education equality and racial justice. Its growth is no doubt due to the inclusiveness of its mission statement, which reads, in part, “commanded by God to love beyond the limits of our prejudices and commissioned by God to serve.”
But credit is also due to Rev. LaKeesha Walrond, who leads the church with her husband Rev. Michael Walrond Jr. For Rev. LaKeesha Walrond in particular, the journey to becoming a minister was a long one, both spiritually and otherwise.
It began more than 30 years ago in Texas City, on the day the teen’s choir at Greater Barbours Chapel Baptist Church got a new music director. As soon as the director heard Walrond sing, he told the 12-year-old to move to the soprano section on the other side of the choir stand, a spot most easily reached via a shortcut across the pulpit. Walrond had taken just a few steps, however, when she was stopped by outraged church elders. She had trespassed into a sacred space from which women and girls were forbidden.
“I was just frozen in the middle of the pulpit,” she remembers. “I didn’t know whether to hurry up and keep walking or go back.” Her takeaway? “God does not call women to preach. That’s what I believed,” Walrond says.
Fast-forward a few years to her freshman year at Spelman College in Atlanta, and Rev. Dr. Flora Wilson Bridges’s Women in the Bible course. “Her sensibility was that women didn’t lead, period,” says Bridges, who remembers her former student vividly.
Walrond recalls the class as agonizing, in part because of Bridges’s pedagogical methods, which included screaming at any student who said something Bridges considered misogynistic. “It takes a lot to uproot that stuff out of women’s heads, and out of men’s heads,” says Bridges.
But the class caused a spiritual crisis in Walrond, who began questioning everything the church in Texas City had taught her, the church that had made her into who she was, that taught her how to cross her legs at the ankles, to recite Psalm 23, to politely greet strangers. Greater Barbours had been right about most things, but not all.
When Bridges was invited to preach from the pulpit of Morehouse College’s King Chapel, Walrond went too, and was soon reduced to tears. “They lied to me,” she remembers thinking. “This woman is preaching and she was anointed.”
Just as Walrond’s beliefs started to shift, she became pregnant, at which point her church back home, which had partially funded her schooling, revoked her scholarship. But a year after giving birth to her son, Walrond was back at Spelman, and a few years later gave her first sermon. At age 25, she delivered the first sermon ever by a woman at her husband’s church in Durham, North Carolina, offending some of the deacons. “They would wait until I started talking and then they would walk out,” Walrond says. Other members followed their lead, but some stayed. “I kept on preaching and God was faithful.”
It will not surprise you to hear that the vestibule at First Corinthian bids its visitors WELCOME in several different languages. “We’ve always been this church that’s attracted people who have been hurt by other churches and…by these unrealistic expectations of this perfect life we are supposed to live,” Walrond says, her smile scrunching her eyes into a squint. “But God doesn’t call us to perfection, he calls us to relationship.”
Among her parishioners is Meredith Malloy, a young woman who came to First Corinthian after an unexpected pregnancy forced her to leave her previous church, where she says she would have been shamed. “I’ve never been in an environment where there was just so much love,” she says.
On a recent warm Sunday in New York, Malloy smiled as she watched her daughter MJ sing in the First Corinthian children’s choir. The 5-year-old swayed with the music, standing in the pulpit.