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Lutheran minister from Philly overcame misgivings to make history as first black female bishop

The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport, of East Oak Lane, is the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a denomination of 3.5 million that is 96 percent white. She will take the helm of the local synod in August.

The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport is the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The Rev. Patricia A. Davenport is the first African American woman to be elected bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer.

When the Rev. Patricia A. Davenport was asked to run for the post of bishop of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, her first thought was not about making history, but rather, "Who in their right mind would want that job?"

A longtime synod official, most recently its director for evangelical mission, she had watched a succession of occupants of the bishop's office down the hall reap the joyous rewards of Christian leadership. But she also saw them struggle to manage the church in a time of transition — of declining membership, shuttered sanctuaries, dwindling finances, and aging clergy, of disaffected youths checking out of institutional religion.

Davenport declined to enter the race.

Yet, there she stood in a Montgomery County pulpit on May 5, feted with thundering applause from her fellow Lutherans. Not only had she been elected to lead the 80,000-member Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, but she had become the first female African American bishop in the 30-year history of a denomination whose 3.5 million congregants are 96 percent white.

"I looked back on my life journey," Davenport, 63, of East Oak Lane, said during an interview in her office at United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia. "Whenever I questioned if this was what I was supposed to be, God was with me every step of the way. He showed up to help me, and has been faithful. So, I said yes."

Nominated at the denomination's annual assembly, she earned 331 of 478 votes cast to succeed the Rev. Claire Schenot Burkat, 66, who served two six-year terms. Davenport will take the helm Aug. 1, with her formal installation on Sept. 22 at New Covenant Church of Philadelphia in Mount Airy.

She made history by mere hours. Another female African American minister, the Rev. Viviane Thomas-Breitfeld, was elected bishop in the South Central Synod of Wisconsin a day later.

"It's huge that our church has come to the point that we can recognize that people of color are gifted and already serving in our church, and to call these two women to be leaders is a huge step forward in our church," said Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, the first woman to lead the entire denomination.

But the church's white European roots are not entirely lost to the past. Only 4 percent of denomination members are minority, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center. Until Davenport and Thomas-Breitfeld take office, 11 of the 65 bishops are women. The denomination's only openly gay bishop is also its first American Indian bishop.

The local synod is one of the most diverse in the ELCA, according to Burkat. Up to 15 percent of its members are minority, and of the 165 active pastors and deacons, an estimated 30 are people of color, 28 are LGBTQIA, and 50 percent are women.  In the bishop's race, Davenport bested two African American men, two white women, and two white men.

"We are thrilled with [the results] of the election," Burkat said. Electing an African American woman "may be surprising to the rest of the country, but not to us."

In her evangelical mission work during the last decade, Davenport helped guide congregations and their leaders through the challenge of winning souls in a changing religious landscape. She showed boldness and grace in reaching the increasingly "unchurched and disenfranchised," said the Rev. Nathan Krause, who had asked to submit her name as a candidate.

Davenport plans to continue that mission as bishop. But she will also be keeping a watchful eye, she said, on her seminary alma mater, 325-student Lutheran United, which was rocked by the recent departure of its president. Theresa Latini was discovered to have led a group about 20 years ago that equated homosexuality with "brokenness" and promoted ministries purporting to turn gay men and women straight. Latini long ago renounced those affiliations, but was fired in March.

The seminary also has been roiled recently by complaints of racist actions and language by some administrators and staff.  Those will fall under the new bishop's purview as well.

"What are we doing in our seminaries, institutions of higher education, and church-wide organizations to help people understand the microaggressions," Davenport said, "and how they hinder people of color not only from growing within, but also hinder them from just being?"

Born in Annapolis, Md., she moved to North Philadelphia as a child. Her dad, a retired Army cook, and her mother, who worked in the lab at Tasty Baking Co,, provided her with eight siblings — and some early lessons on barriers and how to break them. They were the second black family to move onto their block of North Eighth Street, near Cambria, and the second to join Holy Cross Lutheran Church, two blocks away.

"I remember being there with all the German ladies," Davenport said, " … but they eventually left."

As white residents moved out and black residents moved in, the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood and church changed. Davenport and her family took on leadership roles in the church.

A graduate of Kensington High School for Girls, she studied computer science at Community College of Philadelphia and office skills at the Katherine Gibbs School, then in Philadelphia and now in Norristown. She worked as the church secretary at Holy Cross for nine years, and later landed a job as an administrative assistant in the synod office.

As Davenport assisted denomination leaders, they noticed her ministerial gifts. The Rev. Susan Ericsson took Davenport to lunch to chat with her about considering the ministry.

"She was a dynamic spiritual presence, and she instilled joy and hope as a lay leader," said Ericsson, now pastor of St. Luke's in Devon.

She confessed she had thought about becoming a pastor.  After lots of prayer and conversation with her husband, Joel, Davenport entered Lutheran Theological Seminary in Mount Airy, now United Lutheran, in the mid-1990s.  She was ordained in 2001, worked in clergy development for the synod, and  founded Yeadon's Spirit and Truth Worship Center congregation in 2006.  A year later, she earned a master of divinity degree. Months after that, her husband died of a heart attack at 54. They had three children — daughter Shanena, now 43, and sons Joel Jr., 45, and Jamar, 39.

Davenport plans to begin her new post by visiting congregations and ministers to build relationships and exchange ideas. She wants to increase diversity, and find young clergy to replace those who will be retiring. She says she will encourage members and ministers to step outside the church walls to become forces of faith in action in their neighborhoods, especially on issues such as the opioid crisis.

She has shed the gnawing sense of doubt that once made her shy away from her synod's top post.

Her supporters told her to remember her favorite biblical passage, Proverbs 3:5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.  In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths."

"Practice what you preach," they told her.

And she did.