The crowd swelled and murmurs of anticipation rolled up and down the pews Sunday morning as the congregation awaited something never seen in the 119-year history of St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia. A woman pastor was about to take the pulpit and deliver her first sermon.
While women aren't officially barred from leading Baptist churches, tradition and expectations have made female pastors a rarity. Many members of the congregation said they thought St. Paul's, at 10th and Wallace, was leading the way for others to break down old barriers.
Leslie D. Callahan, 39, earned a bachelor's degree from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in religion from Princeton University. For six years she taught religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
She currently teaches religious history and African American studies at the New York Theological Seminary. Before coming to St. Paul's she had been serving as an interim pastor at Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown, filling in after their previous pastor died unexpectedly.
More than 300 people came yesterday, most of them women who were vocal in their support. Selena Gross, 74, said St. Paul's is not just a place of worship but a force for change in the neighborhood that spans the few blocks East of Broad between Spring Garden and Girard.
"Back in 1958 there was a bar on every corner," said Gross, who had worked as a social worker for the Philadelphia school system. But the church petitioned to shut down the bars and helped erect a community center on Wallace Street with basketball courts and organized activities for the local children and teens.
She said that after attending the church for 40 years she's thrilled to see a woman pastor take over. "I think it's wonderful." Some older people, she said, "still think that a man does a better job than a woman...why, I don't know."
Along with the usual congregation were dozens of visitors who came to show support. Many said they were members of the Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown, where Callahan had worked temporarily.
"Traditionally, Baptist churches don't hire women preachers," said Abbie Johnson, 73, a retired teacher from Jenkintown. "St. Paul's has made history."
After the choir sang and tithes were collected, Callahan delivered a sermon titled "It's Time," which built on a theme of seasonal rhythms, anticipation, waiting, and change. She ranged over broad topics from the economic collapse to the Book of Acts, the Apostles and festival of Pentecost, which falls on the seventh Sunday after Passover.
The worshippers clapped and cheered in support of the youthful, petite Callahan, whose sermon fired up the room.
Deacon James Jackson said he had been baptized in the church in 1950, and even 10 years ago he wouldn't have predicted that in 2009 he'd be hearing a sermon by a woman pastor. But Callahan, he said, is a wonderful match for the church.
In an interview, Callahan said she moved to Philadelphia seven years ago and now sees the city as her home. She said she was attracted to St. Paul's partly because it has a strong connection to the local community. "It's part of St. Paul's DNA to reach out to the community."
She said the long-standing shortage of female pastors may have more to do with mind-set than with any conscious resistance.
"When people think of what a pastor is and what a pastor looks like, the image that's in their head is of a man of a certain age." As for women pastors, she said, "Some people are hostile to the notion, but many more have just never thought about it."
The church had been without a pastor for three years as it underwent a complex search and selection process. One member of the selection committee was Constance Clayton, the first Africa American women to become superintendent of schools in Philadelphia. Clayton said there were more than 80 applicants for the job. Eventually the pool was narrowed down to two finalists on which the whole congregation then takes a vote.
"Another glass ceiling has been broken," said Clayton, who has been attending St. Paul's church since she was seven. "It is time, and as a matter of fact, it's overdue."