The crowd swelled and murmurs of anticipation rolled up and down the pews yesterday morning as the congregation awaited something never seen in the 119-year history of St. Paul's Baptist Church in Philadelphia. A female pastor was about to take the pulpit and deliver her first sermon.
Though 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 Streets, 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 doctorate in religion from Princeton University. For six years she taught religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
She teaches religious history and African American studies at the New York Theological Seminary. Before coming to St. Paul's she served as an interim pastor at Salem Baptist Church in Jenkintown, filling in after the 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 was 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 was a social worker in 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 local children and teens.
She said that after attending the church for 40 years she was thrilled to see a woman 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 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," that 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 the festival of Pentecost, which falls on the seventh Sunday after Easter.
The worshippers clapped and cheered in support of the youthful, petite Callahan, whose sermon fired up the room.
Deacon James Jackson said that he was baptized in the church in 1950, and that even 10 years ago he wouldn't have predicted that in 2009 he'd hear a sermon by a female 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 mindset 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 female 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 African American woman to become superintendent of schools in Philadelphia. Clayton said there were more than 80 applicants for the job. Eventually the pool was narrowed to two finalists on which the whole congregation voted.
"Another glass ceiling has been broken," said Clayton, who has attended St. Paul's since she was 7. "It is time, and, as a matter of fact, it's overdue."