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Carrying on her family's tradition

Imani Sheila Newsome is an ordained minister at St. Paul's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Cambridge, Mass. She's also a PhD candidate and a part-time preacher at Boston University's Marsh Chapel. The Rev. Ms. Newsome relies on her unique experiences as a single, black woman to make her sermons more relevant to the predominantly black congregation at St. Paul's, where she serves as an associate preacher, and to the interdenominational, multi-ethnic congregation at Marsh Chapel.

The idea of serving God was a strong element of Newsome's East Orange, N.J., upbringing.

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``All the men in my family are ministers and missionaries,'' she says. ``Even as children, we were raised to accept that you had to do something for God.''

Although Newsome feels that becoming an ordained minister was a natural extension of her lifelong church activity, it was not the first career she pursued. Before entering the ministry, she was an assistant professor of education.

``I had become the person I really wanted to be by my late 20's,'' she comments. ``I had arrived at my dream position in life. It was where I expected to be when I was 55 years old.''

It was at that point in her life that she decided to become a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal church. ``It was a strange thing for a woman to do. There's 50 million things a woman can do, but this was the last patriarchal frontier.''

Newsome's decision brought different reactions from different members of her family.

``They were deeply concerned about the fact that no woman in my family had ever been an ordained minister,'' she says. ``But once they saw that I had really prayed about it and thought about it, then I got a lot of support.''

Among the male minister members of her family, that support varied. Her oldest uncle still cannot introduce her to others as a fellow minister, but calls her a missionary because ``it is inconceivable to him that a woman can be ordained,'' she comments.

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Newsome's grandfather had been silent about her ordination until he listened to a tape of preaching.

``He was very quiet while the tape played,'' she remembers. ``Everybody was kind of holding their breath to see what he was going to say. When the tape was over, he sat for a few minutes. Then, he looked at me and said, `You are called to preach the Word.'''

``My father has been supportive all along,'' she adds.

When asked how being a woman affects her preaching, Newsome says, ``I try to preach so that all people hear that there is grace and love - but particularly, I never want Afro-American women to walk away and feel that they have not heard some bit of their life story.''

At Marsh Chapel, Newsome recently preached a sermon on the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. ``I preached the text from the woman's point of view. I completely reversed the imagery being centered around Jesus,'' she says. ``Because I'm an Afro-American woman, I could only do it out of my own experience.

``[The Samaritan woman says] she doesn't want to be bothered because it's a hot day and she's got a lot of work to do, and who wants to be bothered?... All the sudden this man asks, `May I have some water?' And she says, `I'm busy ... but I'm a courteous woman, so let me give this man a drink of water, and maybe he'll go away.'''

Newsome says the lessons ``about being courteous came out of my own experience of being raised ... to be as kind and giving and loving as I could, even when it hurt, even when it was a struggle because that's what Christians do - particularly Afro-American Christians who are taught to turn the other cheek, to always go the extra mile in the face of racism and oppression.''