The Rev. Sandra Kay Gordon died June 4, 2014, the first author among ReadTheSpirit’s family of authors to pass away.
In Michigan, she was a groundbreaking force in peacemaking and in celebrating diversity. Before co-founding ReadTheSpirit, in 2007, I worked for decades as the state’s chief chronicler of news about religious diversity and I covered the tumult in Detroit when some of the historic African-American congregations began to recognize the ordination of women. Many church leaders were not ready for that change. Among the pioneers in breaking through that barrier were the congregation Pastor Gordon loved so dearly, Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, along with the encouragement of her senior pastor, the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers. Working with Pastor Flowers, Pastor Gordon herself was a major part of the professional team running that landmark church.
A self-described extrovert, Pastor Gordon was courageous in telling her own story, which was included in the 2010 ReadTheSpirit book, Friendship & Faith. She also spoke out at public events, including this 2013 interfaith conference to discuss various religious approaches toward death and dying. At that event, Pastor Gordon talked about her own African-American church traditions following a death. She said that people should feel free to cry in their grief—to weep, she said, as Jesus once wept.
And, so, today, many men and women across southeast Michigan are weeping.
The Rev. Sandra Kay Gordon
(November 7 1951-June 4, 2014)
On Friday June 13, 2104, the Rev. Sandra Kay Gordon will be lying in state at Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church, 586 Owens in Detroit, from Noon to 8 p.m. with her family present to greet friends at 7 p.m. Her funeral, a “Homegoing Service,” will be 11 a.m. Saturday June 14, 2014, at the church.)
The following is Pastor Gordon’s chapter from the book Friendship & Faith: The WISDOM of women creating alliances for peace. (Following this chapter, scroll down for even more remembrances of this remarkable peacemaker.)
The Rev. Sandra Gordon has been an active Baptist all her life and felt a calling to ordained ministry in the 1990s. Before that, she had worked in a bank, for a government agency and as a day care provider. Throughout her life, she’s had a passion for bridging gaps between cultural communities—and lives a legacy of her parents’ approach to life and faith.
SANDRA GORDON’S STORY:
I can see now that I’ve been on a long journey of making connections between Judaism and Christianity, but it took an encounter with a young Jewish woman in a hospital room to turn up some of the stereotypes I had accumulated while growing up.
M family is Baptist, although we had known Jewish people through the years; my family had Jewish doctors while I was growing up, for example. But I really did not know much about Judaism when my first daughter was born in 1974. I had never had a Jewish friend.
That’s why I was surprised on the day my daughter was born. From recovery, the hospital staff moved me to the room I would share during my stay at the hospital. The first thing I would see from the doorway was that I barely had a space in there! This other family ha packed that room with flowers, balloons and lots of people. The other mother’s name was Sarah, and the nurses actually had to ask her family to clear some space for me.
They were Jewish, and everybody in her whole extended family was making a big hoopla over her child.
Their affection and generosity and joy toward this baby were all very impressive to me, but I have to admit—my reaction also reopened stereotypes I’d heard from peers while growing up. The assumptions people passed around when I was growing up were old stereotypes—you know—like the one that Jews have a lot of money; that Caucasians, in general, didn’t like us; and that Caucasians lived out in the suburbs because they didn’t want relationships with us. I could see that this family cared a whole lot about Sarah and her baby. But just one look at all the stuff in that room—all the gifts and flowers—told me these people had money.
As a little girl, I had experienced racism firsthand. In 1959, my family traveled back to my father’s hometown in South Carolina for a family funeral. I was absolutely shocked when I saw doors labeled for “Whites” and other doors labeled for us. Then, my cousins invited me to go to the movies, and I was horrified to find that we couldn’t just walk up to the front doors—only white people could do that. We were just children, but we were forced to walk around into the alley where there was a door back there, labeled for us to use. I realize now how much that experience traumatized me. I do remember that I cried all the way home from South Carolina. How could the world be so hateful?
I did have one big advantage growing up, because in my home, these biases were never taught against any group of people. My father worked for Chevrolet and my mother’s jobs included working for the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit; my parents never taught negative things about Jewish or Caucasian people. They worked with people from other cultures. So, I had my parents’ balance in my life as well.
Now, I have to admit that on that day, when I walked into the hospital room with Sarah and her family filling the whole place—yes, I was a little jealous of Sarah.
I was a first-time mother, too. She had this whole garden sprouting over on her side of the room; I had one little, bitty flower someone had given me. Then there were all of the gifts she had over there, on her side of the room. I got a few things, but nothing like that pile over on her side.
Now—truth be told—her baby was the very first grandchild on both sides of her family, so it was a very special event. In my family, mine wasn’t the first grandchild—so, that was one big difference.
These events all took place back in the day, when mothers stayed in the hospital for a while and, as I recall, both Sarah and I had longer stays because of some complications. So, we knew we’d be living side by side in that room for a while.
There was a curtain between the two beds, but we decided not to pull it—and, I’m so glad we didn’t close that curtain! Instead, we began to talk. When all the visitors left, we were just two young mothers, talking about our lives and families and hopes for the future. We were tired, of course, but we sat up talking until the wee hours of the morning. She was so down-to-Earth, so pleasant, so kind. She became a good friend that first night.
But, I will tell you, there came a time when she left—a day or two before I did—and you know how, after something like that, people always say, “Oh, we’ll be sure to et together!” Well, we said that and, in this case, she actually did invite me to her house.
I debated whether to go. Did she really want me to come? Would I be comfortable? But I am an extroverted person, and I went out there, even though I was nervous. It turned out to be just great! She served lunch, and we put our babies down on the floor together. We talked and talked. When it was over, I said what you would expect: “Now, you’ll have to come to my house.”
Driving home—if I tell this story honestly—I didn’t think I’d ever see her again. It was one thing for me to drive out to her house, but she had to come into Detroit to visit mine. It was one thing for us to visit just once, like we’d promised when she left the hospital. But to continue this as a real friendship? No, I didn’t think that would happen.
Again, she surprised me. She really did want to come to my house. She had no problem coming into Detroit. She visited and I served her lunch this time. Our babies played on the floor together and, once again, we talked and talked.
That friendship continued for a couple of years. I’ve lost track of her now, as sometimes happens with friends as years go by—but she was an important friend in my life.
What about all those old biases I had learned from my peers while growing up? They faded away.
Now, looking back, I realize I’ve always been on a pathway connecting my Christianity with the traditions of our Jewish neighbors. Now, I’m the assistant to the pastor at a nationally known church in Detroit: Greater New Mount Moriah, which once was pastored by the Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, Ph.D., head of the NAACP. He retired some years ago and I work with our senior pastor—the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers, who also is well-known for his work linking Christians and Jews. In 2008, I visited Israel and learned even more about how our faiths and histories connect in so many ways.
I’d like Sarah to know that our friendship was an important part of my own journey, from all that I saw in childhood—some of it quite traumatic—to the calling that I have today to spread the word about all the ways that Christians and Jews, together, can strengthen each other’s lives.
In Honor of Sandra Kay Gordon
By Dan and Sharon Buttry
Dan first met Sandra Kay Gordon before she was a “Reverend.” She was a member of Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary (GNMM) Baptist Church on Owen Street between Woodward and Oakland in Detroit. Dan and her pastor, the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers, had connected professionally. Dan was co-pastor of First Baptist Church in Dearborn along with the Rev. Jay Martin. They were trying to bridge divides between black and white churches, urban and suburban churches—so Ken, Jay and Dan along with the music minister from GNMM began meeting regularly for lunch.
Fellowship and friendship grew. Pulpit exchanges followed, and soon broadened the circle to active involvement by congregational leaders. Then the partnership took off with a few years of shared Bible studies and picnics as well as the more traditional pulpit and choir exchanges. The pastors joked about how members of Dearborn members were afraid to go to Detroit and Detroit members were afraid to go to Dearborn, so those shared fears made us perfect sister churches. Those relationships continued until Jay retired and Dan became a global missionary for peace and justice with International Ministries for the American Baptists.
But, over many years, we continued our personal relationships with folks at Greater New Mount Moriah.
Sandra Kay was in the congregation during one of the first messages Dan preached from the GNMM pulpit. Dan can’t recall the message, but it was always a delight for him to preach because of the traditional call-and-response energy in that churches. Dan could preach an identical sermon at both churches—and the folks in the Detroit church got the better message by far—same words but very different energy!
It was only later that we learned what happened on the first Sunday Dan preached.
Sandra Kay told Dan that, as he was preaching, she heard God’s call to ministry. She was a mother who had gone through many hardships, and she felt an intense prompting of the Spirit that convinced her: God had a job for her to do. God could use her for the work of healing in this world, even taking her own heartache to be transfigured into a gift of grace to give others in need, she told us. Given the history of racial divides, bigotry and mistrust that had ripped apart black and white church across America, Dan was humbled that Sandra Kay would hear a call from God through a preacher from Dearborn. God moves in amazing ways! But Sandra Kay was amazing enough to catch what God was doing!
It didn’t take long for the full extent of Rev. Gordon’s giftedness to be revealed. She could preach! We arranged a pulpit exchange between Rev. Gordon and the other Rev. Buttry—Rev. Sharon Buttry—with Sandra Kay filling the Dearborn pulpit and Sharon in the Detroit pulpit.
For years, Sandra Kay administered Greater New Mount Moriah, one of Detroit’s landmark churches. Rev. Flowers, the senior pastor at the church, has become a national as well as a local leader and often is called to visit other parts of the country. He travels in the assurance that the Detroit church is in solid hands. In the course of our own work in Detroit, if we stopped by their church, we always knew that our first stop would be Sandra Kay’s office. She always knew what was going on in and around the church.
Rev. Gordon’s special gift was one-on-one counseling and the ministry of pastoral friendship. A pastor at heart, she spent many hours with church members and spiritual friends, bringing encouragement and wisdom. She knew how to direct you to God as the source of true wisdom, and her own life spoke volumes of how to live, love and grow in the power and grace of the Lord.
Sandra Kay was also a visionary. She appreciated the support of Rev. Flowers for her ministry—as well as other women in ministry. But she knew many women weren’t so blessed. So she organized a group of women in ministry called Daughters of Deborah to support one another in a calling that was often resisted by many in the church. Her leadership and impact spread far and wide in the city as a result of the Daughters of Deborah.
Sandra Kay will be missed.
There are many different pairs of shoes to be filled because of the range of service Sandra Kay provided. But she was a woman of hope. Death was never allowed to have the last word in her life, and we can’t allow that now. She believed in a Lord who brought life out of death, who brought victory out of defeat, and with that confidence she faced all her challenges. Her legacy will live on at Greater New Mount Moriah, in Daughters of Deborah, in WISDOM, and in far reaches where maybe only God will know the ripples that she has sent across the waters. But as her church and many of us believe, there will be a “great gettin’ up morning,” and Sandra Kay will be there rejoicing with us on that new day.
“Well done, thou good and faithful servant!”