Four years ago, Esther Holimon joined a thriving inner-city Baptist church and began participating in church activities. Inspired by her experience, she began studing part time at Howard University Divinity School in 1978.
But Holimon says when she mentioned ordination to her pastor, "He looked at me, scratched her head, chuckled and said, 'You don't really want to be ordained, do you?'"
Althouugh her pastor has since said he was being facetious and might consider ordination for her, his chilling, offhand remark forced Holimon to face a harsh truth: as a black woman she had virtually no chance to become a minister at a black Baptist church in this area.
Only one black woman has been ordained in the history of area churches affiliated with the Baptist Ministers Conference of Washington, D.C. and Vicinity, representing about 98 percent of black Baptists here, according to Baptist authorities. In that case, the male ministers who participated in the ceremonies were expelled from the conference.
Three months ago, after days of soul-searching, Holimon left Shiloh Baptist Church and joined a United Methodist church whose pastor, she said, has already started ordination proceedings.
"I think the fact that they don't ordain women is petty, and I don't want that kind of silliness to impede me," said Holimon, 30, in explaining her decision. "I think there are a lot more important issues in terms of ministry."
Authorities here estimate that several hundred local women want to be ordained into the Baptist church, because without ordination they are prohibited from giving communion and performing weddings and baptisms.
Some have chosen Holimon's road to the pulpit and have joined other denominations. Others have their own independent churches.
But most are keeping their fingers crossed and staying in their own churches as evangelists, missionaries or ministers of education to the approximately 125,000 black Baptists in the area.
"With the magnitude of work the Baptist churches have to do here, it doesn't make sense to cut off a whole segment of people simply because of their sex," said the Rev. Marshall Grisby, assistant dean of Howard University Divinity School. "The church has to deal with issues of education, crime, unemployment, social justice. . . . That's a tremendous burden to place on the leadership of an institution."
The opposition to the ordination of black women in the Washington area is centered in the Baptist Ministers Conference, a professional association of about 45 ministers, mostly black. Baptist doctrine does not prohibit the ordination of women; neither does the conference's constitution, "but we feel the Bible does not support the ordination of women as preachers," said the Rev. Carey Pointer, conference president.
"I don't believe that any woman has gotten a call to be a minister. [If she says she has,] I think she is misguided," said Pointer, 50.
Pointer said he "feels sympathy" for women who have entered seminaries in hopes of ordination but added, "I don't know what they're hoping for. . . . The Washington Baptist Seminary has never encouraged women to be preachers."
The seminary enrolls women, Pointer said, to train them as missionaries or religious education teachers, which he said is biblically acceptable.
The Rev. Lawrence N. Jones, dean of Howard University Divinity School, said his school enrolls women even though they will face difficulties with ordination, because "it is a geographic problem," and women can be ordained in nearby cities.
Jones, however, said he counsels women students that "they have a much more difficult row to hoe than male ministers, because they're breaking a pattern."
Churches in the predominantly black National and Progressive National conventions, the parent organizations for almost all black Baptist churches in this area, do ordain women in areas such as Richmond and Baltimore. But opposition still exists in different parts of the country, knowledgeable sources said.
Churches in the predominantly white American Baptist and Southern Baptist conventions ordain women, white and black, with the American Baptists far more active in that area.
(Only one mainline U.S. Protestant denomination, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, totally refuses to ordain women.)
As the number of black women entering seminaries and the pressure for ordination continue to increase in the next few years, Grisby forces many more women changing denominations. He expects the American Baptist church to be the most likely haven.
In the meantime, area women are dealing with their hopes in different ways.
The Rev. Lola Johnson-Singletary, who left her Baptist church three years ago to start her own nondenominational church, acknowledges she had trouble accepting the idea of women in the ministry, "until the one I was looking at was in the mirror."
She was ordained in 1978 by her congregation, the Convenant Christain Community. "I would have preferred to be ordained, to have that ceremony of recognition, within the Baptist church," said Johnson-Singletary, 45. "This was all I knew, this was my upbringing.
"For a year I tried, but I didn't know if it would happen at 42 or 92, and I didn't choose to wait that long. I guess I could have stayed as a pulpit assistant, but that's not what I chose to do.
"I know there are hundreds of thousands of people who want to be ministered to, and they couldn't care less what you look like."
For another local woman, the ban on ordination has meant 30 years of waiting, and she anticipates more. "It's hung over my head a long time. Recently it's a little depressing," said Eliza Hammond, 61, a third-year divinity student at Howard. "But I get a little ventilation by being an evangelist.
"I just can't see, what with other denominations doing it, that the Baptists will hold out forever," said Hammond, whose mother is a Methodist minister.
Besides preaching at local churches, Hammond visits the sick, teaches Sunday school and works with church youth and the elderly at her home church, Corinthian Baptist -- all on a volunteer basis.
"I've had people die and leave word that they would like me to preach at their funerals, but I can't, said Hammond. "That makes me feel bad. Some young people told me they would wait until I am ordained until they marry, so I can perform the service.
"The [male] ministers all know me," she said."When they see me, they hug you and kiss you and love you, but don't accept you on their level."
Hammond, the mother of nine children, believes she has felt the brunt of her status more than others, "because I've been in it longer." She has thought of "going around the edges" like others to achieve ordination, but "I want it to be standard. I just want it to come through my church."
"Mine was a calling to preach since I was 14 years old," said Lucy Aria Davis, 68, a graduate of Washington Baptist Seminary. "I've been preaching in my church for nine year, and now I want to be ordained. That's the one thing I desire most in life." Davis said she's talked to many ministers who would like to ordain women but fear the repercussions from the ministers conference.
"I don't make a big fuss about it, because my conviction is so strong. I know it will happen one day," she said. "I can't leave this church because it's meant so much to me."
Davis assists in her church by reading Scripture and frequently preaches at her own church, First Rising Mount Zion, and other churches.
Although black Baptist woman have fought the ban on their ordination here for years, they haven't made much progress since the Rev. Joyce McKeithan became the first black Baptist woman ordained in Washington seven years ago.
Her ordination came mainly through the efforts of her father, a local minister who was able to convince some of his colleagues to ignore the ban and participate in the service.
It was her ordination that brought the expulsion of five attending ministers from the conference. She serves as associate pastor with her father at St. John Baptist.
Although ordination still appears unreachable in the near future, some women report signs of change. "When you're invited to bring a message [preach] to a church, you're well-received," which wasn't always the case, said Johnson-Singletary.
Instead of addressing gatherings from the floor to show submission to men, the women preach from the pulpit more frequently.
Some said their pastors have told them confidentially that they personally are not opposed to ordaining women and would do so if there were no repercussions from the ministers conference.
But women still have to worry about stepping on toes.
They have to be careful not to dress too attractively, or they can encounter the rage of churchwomen, said Johnson-Singletary.
Grigsby thinks the answer lies in educating the "older" men who are responsible for keeping women from the ministry. But one woman thinks time will provide a different solution.
"One day all these old men who are trying to keep women out of the ministry are going to be dead, and then there won't be such a hubbub about women preaching," said one longtime preacher who is a great-grandmother. "But I don't know if I'll be here."