Watkins breaks glass ceiling with sermon

“Even now in these hard times, let us lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring with harmonies of liberty.”

With a message that emphasized love and compassion for others, the Rev. Sharon Watkins DIV ’84 became the first woman in history to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service yesterday morning from the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

Those in attendance at the closed event included President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton LAW ’73 and former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 in the front row. Beneath the Gothic archways and stained glass, more than 1,900 invited guests sat through the 90-minute service.

Elected in 2005 as the general minister and president of the 700,000-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Watkins first came to Obama’s attention at a pastoral discussion group in summer 2008. An article in The New York Times reported that Obama was impressed by her ability to relate to a politically and theologically diverse group of ministers at the meeting.

Longtime friends and former colleagues of Watkins said her sermon accurately reflected her open-mindedness and ability to include people from all walks of life.

“Of course I was a little bit biased, but as a critic of sermons she did an especially outstanding job,” said Dennis Smith, a professor at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., where Watkins received her Doctor of Ministry degree.

Smith praised Watkins’ ability to weld together numerous faith traditions and said while Watkins acknowledged the nation’s Christian background, she never explicitly called the country a “Christian nation.”

In her sermon, Watkins drew not only from the Hebrew Bible, but also from sources as diverse as Cherokee legend to Emma Lazarus’ famous poem “The New Colossus,” the final lines of which are engraved on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Others commented on how Watkins brought a personal touch to the high formality of the occasion.

“At times, it felt like she was sitting on her knee beside Obama,” said John Imbler, another professor at Phillips and a former colleague of Watkins.

Watkins directly addressed Obama throughout the sermon and at one point even joked with the president.

“Someone has to keep watch and be ready to defend,” she said. “And Mr. President, tag — you’re it!” Her animated voice continued to boom through the cathedral, only to be interrupted by applause and laughter.

Phillips professor and longtime friend Belva Jordan said Watkins’ rapport with Obama, which developed only half a year after their first meeting, was another example of her ability to connect with individuals even in a large group setting.

At the assembly last summer, Jordan recalled, Watkins distributed about 5,000 to 6,000 bracelets with the words “A Complaint-Free World.” Watkins’ message emphasized that people should try to solve problems rather than complain, Jordan explained.

“I don’t know about others, but I’m still wearing my bracelet,” Jordan said.

In addition to being the first woman to deliver the sermon at the National Prayer Service, Watkins is also the first female general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Rev. Serene Jones DIV ’85 GRD ’91, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and a student with Watkins at Yale Divinity School, said she hopes Watkins’ presence on the pulpit will inspire women around the world.

“It should send a strong message that women are religious leaders and are an important part of today’s public life, but that they still need to be more actively integrated into our future,” she said.

But Jones also pointed out with disappointment that Rev. Rick Warren, who gave the inaugural invocation Tuesday, was featured on the Huffington Post Web site’s News page while Watkins appeared in the site’s Living section.

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