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Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries embraces its new mission statement

As it embarks on a season of change, the ministry area also welcomes its first non-binary director

by Layton Williams Berkes | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Shanea D. Leonard (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — When the Rev. Shanea D. Leonard was named the director of Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries at the Presbyterian Mission Agency last October, they were well aware that big changes were on the horizon for the ministry area.

Leonard joined the PMA in 2018 as the associate for Gender and Racial Justice and was later promoted to coordinator of Gender and Racial Justice early in the pandemic. Their supervisor recommended them for their new role and charged them with bringing about change within RE&WIM.

“When I was asked to take this role on, I wasn’t looking for it,” Leonard said. “But obviously, my supervisor saw in me something that she thought was particularly perfect for this role — to reimagine how this ministry area would move forward. And so, not the pressure, but the task was set before I got into the role to shift the narrative and shake RE&WIM up.”


As RE&WIM’s new leader, Leonard took the charge of their former supervisor to heart and began instituting changes throughout the ministry area as soon as they began their new role. One of their first — and biggest — moves was to draft a new mission statement for the ministry area.

The new mission statement reads:

“To equip, train, and build inclusive community that centers BIPOC, women, LGBTQIA+ siblings, and gender expansive people. We are called to ministry that values justice and equity while working to build vital congregations, eradicate poverty, and eliminate systemic racism.”

Leonard said it was important to them that RE&WIM’s mission explicitly name the ministry area’s commitment to intersectional justice.

“We had the same mission paragraph for a long time, and it served its purpose for that time. But now we are emerging differently, and we needed something that spoke not just to who we are but to who we are yet becoming. There have been specific instances in this area of ministry around intersectionality, especially as it concerns immigration status, race, gender, reproductive status, and sexuality, and so we needed something that is reflective of all of that.”

The new statement also directly highlights the ministry area’s connection to PMA’s Matthew 25 values of building vital congregations, eradicating poverty and dismantling racism.

Leonard’s rise to leadership was, itself, a clear illustration of the evolution within RE&WIM that its new mission statement seeks to describe. Leonard is nonbinary, and while LGBTQIA+ justice has been a focus area of RE&WIM for years, Leonard is the first person of any trans experience to serve in senior leadership at the PMA. They said their appointment speaks to the direction PMA is heading in, one that “embraces everyone regardless of how they identify and based on the call that God has given them.”

Leonard said that the intersection of their gender and the fact that they are a Black person under the age of 50 brings with it a lot a fresh new perspective, but also a lot of weight.

“I’m forging a path for those who will come behind me who are more gender expansive and living into how God has called them to reimagine church,” Leonard said.

Being in senior leadership in an organization that explicitly focuses some its work on racial, gender, and LGBTQIA+ justice does not prevent Leonard from experiencing many of the same microaggressions faced by other queer people and people of color. Leonard said that even though PMA has come a long way, there is still a long way to go, and they feel called to make sure that these justice issues are kept at the forefront of conversation. Leonard also feels that their life experiences uniquely qualify them to lead RE&WIM into the future.

“Some of my most challenging and rewarding points in my life have come at the hands of the church,” Leonard explained, noting that they are no stranger to the sort of struggles facing many of RE&WIM’s constituents. However, they have let those experiences help them gain strength, wisdom, and knowledge to become a better leader. Leonard said that their nonbinary status is not the only thing that makes them a different kind of leader. They describe their leadership style as being rooted in “liberation, justice, somatic embodiment, humor, and a commitment to disenfranchised communities at all costs.”

The Rev. Princeton Abaraoha

During their time leading RE&WIM so far, Leonard has made a number of other changes in addition to the new mission statement. They made the Rev. Princeton Abaraoha, the associate for African Immigrant Intercultural Ministries, a full-time employee as a statement of equity for the work Abaraoha does. RE&WIM is also bringing back its Seminarians of Color Conference, a new focus on BIPOC young adults, and a focus on BIPOC clergywomen.

One other pivotal change: RE&WIM is conducting a series of consultations across the country to give people in leadership among its constituents necessary training and knowledge around equity and justice in an effort to further the work of creating vital congregations.

In addition to these shifts, which are already underway, Leonard aims to strengthen connections with leadership development and create new ways of engaging marginalized populations.

Also, Leonard points out that 46% of the PC(USA)’s new worshiping communities are run by immigrants. Given this, they are working with the Rev. Nikki Collins, the Rev. Dr. Ray Jones III, and the Rev. Carlton Johnson to build up the relationship between RE&WIM and 1001 New Worshiping Communities. RE&WIM will also continue its efforts in LGBTQIA+ and reproductive justice through the Office of Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice.

One other major change Leonard hopes lies ahead is a new name for RE&WIM. The specifics of such a shift are still in process, but they hope that — like the mission statement — it will better reflect the ministry area’s expanded and intersectional focus.

Leonard says that making so many big shifts has its challenges, but having a good team makes a huge difference.

“I’m grateful for staff that are really dedicated to making sure that we embrace all of the kin-dom of God as the church continues to grow into the future,” Leonard said. “I’m really happy to be leading a diverse staff who are committed to God’s love for ALL.  For some it is a remolding of theological framework, but others have jumped in before I even got here and are already helping to make it a new day.”

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