Building bridges, creating change: An interview with the Rev. Maxine Allen

contributed by Regina Gideon

The Rev. Maxine Allen recalled her thoughts waiting in line for the laying on of hands – about to become the first African-American woman in the Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church ordained an elder in full connection in 1999. “This conference is never going to be the same again,” she thought to herself.

Her thoughts proved prophetic, a term she uses to describe her ministry and mission. Her service spans nearly five decades as a proponent for social justice, human rights and the grace of God. At Annual Conference 2018, Allen retired from her position as Assistant Director of Mission and Ministry for Mission Field Engagement in the conference office.

The scope of her ministry has been and continues to be wide and deep – from her work in the Little Rock community and Arkansas government, interfaith organizations, The Arkansas United Methodist church, The United Methodist Church and mission trips internationally. But ask Allen what most captures her spirit and she will quickly say “young people.”

Building Bridges to Young Adults

Her eyes shine and her smile grows large talking about “Philander Forward Theological Institute,” a summer program for high school juniors and seniors that offers an opportunity to explore Scripture, think theologically, apply Scripture and theology to local context, and reflect upon where God might be calling them. Allen wrote the curriculum for this program from inception for Philander Smith College of Little Rock, Arkansas, now in its second year. She co-wrote a Lily grant and the curriculum. Allen serves as a resource to the workshops for the youth who attend the program and experience worship, leadership and servanthood across Little Rock. This year’s program component included a trip to Memphis to visit both the Staxx and Civil Rights Museums as the focus was hip-hop.

“Young people keep me young,” Allen explained. “They challenge convention. When you look at cultural shifts, it is not old people with gray hair that make shifts.”

Allen wrote this year’s Philander Forward Theological Institute experience around rap culture, connecting it to hip-hop, jazz, graffiti, civil rights and Scripture. To Allen, it is vital as a Christian and clergyperson to stay in touch with the current culture in order to reach people in the current context.

Rev. Maxine Allen accepts the Philander Smith College Living Legend at a ceremony in 2015. Pictured alongside her are, from left to right, Philander Smith College President Roderick Smothers and Philander Smith College Chaplain the Rev. Ronnie Miller-Yow.

“We don’t know how to bridge pop culture with ancient culture,” she said, referring to the church today. “I believe we are called to serve the present age…whether you are 75 or 18, we must bridge the culture.”

Allen has worked and continues to keep in contact with mentees as they live out their calls. She sees a large part of her legacy in those she has mentored.

One of these mentees is Carissa Rodgers, adjunct professor at Philander Smith College, owner of RevBeads, life coach and self-defined “cultural curator.” Rodgers and Allen met due to Rodgers spending lots of time around Philander Smith’s Wesley Chapel. She made lots of suggestions for ways Rodgers could look at making a difference in the world, including more exploration through an internship at the General Board of Global Ministries, where Rodgers ended up serving twice and then felt a call to ministry.

“She identifies gifts and graces and sees what [students] are good at naturally,” Rodgers said. “But she never tried to give me the answer. She was like an arrow.” As Rodgers’ call has evolved from serving in the church to serving the community she said Allen “is still always asking, ‘how can I support you?’”

Allen gives to Rodgers what she never received in her own discernment calling.

Answering Her Call to Ministry

It was Thanksgiving 1964 and Allen was attending the last night of a revival, when people went door-to-door knocking and from church-to-church for the revival. At the end of the service, the pastor’s altar call came for those called into ministry. Allen and another female friend, both age 14, went forward but the evangelists only took the boys to kneel at the altar.

“We don’t think you understand what you are saying,” the revivalists said to her, explaining to Allen the types of ministries God had for women.

“I believe that God is calling me into ministry,” Allen replied to the male pastors. “Not Africa’s missionary, a Christian educator or to be a preacher’s wife. God is calling me into ministry.”

Allen had been equipped early to speak truth to power in her home. She grew up in a home where the Bible was talked about by her mother, a president of the United Methodist Women at their church. Allen was accustomed to her mother pulling out Bible commentaries, dictionaries and various versions of the Bible after church on Sunday to discuss the Bible and theology. Her work for social justice began with her youth, when she toured with an interracial and cultural performance group, “Sing Out America,” at a time when many prohibited integration. At age 13, she was thrown off a Central Arkansas Transit bus for refusing to sit in the back, which was in line with segregation practices in the early 1960’s.

Yet instead of pastoral ministry, Allen went on as an adult to work for Bell telephone company, rising to the level of an administrator writing training manuals for service representatives in the business office. One night, she saw the first African-American woman to be elected bishop preach barefoot at Theressa Hoover United Methodist Church. Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelley changed everything for her.

“I can do that!” she realized at that moment. “It was all a big lie. The Methodist Episcopal Church told me in 1964… that God does not call women to preach. And I believed that for 30 years.”

Not wasting time, she began her undergraduate education at age 39. She became a Philander Smith alumna in 1993, and a 1997 graduate of Gammon Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia with a Master of Divinity, where she currently serves on the Board of Trustees. In 2008, she received the Alumna of the Year Award from Gammon Seminary.

Building Bridges in the United Methodist Church

God called Allen to many places in her ministry, but if you were there to hear what she had to say at Annual Conference 2018, her call was simply to service.

She wore outfits that included her signature red or purple, and worked the Conference registration table, where she greeted people and herded large groups in the correct direction with just her voice. Allen also offered the benediction with the words of the apostle Paul and Al Greene, “I have said these things that your joy may be complete,” she said, adding, “and let’s stay together, let’s love one another.”

She holds a lifetime of leadership with the Arkansas Annual Conference and to the United Methodist Church. She was a lay delegate to Annual Conference and General Conference and an alternate clergy delegate to General Conference. Nationally, she served as the secretary for the Black Clergywomen of the United Methodist Church, and she wrote worship materials for Discipleship Ministries.

In the Arkansas Annual Conference, Allen is distinguished for some of the “firsts” that she held in the conference as well, in regards to race and gender.

It began with her ordination, which Rev. C.E. McAdoo — an African-American former district superintendent who was on the Board of Ordained Ministry at the time — recalled as being historically significant.

“It was very important to have a credentialized [African-American female] voice that would bear fruit in the Annual Conference like Rev. Allen,” McAdoo said.

Allen went on to bear much fruit in the Annual Conference with firsts: first African-American female clergy to hold a position on the Arkansas Annual Conference office staff, first on the Board of Ordained ministry, first Wesley Foundation Director, first cross-racial appointee to an entirely Caucasian central Arkansas church and first to be a chaplain at Philander Smith College.

She paved the way for women, of any race. She was the first woman to serve as President of the Little Rock Christian Ministerial Alliance, and she chaired the Commission on the Status and Role of Women in the Arkansas Annual Conference.

Allen is known for knowing nearly everyone in the Annual Conference and nearly all parts of Little Rock, where she is a fifth-generation community activist.

Warrior for Change

When Allen was 5 years old, she saw a pair of yellow shoes she loved at Sterling Department Store at the intersection of 5th and Center Street. Visiting with her mother and father, she was not allowed to try on the shoes because she is an African-American. Allen became quite upset that her parents could not purchase them. Because the manager knew Allen’s father as the night janitor there, he made an exception. She could try them on behind closed doors in the back of the shop. She went home with the shoes.

No one puts Allen in the back of the shop today. In fact, she is very active in Interfaith Arkansas where she chairs the committee on racial reconciliation, starting conversations about racism in rural churches. But her work is not just for racial justice, she has also served Interfaith Arkansas, often on the Board of Directors, advocating for a number of issues including a fair minimum wage, poverty, and disaster recovery.

Rev. Maxine Allen’s family has a rich history of strong female leadership. From left to right are Dr. Edith Irby Jones, Allen’s grandmother Jewel Porter, and Daisy Bates at a reception at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.

“For me, her legacy is that she’s very passionate about her faith driving her into the community and speaking about justice,” Steve Copley, executive director of Interfaith Arkansas, who has worked with her for 20 years on social justice issues in the state, said.

Allen has proved a formidable warrior for positive social justice. According to her colleagues, she brings to the table an exceptional combination of skills in wisdom, administration and marriage of faith with action.

In 2017, Allen received the Ethel K. Millar Award for Religion and Social Awareness at Hendrix College.

Naming the President of the Children’s Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman as her contemporary role model, Allen has been instrumental in working for children, youth, and women in Arkansas. Before coming to professional ministry, Allen lent her voice to KABF Community Radio, providing children’s and public affairs programming for the first time. Now known as Women and Children First, Allen laid the groundwork with the first abused women’s shelter, successfully lobbying the legislature in the ‘70s and ‘80s for stronger laws against domestic violence. She served as the founding executive director for Second Genesis, a transitional home for women leaving prison.

“I have always found her to be very wise, good counsel, a good thinker and a good strategist,” Copley said.

Copley and Allen both presently serve on the board of Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. She also worked with Copley in the late 1990’s on lobbying for wage parity and safe working environments, including service to the Interfaith Worker Justice advocacy network.

She now serves as the gubernatorial appointee to the Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission, as she did under the previous two governors of Arkansas.

Bridges Beyond Retirement

Rev. Maxine Allen presents a message at Annual Conference 2017.

It should come as no surprise that when Allen held a retirement gala at the Mosaic Templars Center for more than $50 a plate, it was not for her own benefit. Instead, she used her official retirement to raise money for Philander Smith College, Gammon Seminary and The United Methodist Church Dollars for Scholars program.

Two days after Annual Conference 2018, a new charge was announced; the Cabinet appointed Rev. Maxine Allen to St. James United Methodist Church of Pine Bluff. The bishop remarked that her “skills, graces and experience,” in addition to her formal training as an interim pastor, make her the best pastor for the charge.

Allen will continue her involvement in community activism, running a consulting business with her daughters, Tufara Waller Muhammad and Rev. Danita Waller Paige, and spending time with her granddaughter.

It is safe to say that Allen is not really retiring, other than in the formal sense that she is no longer beholden to the bishop to say “yes” when she is asked to serve a church.

Beyond interim pastoring, Allen intends to travel in her retirement. She said she feels very “at home” outside the state of Arkansas – in Memphis, Tennessee, in Branson, Missouri. or in her travel and missions to the Holy Land, Jamaica, Belize, Aruba, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Haiti.Her future travel destinations include the slave castles in Africa, Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was a prisoner of apartheid, the Washington D.C. National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Journeys of Paul cruise and Egypt.

She has something clearly in common with Paul, known for his own manner of truth-telling in the early church letters.

“Maxine is very straightforward. If she believes something, she will tell you what she believes. She does not beat around the bush,” one of her former district superintendents the Rev. Philip Hathcock explained. “Yet, you can disagree openly and honestly to have open conversation. That is how bridges are built if you can have truth-telling and willingness to listen. She has a willingness to listen and a willingness to be a truth-teller.”

Per Allen’s point of view, her truth-telling and work for social justice in and outside the church are part of her call. A call that will never go away.

“I fight because it is right. I fight because it is the only way people coming behind me can survive,” Allen said. “I fight to build bridges. I fight because silence is compliance.”

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