An African Shepherd, Too Many Girl Saints, and A Toddler-Priest



by Emily Zimbrick-Rogers


“You can’t be a shepherd,” a six-year-old African-American boy said to a five-year-old African boy. The first boy had been assigned as a Wise Man, the second boy as one of the shepherds.


The family ministries pastor, a friend of mine at a nearby mainline church, overheard and asked calmly, “Why can’t he be a shepherd?”
The first boy, not as black as the second, but not white as his friend who brings him to church, replied, “He doesn’t look like a shepherd.” His white friend piped up helpfully, “He’s not white.” He pointed at the nativity storybook she was reading. She’d specifically chosen this book because it featured a girl shepherd who was in the field with her shepherd father, and witnessed the angels’ appearance and went with her father to worship the baby Jesus.


The children’s pastor took a deep breath and said, “Actually, none of the shepherds were white. This book is wrong.”


On All Saints Day, this same children’s pastor told the children about four saints of the church throughout history. She intentionally chose two women saints and two men saints. At some point in the lesson, one of the little boys complained, “Why are there so many girls?”


We have one older assistant woman priest, but she never preaches, both due to health and preference. I have preached once or twice, and I’ve had both elderly people and young ones, former Roman Catholics and former evangelicals, tell me, “It was good to see a woman preach.”


This morning, my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter came upstairs with a red-gray feather and a fire hose from her Duplo set. She said, “Mommy, I be baptized. Baptize me, then give me candle.”


We play church quite a bit—especially preaching from a kitchen stool and handing out pretend communion and doing prayers of the people, but we have never played baptism. My daughter was baptized on All Saints Day in 2014, when she was six-month-old, so I assume she doesn’t remember it. Yet, every time there is a baptism, we bring her into the service and we stand close to where other babies and children are being baptized. She has a picture from her baptism in her room.


I am in discernment to be a priest in the Episcopal Church, and I’m a bit nervous of not doing things in a “fitting” way, which is so important for sacramentally and liturgically oriented traditions like mine. But in that moment I weighed what was most important—and it was enabling my daughter to appreciate and live into her baptism. What difference could it make to a child to only see God’s loving welcome and embrace of her?


I grabbed the water glass next to my bed and pretended to pour water on her head. I didn’t have time to look up the right words, so I just embraced my former evangelical and winged it.


“In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you,” I said. I made the sign of the cross on her forehead saying, “You are sealed as Christ’s own forever.” And then I pretended to light her feather candle.


“Now I baptize you,” she said, and “sprayed” water on me with her Duplo fire hose. She forgot the words, but touched my forehead, gave me her feather, and said, “Here’s your candle.”


Evangelical-turned-conservative-Catholic friends of mine said that their toddler daughter was the most liturgically committed of any of them. We didn’t have our daughter yet, but my husband chimed in, “What’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”


My daughter, a budding liturgist, then said, “Baptize, do it again.” So this time, I grabbed the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer that was sitting beside the bed and found the liturgy. I started to read it, but she wanted to look at an illustration in the book, and then closed it on me. Her game moved on to “painting” the outside of the prayer book with a used match and her feather-candle-now-paint brush.



In our adult education forum this fall, we’ve looked at our baptismal covenant, specifically the last commitment: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? To which we respond, I will, with God’s help.


We clearly so need God’s help to fulfill our baptismal covenant. We have children in our Sunday school programs bringing to us and Christ’s church their own experiences of racial and gender exclusion, while their parents, grandparents, and adult friends just down the hall talking in lofty conversations about racial and gender justice. There are no easy answers to solve the discrimination and exclusion so many in our congregations experience every day. My friend, the children’s pastor down the street, is striving to bring diverse images into these children’s faith formation. I’m grateful for her willingness to engage so graciously but directly with these children. And I’m realizing that even though my focus in ministry is toward young and older adults, I can’t shirk the shared responsibility of the faith formation of our children. I wonder too how can we get the love and welcome of Jesus to these and all other children—and their parents, grandparents, godparents, fellow faith-seekers—before ideas of exclusion are so embedded. By admitting our failures—this book is wrong—by continuing to bring diverse examples of faith before our children—here are women saints, here are men saints—and by allowing them to play themselves into the great story of God’s family, we can strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of all people. I trust that we will be able to do this more and more. Because we are not alone. We can, we must, and we will—with God’s help.



Emily Zimbrick-Rogers is an M.Div. graduate of Princeton Theological who is in discernment toward ordination to the priesthood in the Diocese of Southern Virginia and a lay preacher at her church

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