My life’s work focuses on the advancement of women and girls. The seed for my purpose was planted at an early age.
When I was in the fifth grade, a Sunday school teacher asked for a volunteer to lead the prayer. I was the preacher’s daughter and felt quite qualified for the job. So I instructed everyone to bow their heads and gave such a passionate plea I was sure it would shoot to the heavens like a rocket ship. I was beaming by the final “Amen!” But by the time all of the other kids had filed out of the room, my confidence came to a screeching halt.
The Sunday school teacher pulled me aside to explain when she requested a volunteer she was not expecting a girl. “Boys are the leaders,” she said. I was devastated. Apparently my father had failed to teach me this important church doctrine.
My moment of pride morphed into bitter embarrassment and confusion. I bolted out of the room and into the bathroom, where I bumped right into Sister Williams, who noticed the tears streaming down my face. After struggling to share my story, she bent down and spoke to me very slowly and compassionately: “Do you want to know a secret?,” she asked. I nodded through my tears. She continued: “Up in heaven there are no boys or girls. Only souls.” I crossed my arms defiantly across my chest. “Well then right now I want to die and go to heaven,” I told her. “You could do that,” she replied, “or you could keep leading and try to make heaven on earth.” I didn’t really understand what she meant, but I felt affirmed. I was going to prove that Sunday school teacher wrong.
That’s the first time I remember leaning in.
I ran for student government in middle and high school and was president of my sorority chapter in college. I’ve raised millions of dollars for organizations that advance women and girls and most recently led a national women’s leadership organization. We still have a long way to go to get to “heaven on earth,” a place where women’s voices and talents are fully harnessed for the benefit of all of us. But I’m on the planet to help make it happen.
Sister Brenda Williams passed away in 2012. I will always regret that I never thanked her for encouraging me that Sunday morning. As you lean in, express gratitude to those who spur your growth along the journey, and pay it forward to others who may need your help along the way.