Embrace the theology we learn from family stories

Theology comes not from academia, but from our family stories, says Yolanda Pierce.
Our Faith

What if our theology came not from academics and church hierarchy, but from our very own family histories?

Yolanda Pierce is a theologian, author, and dean of the Howard University School of Divinity in Washington, D.C.

This is the type of theology that theologian and dean of Howard University School of Divinity Yolanda Pierce details in her book In My Grandmother’s House: Black Women, Faith, and the Stories We Inherit (Broadleaf Books). She calls this theology grandmother theology, writing in the preface to the book, “In a world eager to promote the newest wunderkind, grandmother theology carries us two or more generations back: to the kitchens, hair salons, gardens, and church basements of older Black women who are often invisible in theological discourse but without whom the American Christian church would cease to exist.”

In her book, Pierce does this work herself, telling stories of her grandmother, family, and childhood and how these small moments impacted her understanding of God, faith, and justice. Through her discussion of what this type of theology looks like, she models how all people of faith can understand their own relationships with God through their own families, social locations, and backgrounds. By doing so, Pierce says, we become a church that is led not by the (male) hierarchy, but instead by “the most faithful, the people who show up week after week, who open the doors and clean the pews.” It is a way to center those whose stories often remain untold in the church yet who have vital theological and spiritual wisdom to share with future generations.

Where does the idea of “grandmother theology” come from?

I’m a womanist theologian. Womanist theology is a field of academic theology that started in the 1970s. As Black women entered the academy in fairly large numbers, they noticed that most of feminist theology was produced by white women, and most Black theology was produced by Black men. They didn’t see any theological field that was taking their experiences seriously. So, using a term borrowed from writer Alice Walker, they created a field that we call womanist theology—a theology that centers the experience of Black women.


In what I call grandmother theology, I’m thinking about theology across generations. How theology gets transmitted from generation to generation. How in order to have interesting, distinctive, and rich theological conversations, you need to talk with grandparents and children, forbearers and ancestors. For me, grandmother theology is a code for how women have talked to one another and created theology across the generations. But it is also a way to think about ancestral theology: what we inherit from those who aren’t even with us anymore.

Grandmother theology comes out in parables, songs, stories, and cooking—the ways in which women are with one another and with family. It is about generations, it’s about inheritance, but it’s also about some other tangible aspects of theology that aren’t always systematic, which is often how we think about academic theology.

You write that Black women do theology both in the Word and in the world. What do you mean by that?

Words on a page are important, but how we live out our faith—how it shows up for us, how we treat one another, what our bodies do—is critical. Womanist theology tries to call attention to that and to the lived reality of who we are.

For the longest time, people thought about theology as these separate systems of ideas. So, soteriology was how you understand salvation or Christology was how you understand the person of Christ. Womanist theology is how you experience all those things together—not the words you write down, not the concepts, but how you literally experience theology with your body. It’s a very embodied theology, because Black women’s lived experience is at the center of it.


Race, class, gender, sexual orientation—all of the things about our bodies from size to skin color—they all deeply matter. Rather than denying them, or being unaware of them, we should view them as vital for theological reflection. It should matter to us where Christ was born, what he may have looked like, who his parents were, and his experience of the world. They fill out the flavor of our Christological imagination.

As a theologian, these are the things I’m interested in. They make the story richer and fuller, and make us use our divine imagination. Our understanding of God becomes bigger and fuller and broader, and more people are able to fit into it.

You start your book with two epigraphs: “In my father’s house there are many mansions” (John 14:2–4) and a quote from you talking about your grandmother’s house. Why did you choose to set up this comparison right from beginning?

I grew up in a household in which we were very, very careful scripture readers. We read a lot of scripture. We read scripture at home, and we went to church four times a week. That is no exaggeration: Tuesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. And so my household was infused with the words of scripture, and I love it. I have verses, chapters memorized, even still to this day I can hear the echoes of verses, and John 14 is one of those passages.

I think about the contrast of my grandmother’s house with what is in that scripture passage. When I think about the image of the divine, it should invoke love, safety, comfort, connection, and joy. In the earthly realm, I experienced that in my grandmother’s house. My grandmother’s house is where I found safety, an expression of God, and the holy. It is a holy and sacred place. And so I very much wanted to invoke where you find that sense of God on Earth: the places or the people who invoke that sense of the holy, that joy that isn’t just the eschatological hope of what we long for in the world that is to come, but that is the very present help that God provides us in family, community, church, and connection.


Tell us a little about your grandparents.

I was raised by my grandparents. They were part of the massive waves of Black migration that took place after the first and second world wars. My grandmother’s family left Georgia, and my grandfather and his family left North Carolina. Millions of African Americans left the rural South and they made their way north. As luck would have it, they made their way to Brooklyn, New York, where they met and married and began a family. And they brought with them faith and religion.

My grandparents were God-fearing, devout, and pious. The center of our lives was our faith community. That’s all I knew: the fear of God. And that translated to a fear of them, because they were God’s representatives on this Earth. But there was a beauty and a gentleness to it. I was raised with God, but also raised with a real sense of joy and love, a lot of food and a lot of laughter.

My grandmother, like many African American women of her age and generation—80 percent until the middle of the 20th century—worked as a domestic worker. For all of my life she worked taking care of other people. That’s what she did basically from Monday through Saturday. But on Sunday she was a church mother, which is a distinctive ecclesial role in our church and in our denomination. The role carries a lot of respect and honor. And so on Sunday, she would put on her hat, her gloves, her heels, and her purse, and my grandfather would put on his suit, and we would go to church. She had such a formidable religious presence. In a different generation she probably would’ve been a minister. She would have found a space for her own theological gifts. But that wasn’t an opportunity she had been given where and when she was born.

Your book is full of stories not necessarily of the big moments of your life, but of cooking a meal or the picture of Jesus your grandparents had on their walls. Could you give an example of one of these small moments and how it serves as a jumping off point for theological reflection?

For some people, God shows up in these big “aha” moments, but for me, God keeps showing up in the tiny moments. There are these small, precious moments where if we listen, if we are still, then God is speaking.


At my grandparents’ house, we had a portrait of Black Jesus. I didn’t know this was fairly rare until I got older—that most iconography of Jesus in the United States is of white Jesus. As a little girl, the only Jesus I saw was the one in my living room. And that Jesus had brown skin and dark, curly hair. He looked like all the Black men I saw every single day. He looked like my grandfather, my father, and all the men in my neighborhood and at church. I never thought any more about it.

I realize now that I was given such a wonderful, precious gift in this. I didn’t have to later deconstruct an image of white Jesus. I was given the gift of an imagination where Jesus looked like me. I was a reflection of Jesus. What a beautiful thing to believe in a Jesus who loved me because he looked like me, like my family, my grandfather, my pastor.


What’s so amazing to me is that there was the imago dei—made in the likeness and image of God. One day, I would go to graduate school and I’d read pages and pages of theological tomes by German theologians on the imago dei. But I didn’t need them to understand it. Five-year-old me understood that I was made in the image of God. I could see it right there on my grandparents’ wall. What a precious gift I had been given at a very early age.

Has grandmother theology helped you reconcile some of the more difficult things about the Christian faith?

We have to have the difficult conversations about racism, white Christian nationalism, and white supremacy. And even in having the difficult conversations, we don’t necessarily come to solutions. I struggled for a very long time with how to call myself a Christian at the same time people burning crosses on lawns and burning down churches were also calling themselves Christian. And this isn’t new: This was a debate my ancestors had. The people justifying enslavement using biblical texts called themselves Christians, and my ancestors used the same Bible to insist upon their freedom.


I think you should wrestle with that. I’m suspicious of people who don’t; the text is to be wrestled with. To me, that is the life of faith: to wrestle, to doubt, sometimes even to walk away for a little bit. It’s OK to give yourself permission to do that.

In my book, I talk about how hard it is to leave the church. But it doesn’t mean you can’t ever come back. There is a faithfulness in leaving, because you want to be genuine. I want my walk with God to be genuine. I want to be in a community with people who are doing the real work of wrestling with the contradictions of our faith and who, at the end of the day say, “I choose to remain” rather than pretending everything is OK. Because sometimes it’s not OK.

God has still been with me even when I’ve walked away, even when the hypocrisy has seemed too much, even when the contradictions make me feel like I can’t continue to do this.

I talk quite a bit about race and racism and what it means to be a Black Christian woman and a Black woman in the academy. My message isn’t a Pollyanna-like “everything works out OK.” It doesn’t always work out; there are hurts and wounds. There are scars that might not ever heal, but sometimes you still commit to doing the work. Sometimes you don’t. There are people who say, “The cost is too much.” Both positions are OK.


What would the church look like if we allowed grandmother theology to flourish?

This kind of grandmother theology is egalitarian. It comes from the people. It centers those who show up. It decenters the hierarchy. It imagines that the masses of people really know and walk with God and know intimately who God is. It demonstrates that the best way to do the work of the ecclesia, the church, is through the most faithful, the people who show up week after week, who open the doors and clean the pews. Theology emerges from the pews and not the pulpit.

I think it also provides more vital and important roles for women. We have to acknowledge that however long it was—whether a few minutes or an hour—after the crucifixion and the resurrection women were the only ones who knew the gospel. Until these women went to tell the disciples, they were the only ones on the entire planet who knew that Jesus was risen. They had such a special role. And so it’s important for me as a woman who prepares people for ministry to think about how women participate in ministry.

I use a lot of song lyrics, because music is so central to the African American experience. And I grew up with “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I continue to love the language of Jesus as friend. The intimacy of friendship, the intimacy of a Jesus who loves and who cares, the biblical language that talks about God as a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wing. We have all of this beautiful scriptural language that we don’t even use that is loving, kind, and gentle. If we allow a grandmother theology to flourish, then we have space for that kind of scriptural language.

How can people start using grandmother theology in their own lives?

Well, the paperback version of my book has a reader’s guide with questions that I hope spark this kind of reflection. But to the broader question, capture the stories of your elders before they are gone. For example, we are losing so many of the elders who participated in the civil rights movement. Congressman John Lewis died recently, and C. T. Vivian died shortly before him. The people who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. are in their 90s. King himself, I believe, would’ve been 94 this year. All those stories are gone, or they soon will be.

So capture your grandmothers’ and your grandfathers’ and your great-grandparents’ stories, particularly about their religious traditions. That isn’t to say that we have to go back to some previous religious tradition, not at all. But it is to have a record. It is to share in some memories. Even if you do nothing with these stories, it is to be able to say, “It’s important to hear your story. I want to know about who you were, what was important to you, what life was like when you were my age.” Unfortunately, we sort of forget about our elders. I think capturing their stories is a way for us to say, “You’re still important to us.”

And particularly in their faith stories and faith traditions, we might find some solutions for some of our problems. There are no new theological problems. There are new iterations of problems, but they’re the same problem. There’s always been evil in the world. It might look slightly different, but it’s the same evil. Why is there so much suffering? We’ve been asking that question for thousands of years. By talking to our elders, we might find answers to the questions that plague us. There’s nothing new under the sun. And if we’re paying attention, they might have some solutions for the stuff that is happening to us. I think we’d be surprised.

How do we prepare to be ancestors ourselves?

I love the idea from Hebrews of the great cloud of witnesses—we often call it the heavenly roll call. There’s this pantheon of greats in the Bible, and all these people, all these saints, seem so otherworldly. But they were just sort of living their lives. We’ve made them saints now, but in the moment they were just doing everything that they needed to do. And that great cloud of witnesses now includes our family members and our ancestors. I want to be a part of that heavenly roll call one day.

I think the question is what we would like our legacy to be. How would we like to be remembered? What would we like future generations to say about us? In part, this is why stories are so important. What will people say about you? My students who work in chaplaincy often tell me that no one at the end of their life is talking about work. They talk about family, the people they loved. So I think the kindness that we leave in the world, the people that we’ve loved, the tenderness that we’ve exhibited to others, the way in which we’ve helped to mentor younger generations—that’s the stuff that gets passed down.


I have to keep reminding myself of this, because we just get so busy doing stuff. But my daughter, for example, doesn’t remember all the stuff I bought her. She remembers that we baked cookies together on a snow day. She remembers the time we spent together. To me, that is a poignant reminder that we don’t have much time. And how we spend it is really critical.

My daughter now has the stories I’ve passed to her of my own grandmother, and she will pass those down to her own children, hopefully, one day. When I teach her to bake my grandmother’s biscuits, she will pass that on. By now four generations have learned the same recipe, and that’s meaningful. They’re great biscuits, by the way. But what’s meaningful is that something has been passed across generations and multiple generations in our family from slavery to now. That’s our legacy. 

This article also appears in the May 2023 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 88, No. 5, pages 20-24). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

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