Story and photos by Elise Sandlin | Contributing Writer
Bishop Anne Henning Byfield, an author, leader, and activist, spoke at Middle Tennessee State University as one of the last featured speakers for Black History Month festivities. Byfield serves as the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s 16th Episcopal District, which covers Kentucky and Tennessee.
Byfield comes from a family highly dedicated to serving the Episcopal Church. Her father was a pastor and presiding elder and her mother was a servant leader in the Women’s Missionary Society. Four out of seven of Byfield’s siblings have dedicated their lives to the Episcopal Church as pastors and supervisors.
Byfield has been serving in the religious community for over 25 years and was elected bishop in 2016. She has authored three books and co-authored and contributed to numerous others, as well as written and published hymns, poetry, and spoken word. Byfield has received several elite awards in her time of service and was named in the top 15 most influential African Americans in Indianapolis and in the top ten most influential pastors. In 2020, she won the Indiana Christian Drum Major for Peace and Justice Award. Byfield is also a wife of over 45 years, a mother, and grandmother to four.
In a bright pink pantsuit, Bishop Byfield took the stage after an honorable introduction and much applause from the audience. Byfield began by addressing current racial and social issues.
“Health, wealth, racism, and sexism are four of the most detrimental things that happened to us as individuals and happened to us as a community,” Byfield said. “It’s bad enough to be black to people who hate us. It’s bad enough to be a woman to people who hate women… and it sure is bad enough to be a black woman.”
Byfield preached on the importance of choosing to like yourself no matter what obstinance society challenges you with. “I like me. There’s a God who created me, and he likes me,” She began to talk faster and louder. “My imperfection will not become more dominant than my perfection. One of the greatest warriors, one of the greatest wonders is me… I have decided I like me.”
When Byfield concluded, three MTSU student representatives from the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the MTSU chapter of the NAACP, and the Africana Studies Program asked the first several questions, addressing politics in the church and many others relative topics.
“We’re political because Jesus is political,” Byfield said. “I think we need to be more strategic in how we use our politics… Power has eroded our strength, but it is my job to affect change and use my church to do so.”
I don’t know if we can define unity. We are a diverse people. There are always going to be things that we don’t agree on… as long as where we disagree doesn’t harm each other.Bishop Anne Byfield on creating a race of unity rather than division.
Questions were then opened to the crowd, where Byfield was asked what advice she would give to young black women who want to become leaders. “Decide that it doesn’t matter what they say about you…” Byfield said. “You are who God created you to be, and God created you to be anything you want to be… so go for it. Just believe and hold that belief until you reach where you’re supposed to go.”
Byfield then addressed ways that sexism can be overcome in the church and in society. “I need brothers to speak truth to other brothers.” She encouraged the crowd to stand up for women who are being ridiculed or abused instead of ignoring it or making fun of it. “Truth telling” is the basis of overcoming sexism, Byfield said. “The initial truth telling has to be an honest conversation, then how can we empower our brothers and our sisters to do what is right.”
Byfield concluded with talking about black love, the theme for MTSU’s Black History Month. “You don’t have to be married to have black love, but the commercials we’re seeing now, where you’re seeing more and more families in the commercials… it helps,” Byfield said. “It has to be modeled. It has to be taught. It has to be very, very practical.”
MTSU graduate student Kaitlyn Sultenfuss shared her thoughts on Byfield’s message. “I thought it was awesome,” Sultenfuss said about the event. “It definitely gave a lot of insight and perspective. Being able to see and hear the differences in diversity helps give me a new sense of where I can go in the field and where I can help.” Sultenfuss is majoring in History with a foreign relations focus.
Murfreesboro native, 21-year-old Brycen Paul Heisey, attended the event as well, hearing about it from friends who are students at MTSU. “Bishop Byfield was dead on in saying that sexism must be stopped by guys too,” Heisey said. “A lot of it is going to take place behind a woman’s back, and it’s up to us to stand up for women when they aren’t there to stand up for themselves, as anybody should do for anyone.”
MTSU’s last guest speaker, Dr. Jackie Walters, will be concluding Black History Month celebration on campus and kick-starting Women’s History Month celebration in March.
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