One of the joys of the Rev. Janet L. Swift's life comes after she's given a speech somewhere.
"There's always a little girl, about 8 or 9, who comes up to me and stands and looks at me. After a while, she says, `I really liked what you said,' " the Rev. Swift recalls. "Something happens when these young girls have serious role models. It's empowering for them to see women doing something they generally see men doing.""Empowering" is a word and a concept much employed by the Rev. Swift, who for the past two years has been pastor at the historic Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, 239 E. 600 South.
Members of any minority community need to feel a sense of self-worth and self-determination, she said, and the church is a key institution that can help.
For blacks, as with other people of color, there is a real need to celebrate their history, customs, heroes and heroines, and culture, she said.
Having lived for 28 years in the Denver-Colorado Springs area where there are large minority populations, the Rev. Swift said she doesn't see any real diversity in Utah.
"I'm not sure there is a desire to be distinct here, and that's where my concern is," she said. Instead, she sees a powerful drive to conform and even accept discrimination rather than speak up. "Confrontation is a bad word in Utah," she said. "But if you are willing to confront people, things will change.
"Unless the people involved want to make changes, they won't happen. It's not the responsibility of the dominant community to go to the black community or the Hispanic community and say, `I want you to preserve your traditions.' "
The Rev. Swift said African-American churches, other organizations and individuals must shed a victim mentality, develop a healthy self-esteem, preserve their own heritage and pass it on to their children.
She tries to do that in ways large and small, both in her ministry and her life.
- Trinity AME's church bulletins for children feature black children and sometimes a black Jesus on the cover.
- The Rev. Swift uses black imagery and symbols in her sermons. She also has talked with another church representative about such subtleties as portraying sinfulness as having a "black heart," which implies anything black is evil.
- Trinity AME's worship has changed from passive reverence to active participation. Congregation members read the scriptures, hug each other during an interval in the service, and read liturgical responses aloud.
The Rev. Swift is quick to say she is not implying criticism of her pastoral predecessors or other area clerics. "I'm not doing anything that's so great. I feel like I'm not doing enough and I wish I could do more," she said, adding, however, that change must start someplace.
The mother of three grown children, the Rev. Swift formerly held well-paid administrative jobs in Colorado and California. She now jokes about having become a "Buppie" (a black urban professional) with all the trappings of success, including four closets brimming with clothes.
At one point, she felt the need to greatly simplify her life. She sold her house, a car and other possessions and took a year to read the Bible, pray, study and think.
The Rev. Swift said she had always been active in church and was deeply involved in a teaching ministry when she got a divine calling to enter the ministry. At first, she ignored it because she had been raised to believe the ministry was not for women. In 1985, the call came again and she answered.
"It was not an audible voice, but I felt like I was getting clear directions. There was not a feeling of unfulfilment (in church teaching), but a feeling there was something different in the way the Lord wanted to use me in his work."
She returned to college, finished her bachelor's degree and got a master's of divinity degree from the I.L.F.F. School of Theology associated with the University of Denver.
The pending arrival of the first female pastor for Trinity AME was met with "concern" by some people in the 81-member congregation, she recalls. It also created a stir in other churches.
But the Rev. Swift said she has generally been accepted. One reason is that she paid her dues academically and pastorally. Also, she said she tries to go into situations as an individual who happens to be female, not as someone who expects prejudice, even though it exists.
"I'm not going to assume that you're not going to like me because I'm a woman. I am a minister of God first, then I am a female," the Rev. Swift said.
However, she notes that the church has to realize that women are here to stay. "They do have a lot to offer. They bring a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the church."