It has been 30 years since God prodded the Rev. Dr. Jo Ann Browning’s spirit to develop something beyond the typical Women’s Day to acknowledge and administer to the needs of women.
“I could never imagine what God would do when he dropped this in my spirit,” said Rev. Browning, who co-pastors Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fort Washington, Md., along with her husband the Rev. Dr. Grainger Browning Jr.
Rev. Browning sought the advice of her spiritual mothers, Doris Porter, former first lady of Hemingway AME Church in District Heights, Md., and the Rev. Dr. Cecelia Williams Bryant, senior episcopal supervisor, Fourth Episcopal District, AME Church.
Then, with prayer and meditation, she proceeded to plan the first Women’s Spiritual Retreat and Restoration Conference, herself.
“The inspiration came from the Lord, of course,” she said.
The first retreat saw an attendance that was shy of the 75 women she planned for. However, news about the retreat began to spread by word-of-mouth as Ebenezer women told their sorority sisters, co-workers, relatives and others.
Three decades later, hundreds of women flock to the event from all 50 U.S. states, the Caribbean, Africa and elsewhere, Rev. Browning said.
The retreats mainly comprise worship services and workshops “solely designed and focused on the spiritual needs of women,” the minister said. “Everything is designed to give women what they need”—to be affirmed, built up; to fellowship with other women and to be spiritually, mentally and physically restored.
“If the spiritual woman is strong, she can just about deal with everything,” Rev. Browning said. She added, “Our (women’s) nature is to be nurturers and we have a tendency to do for everyone else and put ourselves on the back burner and don’t even realize we are burnt out.”
The retreat occurs during Ebenezer’s Women’s Season, a time set aside in the church’s annual calendar—from March to the first Sunday in June—and dedicated to the spiritual empowerment of women.
The theme of this year’s retreat is “God is a Wonder to My Heart, Mind & Soul.”
“It really is a miracle and a wonder” all the things that women, particularly African-American women, have been able to endure and survive, and God has been the one who has held them up, Rev. Browning said. “Sometimes we just need to recognize and acknowledge that.”
The three-day retreat, to be held on the church’s campus, will feature a plethora of workshops facilitated by women preachers from all over the country, including Bishop Vashti McKenzie.
The seminars cover a range of topics that impact women, and the titles reference television shows, films, songs and other cultural phenomenon such as “12 Years a Slave,” which addresses how Christian women can deal with racism and sexism; “Blurred Lines,” which discusses how women can maintain their godly standards and “Dancing With the Scars,” which addresses how faith can help women deal with the scars that life can leave.
The titles are “not necessarily the content but the context in which things have been triggered in the hearts of women and what they’ve experienced,” Rev. Browning said, adding, “We cannot exclude reality in the church. You must be able to integrate reality with spirituality and through those two things you can address the things people deal with day to day, particularly as African Americans and people who are oppressed.”
This year’s retreat includes two extra seminars for women ages 18-35. The extra sessions are meant to serve as an incentive for these younger women, whose attendance had been dwindling, as a conference evaluation revealed.
In another change, the conference features a new schedule that provides more opportunities for rest and relaxation—attendees have more personal time to enjoy the attractions of National Harbor, including restaurants, sightseeing and shopping at the newly-opened Tanger Outlets.
These days, Rev. Browning no longer has to go it alone—for the past 10 years she has been working with a core team of four women, who pray, meditate, draft and re-draft plans for the programs over the course of an entire year.
The women have even helped Rev. Browning enter the new age of social media—information about the conference is no longer disseminated by word-of-mouth only, but also through Twitter, Facebook and the like.
“One person cannot do it all; this is a collective effort,” Rev. Browning said. “I’m grateful for the committed, wonderful, God-fearing women of Ebenezer.”