Several years ago, the Rev. Terri Ofori was leading a prayer service at a university chapel that was open to all members of its community when an older alumnus approached her with a prayer request.
“He said, ‘I have an issue and I need your prayers,’” recalled Ofori. “He said, ‘When I was a student here back in the ‘60s, there were no women, and there were certainly no people that looked like you here, and I’m having a hard time adjusting.’”
Ofori, who is the chaplain to the Synod Commission of the Synod of the Northeast PC (USA), suggested that they meet over breakfast to talk.
“I think he thought that I was going to be upset, but I told him I could relate to feeling marginalized,” she said, explaining that instead of having a “knee-jerk” reaction to his comment, she sought to spark a conversation. “He thought he was marginalized too—even though he had a lot of privilege. In his mind, he was being pushed to the side.”
The interaction was one of many experiences that made her realize that race remains a sensitive topic in many churches.
“I’ve always felt that I was called for racial reconciliation,” said Ofori, who serves as the college chaplain and director of spiritual life at Bloomfield College. “I believe the Church should lead the way in racial reconciliation and inclusion of all people.”
As an interim transitional pastor, Ofori has helped integrate Protestant churches in the Northeast and provided guidance to church leaders seeking to strengthen their ministry. She has served as chaplain in a number of institutions, including Brown University, Wellesley, Emerson, Simmons College, and Harvard.
Most recently, Ofori, who is currently studying Christian Spirituality and Spiritual Direction at the Graduate School of Religion and Religious Education (GRE), was one of three religious leaders who were selected as a Robert L. Washington Scholar. Representing the Africa diaspora, she is the first woman in the Synod to be accepted to the inaugural two-year program.
“We meet as a cohort with a team of leaders and we talk about leadership issues as it pertains to our community and what’s needed,” said Ofori, who recently visited Ghana, West Africa to meet with church leaders about women’s leadership in the country. “What we’re finding is that leadership models in the past have been mostly centered on white males. This is an opportunity to get people of color in leadership roles.”
Rocking the Boat
Though Ofori always knew that ministering to others was her destiny, she didn’t always feel comfortable in the spotlight.
“I never wanted to be in charge because of the perception that women had to be quiet and submissive,” she said. “But I realized that women are actually called to be leaders.”
She found inspiration in her ministry from the courageous stories of Catholic saints after taking Women Mystics with Shannon M. McAlister, Ph.D., assistant professor of spirituality at GRE. Contemplative Action, a course taught by her advisor Fr. Francis X McAloon, S.J., also helped her to approach multidimensional issues like race and social injustice, she said.
“One of the things that I have learned from Catholic teachings is the quiet contemplation that comes before action,” she said. “A lot of times, people don’t want to rock the boat. In challenging situations, people may ask, ‘What would Jesus do?’ Some people think he would just fold his hands and pray, but he was a person of contemplation and action. He was a social justice figure, and he was actually controversial in that he challenged power structures.”
Having been born into poverty to a teenage mother in Philadelphia, Ofori said she faced many obstacles throughout her childhood. She found solace in an after-school program at a local church, where some of the teachers would sing gospel songs as they welcomed the students off of the school bus. With the help of scholarships, she went on to pursue degrees in theology, formation, and ministry.
Standing Up for the Vulnerable
These days, she is determined to pay it forward. An interim minister of the United Church of Spring Valley in Rockland County, New York, Ofori believes that religious leaders and institutions have an obligation to stand up for vulnerable members in society.
Her convictions led her co-found the Pan African Youth Leadership Academy (P.A.Y.L.A.) Project with her husband David Ofori Jr., an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA). P.A.Y.L.A. provides academic support and leadership development to at-risk black youth in the New York metropolitan area. Rev. Ofori also leads a support group for minority women at Bloomfield who are grappling with issues such as homelessness, mental health, and poverty.
“Sometimes people don’t feel good about themselves because they’re not told good things about themselves,” she said. “I always tell them that you don’t always know where people come from and the struggles they’ve had to overcome. I do this because of where I came from.”