That’s a long way—culturally and socially—from the Leesburg, Fla., United Methodist Camp that Warren attended growing up, first as a camper, then a counselor.
“My family and I joined the Methodist church when I was in fifth grade,” she says. “In sixth grade my life was changed by the church …[through] the family I found in the youth group.”
Indeed, the combination of youth group and camp would play a significant role in Warren’s faith journey. She recalls telling her youth leader, “I want to do what you do, lead people to Jesus Christ.”
Her youth leader’s response was, “Great, but I think you’d be a good pastor.” It wasn’t that Warren didn’t think she could become a pastor, but she had no model. At 18, she preached her first sermon under the camp’s auspices, and she went on to major in religion at Florida Southern College before attending Duke Divinity School.
Today, Warren is the role model. Living conditions are harsh in Florida City, a community that is largely a Haitian and Hispanic mix. The traditional and customary roles for women, many of whom become single mothers as teens, involve work on farms or in the hospitality industry.
“More and more this area has become like an urban city in a suburban setting,” says Warren, who is herself proof that young women today can choose alternative paths.
“Seeing a young, single, professional female has made them think, ‘Wow, there are other options than having babies and depending on my husband, who may be selling drugs most of the time, to take care of my babies while I’m at work,” she says.
And while 4-year-old Cassandra is playing pastor, older girls at Branches are determined to graduate from high school and perhaps eventually from college.
“I would like to call it incarnational ministry,” says Warren. “We teach and preach and all of those things, but I think the biggest transformation comes when we are in relationship with the people we live around and decide to be with them no matter what—just like Jesus is with us.”
Maria Mallory White is a freelance writer who has worked for Business Week and U.S. News & World Report. A graduate of Candler School of Theology, she is an African Methodist Episcopal minister.
For more information about findings on women in ministry from the National Congregations Study, see Mark Chaves’s articles: Why are there (still!) so few women clergy? and Gender, lay leadership and fancy rhetorical footwork on Faith & Leadership.