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Brenda J. Little, first African-American woman to head an American Baptist congregation, dead at 71

The Rev. Dr. BrendJ. Little

The Rev. Dr. Brenda J. Little

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Updated: February 27, 2013 6:06AM

Rev. Brenda J. Little combined divinity with divadom.

At religious revivals, “Reverend B” preached with energy, fire and love. And if you looked close, you could see she wore red hosiery — her favorite color — emblazoned with letters that spelled out “JESUS.”

Nearly 50 ministers across the country credit her with inspiring them to become preachers, said one of her “spiritual daughters,” Carla Jo Howlett, associate pastor of Flossmoor Community Church.

Rev. Little was the first African-American woman to head an American Baptist (formerly known as Northern Baptist) congregation, and the first black woman to graduate, in 1979, with a master of divinity degree from Northern Seminary in Lombard. Established in 1913, it is the only Baptist seminary in Illinois. Also in 1979, she was the first woman ordained at Second Baptist Church in Evanston, said her son, Bryan A. Piper.

The journal “The African American Pulpit” called her one of the most sought-after revivalists in America, and a 1997 Ebony magazine poll named her one of the nation’s leading black female preachers.

Rev. Little, of Morton Grove, died Dec. 26 of cancer at Midwest Palliative & Hospice CareCenterCQ, Glenview. She was 71.

“She was a true trailblazer,” Rev. Larry L. Greenfield, an executive minister with the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, said via email. “I think courage came naturally to her—or better said: it came divinely to her.”

“I can’t count the number of women, and a number of men, too, who pointed to her as the inspiration for their own spiritual leadership,” he said.

Her voice was powerful. “She would speak, and people’s jaws would drop,” said the Rev. Karen Walker Freeburg, dean of academic programs at Northern Seminary.

She was born Brenda Williams in Champaign, where she attended children’s and young adults’ ministries and Sunday school. She always felt called to preach.

Rev. Little used to quote a family aunt telling her, “ ‘You better shut up about that preaching, girl! Don’t you know that Baptists don’t believe in women preachers?’ ”

She studied at Michael Reese Hospital School of Nursing and worked as a nurse. But she continued with her religious education, earning a doctorate in ministry from Northern Seminary in 2006.

In 1990, she began serving at Bethany Baptist Church of Christ in Evanston. She also wrote a religious column for the Chicago Defender, according to her son.

In the book, “Women’s Liberation, Jesus Style (Messages of Spirituality & Wisdom),” Rev. Little talked about taking cues from the faithful. “When counseling,” she wrote in her chapter, “sometimes we need to use as few words as possible. We need to extend our antennas and become sensitive to the needs of the people...”

Friends affectionately and admiringly called her a diva. Some said it stood for “Divine Inspirational Victorious Anointed.”

“She loved red, and everyone knew she loved red,” Freeburg said. “She had this pair of hose she found, and they were red stockings, and they said ‘JESUS’ on the outside in big letters...she would do a revival, and she would be wearing those Jesus stockings.”

Even when she was being transported from the hospital to her hospice, she said, “Bryan, get my hat,’ ’’ said her son. “She had this red baseball cap with little studs in it. She always wanted to look nice.”

Toward the end, a doctor visited her room. Her family wondered what was happening, her son said, and “We go back in the room, and she’s there, actually praying with her doctor, and even in her softspoken voice, she prayed with that doctor for 10 minutes, and that shows me her conviction, her belief.”

In addition to her son, Rev. Little is also survived by her husband, Rev. Alfred Little; her children Becki M. Piper Hall and Bradley A. Piper; her mother, Sylvia M. Williams, and six grandchildren.

Services were held.

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