Photo:  Julie (at immediate right of center) at the Jesse Mercer pulpit with some of her balcony people, 2002.

I preached for the first time at the weekly chapel service of Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, on Ash Wednesday of 2001. I was a junior undergraduate student in the Christianity department at Mercer, and that spring semester, four of us Christianity majors were invited to preach (my future husband happened to be another one of them, though we weren’t dating at the time!). I was both honored and terrified to preach from the Jesse Mercer pulpit, where so many Mercer legends and notable guest lecturers had stood before me.

I don’t remember much about my sermon, its content, or how the delivery actually went. Upon reading it again all these years later, I find that the writing was a bit academic. Perhaps I was aware of my context, but more likely I was trying to make my voice sound like the others I had heard from that pulpit. It took me a while to find my preaching voice, instead of channeling the voices of the preachers I admired and the professors and ministers who had shaped my theology.

What I remember most about that first preaching experience was the people who were present. In addition to the small remnant of regular chapel-goers in those non-compulsory days, who had become a sort of community for me in and of themselves, some of my personal cheerleaders were there. My parents came. I looked out from the pulpit at the faces of my youth minister and associate pastor from my home church, both of whom had been among the first to encourage me to notice my gifts for ministry. Some classmates and sorority sisters came to support me. Beloved professors were there. Even a campus minister from a more conservative ministry group on campus that I sometimes attended showed up, after taking me to lunch in the weeks before to offer practical helps on crafting the sermon. I’m pretty sure he did not support women preachers theologically, but he showed up for me nonetheless.

I remember walking away from my first time preaching both relieved and bolstered by the encouragement of others. I didn’t think that I would want to preach regularly, but neither did I swear that I would never do it again! Mostly, I remember feeling loved and supported, affirmed that I was on the right path. This ministry thing was something that I could do, that I needed to do, that I wanted to do. I felt that way because of my “balcony people,” in the words of Carlyle Marney – the people who cheered me onward and upward, who showed up for me to affirm me and love me.

Who’s in your balcony? Who are the people who have nurtured your gifts, who have seen something of your best self and have called you upward?  In whose balcony do you sit and whose can you join?

Today I give thanks to God for Nancy and Johnny Whidden, Rick Wilson, Buddy Shurden, Gerald Thomas, Blane and Barbara Jacobs, Larkin Hudson Cunningham, and Jocelyn Garrison Boatwright, among others who I don’t recall, who showed up on Ash Wednesday 2001 to sit in my balcony.

Julie Long is associate director of Baptist Women in Ministry.