Jackie Utley was the first African American to be ordained in the ELCA in South Carolina. She’ll tell you that sometimes the things that are meant to be — like becoming a Lutheran minister — can take time and that God will keep sending you the same message, using many messengers.

At one time Jackie was a member of the Church of God in Christ, an African American Pentecostal denomination.

“I was raised here in South Carolina and I grew up during segregation,” Jackie said. “I drank from the ‘colored’ water fountain. I know what the climate has always been here in South Carolina, and I know how far we’ve come, and I know how far we have to go.”

Jackie was serving at her church as a missionary and completing a bachelor’s degree in sociology. “At that time, I heard God say that I was going to get a master of divinity degree,” Jackie said, admitting she didn’t exactly know what that meant. “Somehow … that agreed with my spirit.”

While Jackie had long experienced the calling for ministry, her denomination does not practice the ordination of women. “I didn’t think God called women to pastor, anyway,” she said.

Then a young minister from New York, Keith Braddy, came to her congregation and they got to talking about the ministry. “When our paths crossed, he asked if I would be interested in coming with him and his wife and starting up a church ministry,” she said.

In January 2005, Keith was driving through Columbia, S.C., and as he passed the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, he got a message from God: “Tell sister Jackie that this is where she should go to get her master of divinity degree.”

“I said, ‘OK, if I meet all the requirements, we’ll know that it must be God,’” she laughed. She was accepted, and by July 2005, she was was the only full-time African American student living on campus.

Surprised, then invited, by grace

What she learned at the seminary surprised her.

“I kind of thought you earned your way into heaven – that’s what I was used to being taught,” Jackie explained. “When I discovered the grace that was lifted up so much in the Lutheran church, I was pretty taken by that.”

Though she was studying at a Lutheran seminary, Jackie had no intention of becoming a Lutheran minister. But the people around her in Columbia could see this possibility long before she saw it herself.

Bob Hawkins, then a professor of worship and music at the seminary said, “Several of us on the faculty said of Jackie, ‘She is a gift, and wouldn’t it be nice to have her among Lutheran clergy?’ It became obvious to us that Jackie was respected and people sensed she had gifts for ministry.”

Jackie was offered an internship at a Lutheran church, but she declined. In 2009, shortly before she graduated, she was asked if she would be interested in assisting the pastor at Ascension Lutheran Church, a congregation in Eau Claire, a predominantly African American community in north Columbia, just a stone’s throw from the seminary.

Jackie recalled, “I flat out said, ‘No. I don’t know where this could be coming from. I’m not a Lutheran. I didn’t hear God tellin’ me to come,” she explained. “At the time, I did not want to come.”  She was struggling with the idea of infant baptism and how Lutherans view salvation.

But after several months of prayer and a heart-to-soul talk with her brother, Harmon, also a minister, she said she was interested in accepting the call. The position was filled, but Jackie was told, “We still have a place for you in the Lutheran faith.”

Ascension and shifting demographics

Ascension’s story is a familiar one – an all-White congregation in a formerly all-White community that was now predominantly African American. With shifting demographics and an aging and dwindling membership that moved out of the neighborhood, Ascension was closed off from its community. It was dying.

Ron Brown, the congregation’s pastor since 2007, told them, “In order for this church to survive, we need to [do] outreach and [welcome] the people in this community.” He added, “You’ll need to be comfortable with being with people who are different sitting in the pews with you on Sunday.”

The people who had problems with the idea left, but most members stayed.

Ron also told the congregation that opening up to the community could mean having a Black minister at Ascension.

Some said, “Well, we can live with that. That’s better than a woman pastor.” Little did they know that Jackie would be coming their way.

In July 2011, the door opened once again for Jackie to serve at Ascension. And when she finally came, she said, “I came wholeheartedly, understanding and embracing Lutheranism.”

Jackie worked with Ron — an “ideal mentor” — as assistant minister from 2011 – 2013. She started preaching once, then, twice, a month, at the congregation, with an average of 39 people in attendance. With Ron’s guidance and encouragement, visiting sick and shut-in members became an important focus for her.

In 2012, the same year the congregation was celebrating its 100th anniversary, Ron announced that he would retire the following year. They’d have to call a pastor.

Jackie remembered that a couple members said, “Why not Jackie?” They asked her, “Would you consider being our pastor?” Jackie answered, “If it’s God’s will, and if you all will have me and want me.”

Ordination: ‘The coolest, most amazing thing’

On June 2, 2013, Jackie was ordained at the South Carolina Synod Assembly in Charleston.

The fact that Jackie was the first African American woman to be ordained, was just one of the things that made her ordination special. “It was history-making,” she said.

Participating in the service alongside Herman Yoos, bishop of the ELCA South Carolina Synod, were ELCA bishops from Tanzania, Japan and Colombia,South America and two ministers from the Church of God in Christ that Jackie had worked with, including Braddy.

“It was the coolest, most amazing thing,” Bishop Yoos said. “We even had a call and response [in the service]. It was one of those spirit-led moments.”

Bishop Yoos, who felt from the beginning that Jackie would be the ideal pastor to help Ascension connect with the community, told her, “Bring everything you’ve got into this new place.”

Two things laid the groundwork for Jackie’s strong relationships with Ascension members: her devotion to visiting members and an inner well of patience.

Bob Hawkins, her seminary music and worship professor, explained, “Jackie’s not out to prove anything. She gives people time to get to know her and then suddenly, [race], which is often a [larger] barrier, isn’t really an issue anymore. [And] gender ceases to be an issue.” After Jackie’s installation, Bob became the music minister at Ascension.

“There was one [elderly] gentleman who had been utterly opposed to her coming — I don’t know whether it was her being a woman or Black, but probably both,” Bob recalled. “Despite knowing all of that, he was very open and friendly with her, and she would faithfully visit him.”

Shortly before his death, the man called her. He told her, “I’m not really afraid to die, but I do want to tell you this. For five or six years, Ron Brown was our pastor and he did a beautiful job. Just remember, you’re our pastor now and you’re doing a beautiful job.” Bob said there are many stories like this one.

In January, Ascension held its sixth ecumenical Martin Luther King Day service — its largest so far — attended by 150 people, including members, African Americans from other denominations and other local pastors who were guest speakers.

The service “was phenomenal,” Jackie said. “If the Lutherans are singing, ‘We Shall Overcome’ and ‘Lift Every Voice,’ I feel pretty positive about what’s to come.”

Jo Ann Dollard
Jo Ann Dollard is a writer, editor and communications consultant living in Chicago who believes stories are the most powerful way to communicate mission.

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