Both of them grew up in communities and churches that classified and separated followers of Jesus by race and gender. This weekend, both of them will step humbly over those man-made impediments to ministry and into Memphis history.
Saturday in Cordova, Rev. Rufus Smith will stand in the pulpit for the first time as senior pastor of Hope Presbyterian Church, the largest Presbyterian church in the country.
“This signifies an emerging ‘new South,’ which is willing to embrace more mosaic churches,” said Smith, 54, a Houston, Texas, native who will become the first African-American to lead a predominantly white, suburban Memphis church.
Sunday in Germantown, Rev. Dorothy Sanders Wells will stand at the altar for the first time as priest-in-charge of St. George’s Episcopal Church, one of the largest and most affluent parishes in the diocese.
“I feel the Holy Spirit at work in a major way,” said Sanders Wells, 52, a Mobile., Ala., native who will become the first African-American woman to lead a predominantly white, suburban Memphis church.
A hopeful person would celebrate these events as a testament to the enduring power of faith, hope and love in overcoming centuries of slavery, segregation, separation and sin.
An honest person would lament the fact that it is occurring half a decade after the country elected an African-American president, three decades after the Episcopal Church began to ordain women, 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, and 2,000 years after Jesus prayed “that they may all be one.”
So let’s be honest and hopeful.
“We still live in one of the most racially polarized cities in America, so this is a big deal,” said Dr. Herbert Lester, senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church. In 2011, Lester became the first African-American pastor to lead a predominantly white congregation in Memphis.
“I believe they are making history,” said Dr. Andre Johnson, professor of religion and rhetoric at Memphis Theological Seminary. “For so long, the lament was that blacks would go and sit under ‘white leadership’ but not the other way around.”
For so long. For too long.
Smith, a husband, and a father of three, grew up in a segregated society in which the federal government had to force some churchgoing folks to live out the true meanings of their creeds, civic and religious.
“One day I just decided I would no longer serve an all-black church or an all-white church,” said Smith, who has a photo of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey in his office.
Smith came to Hope in 2010 after serving 12 years as pastor of City of Refuge Presbyterian Church, an intentionally multi-ethnic congregation in Houston.
This weekend, Smith is becoming senior pastor of a congregation founded 25 years ago in the basement of Second Presbyterian Church. In the early 1960s, deacons at Second Presbyterian stood outside the door like sentries to prevent some of God’s children from entering God’s house.
Now, two sons of that congregation are behind Smith’s coming to Memphis. Rev. Craig Strickland, Hope’s founding pastor, brought Smith to Memphis in 2010 to become his successor, and Rev. Sandy Willson, Second’s senior pastor, began encouraging Smith five years ago to come to Memphis to make history.
“The Kingdom of God isn’t just black or white. It’s a mosaic,” Smith said. “Pastor Strickland and I both want to serve a congregation that reflects the greater community as well as a love for all God’s people.”
Sanders Wells, a wife and mother of two, grew up in a segregated church where men allowed women to worship under the cross, as long as they didn’t get to close to the pulpit.
“Women couldn’t even go near the pulpit to clean it,” Sanders Wells said. “The message I got was that we are not all made in the image of God, that some of us are inferior to others.”
That message chased her from church for a few years, but she found her way back while she was a music student at Rhodes College. She went to an Episcopal church, opened the Book of Common Prayer for the first time in her life, and found another message.
“We’re all sinners,” she said, “but God is infinitely loving and forgiving.”
Not to mention patient. Sanders Wells worked for nearly 20 years as an attorney for FedEx before she acknowledged her call to ordained ministry.
“God is loud and insistent,” said Sanders Wells, who has a photo in her office of her ordination less than a year ago. The photo includes Episcopal Bishop Don Johnson, a man who grew up in a predominantly white, exclusively male-led Southern Baptist church.
Smith, who was ordained 25 years ago in a black Baptist church, believes Memphis has a special calling to overcome barriers that separate followers of Jesus. Those followers will step over two of those barriers this weekend.
“This is a good place to start,” Smith said. “This is not a good place to stop. We’ve got to keep going.”