Two female pastors in Chatom share calling, friendship
According to the Rev. Dr. Holly Morales, the United Methodist Church cares extensively about social principles, equal justice, and equal rights. This may be why the Methodist Church has been ordaining women for more than 50 years.
Some within the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church also believe women have a place at the pulpit as well. Formerly called the Colored Methodist Episcopal, CME is an historically African American church founded within the Methodist denomination.
At the United Methodist Church and the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Chatom, two women pastor and lead churches. Chatom UMC, 20 School St, is led by the Rev. Dr. Holly Morales. Cooper Lewis CME Church, 170 Martin Luther King Ave, and is led by the Rev. Hazel Kirksey.
At the age of 12, Morales felt that she was called to be a minister. But, when she shared the news with her mother she was told, “Women aren’t ministers. They are teachers, nurses, writers.”
Looking for answers, she got a book from the library called, “So you want to be a minister?” The book contained pictures of men, but no women at all. Putting her dream on hold, she became a teacher and then a librarian.
Still, she felt the calling. Finally, following the steps of her brother, she decided to enter seminary at Emory University.
Coming to the South was a journey for her. Most of her childhood was spent in Buffalo, New York. When she came south, she was often met with the stigma of being a “yankee.” She and her supportive husband, Arthur Morales, stayed and did their best to make whatever community they were sent to a home.
After seminary, Morales was sent to Montgomery to a church called Snowdoun UMC. Next, she was assigned to Chatom where she has been for the last 12 years.
“We like it here,” she said. “We like the sense of community.” More specifically, Morales said she loves her congregation. “For a rural church, they are very progressive, open and welcoming.”
She can recall hearing the way the congregation wanted a woman pastor. When the Methodist Church moves people, they ask the congregation what they want. They’d had a woman pastor before and told the district superintendent, “Send us a woman!”
After her first four years at Chatom UMC, Morales was given another church, in addition to the one in Chatom, in Tibbie at Chalker Memorial UMC.
A native of Chatom, the Rev. Kirksey’s story is a little different. As a child, she can remember always feeling a connection with God. When she would play church with her friends, she was always the pastor.
Still, as she grew up, she wrestled with the issue because she had only heard of men as preachers. “At the time there were no black women preachers. No white women either. No women at all.”
She almost gave up her dream, deciding to just stay very active in Cooper Lewis CME Church, the church she was raised in. “Throughout the years, I could hear him calling me.” But every time she heard the call, she would respond with, “I can’t. I’m a woman.”
Kirksey said she would respond with every other excuse she could find because she couldn’t believe that ministering was possible. As she continued to fight the calling, it took a toll on her physically. She recalls that it came to a point where she couldn’t eat or sleep.
She said God finally spoke to her and said, “Hazel, I know that you’re a woman. I made you a woman.” He spoke to her other excuses through a dream.
No long after that, she began taking the necessary steps to become a pastor. Nervously, she spoke to her pastor at the time, the Rev. John Watkins, and he let her preach at the Easter Sunday evening service at the church. After five years on trial and in training at the church, Kirksey became an elder and went on to pastor three other CME churches.
However, she soon felt led to step away from the CME church. During this time, she experienced other churches. She even started a church home in Chatom called His House.
At some point, she felt led to return to the CME church. She pastored three more churches. Then five years ago, she came back to Cooper Lewis CME and started her pastoral leadership there. “Everywhere I went I was the first female pastor. Everyone respects me as a woman of God.”
She event went on to write a book called “Receive Her? A Woman’s Struggle for Acceptance in the Ministry” to address some of the things women face.
About ten years ago, these women crossed paths while taking a walk. At the time, neither knew about the other. Imagine how interesting it was for each of them to find that there was another female pastor in the small town of Chatom!
They became fast friends, bonding with each other over their similar professions and struggles. After all, it’s not easy to be a female pastor when so many people still believe that the role of pastor should only be available to men.
“You have supporters and haters,” said Kirksey. “You have people that still say, ‘God doesn’t use a woman!” To statements like these, she brings up that the first evangelists were the women who found Jesus' empty tomb and spread the news. Morales points to the Bible story of the Israelite slave girl who helped heal Naaman. “Over and over again, God uses those least likely,” she said.
Still, not everyone wants to hear what these women have to say. Morales remembers that there have been times when other pastors have left the two women out of various gatherings. “We are two people who are outsiders in a way,” she said. “[But] we’re comfortable with each other. With Hazel, I can be myself and she can be herself.”
Kirksey agreed saying, “Usually when we get together, we are just two women who need to laugh a lot, who need to vent and be transparent, who need to say what we need to say without being judged or condemned.”
Their friendship has not only impacted them, but others in the town. They often talk about how their churches were the first ones in the town to worship together. “It took women to do it,” they like to say.
Morales posed the question, “Why are we not worshiping together? Why is 11 o’ clock on a Sunday morning the most segregated hour in the United States?”
So, for the last four years on Easter Sundays, the women unite Chatom UMC and Cooper Lewis CME for a worship service. They take turns preaching, and their choirs take turns on praise and worship. They and their congregations love it. Plus, it set a trend for other churches in the area.
The joint Easter Sunday services are just a start as the women hope to do more together.
It is obvious that there is something special about these women, their churches, and their friendship. Both women say their congregations are welcoming. You can find more information below: