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Woman of the '90s // BETTE SINGLETON

The Rev. Mozella Mitchell talked recently with Times staff writer Jackie Ripley about how the civil rights movement led her back to the church.

I grew up in the Delta region of Mississippi with no idea that by the time I was in my 30s I would be at the epicenter of the civil rights movement. I also had no idea how thoroughly that time in history would affect my life.

It was so extraordinary because there had been so much oppression and then this explosion of the mind, of the heart. Imagine the frustration of being held down and not being able to feel good about yourself and then this coming together, all this dialogue. People on all levels had awakened to self-respect and an opportunity to become somebody. For the first time you could go into areas that had been closed to you. So many things opened up _ jobs, activities, places you could go. The whole idea of black identity was emerging as black empowerment. It was truly a liberating experience.

Ironically, it was the intensity of the time that drew me back to the church. I had drifted away during my college years and here I was a professor of English Literature at Norfolk University in a position of leadership with people looking to me for hope. But I had suppressed my spiritual identity.

Realizing the heart of the civil rights movement was happening in the church, I took a leave of absence to attend a seminary in New York for two years. I was ordained and appointed to a congregation, but not even being the only black student in all-white college classes could prepare me for the rejection I would find in the church. At that time women ministers were rare in mainline Christian churches, and while the congregation accepted me some of the people in positions of power within the church did not.

Not to be deterred, I started my own mission in Norfolk. But it wasn't until I was writing the dissertation for my Ph.D. at Emory University that I got my first pastorate. Three years later, when I moved to Tampa to teach religious studies at the University of South Florida, I was asked to pastor the Mount Sinai A.M.E. Zion Church in downtown Tampa. I spent seven years there, becoming the presiding elder of the Tampa district. A few years later, I became pastor of my own church in Brandon.

The resistance to me as a woman pastor still exists, though it has lessened somewhat. The opposition also is less political but more concealed, coming now from some of the women in the church who are accustomed to a male figure.

Because I knew as a woman minister I would never get a church big enough to support a full-time minister, I continued my academic career, combining religion studies and English literature. Now I divide my time between the classroom and the pulpit. But no matter how hard it was during the early days of my ministry I was determined to persevere.

That solidified for me during a funeral for my mother's brother nine years ago. He lived to be 100, and I remember wondering to myself, "How did Uncle John survive all those years in all that prejudice?" I understand now that it was his faith and social commitment to black people that kept him going. Unfortunately, that's the very thing the black community is lacking today. I believe it's the price we've had to pay for some of us entering the middle class. Having been thrown into a secular society, we've lost the spiritual glue that held us all together.

It takes faith and tenacity to face life, traits I inherited, in part, from my grandfather. My mother's parents were born in 1862 and sold as slaves to a family from Meridian, Miss. They grew up together on the same plantation and married when they were 20. My grandfather became quite the patriarch, managing to find his mother and many of his other relatives after slavery ended. He was a Baptist minister and was looked up to in the black community. My mother shared his strength. She reared 13 children by herself after my father's death. I was 9 when he died, but by the time I was 11 she had moved us out of a sharecropper's shack and into our own home, without benefit of government assistance.

She also helped me rear my two daughters. I married at 14, had my first child at 16 and was back in school six weeks after I gave birth. The marriage lasted several years, but my husband was in the military so it was more or less a marriage in name only. I've never remarried and at one time that disturbed me greatly. I wanted a mate to help me in my ministry but eventually came to the realization that God didn't want me to have a husband. I was assured in my heart that I could do it singularly.

Until that time I'd had an unrealistic expectation of the men I was dating. They were attracted to me, but I had excelled so far beyond many of them they felt threatened. Black men have to compete in so many other areas they don't want to have to compete with the women in their lives. Once I began to understand that, being alone was easier to accept.

So many of our women are single, divorced, or widowed and are devastated by the fact they can't find a husband. They have to learn to believe in themselves, no matter what. It's an inner spirituality you have to develop, a relationship with the infinite. Howard Thurman put into words what I learned from my parents and grandparents when he said we must "keep alive the dream in the heart; for as long as one has a dream in the heart he or she cannot lose the significance of living."

Personal

Career: Mozella Mitchell, Ph.D., 59, pastor of Love of Christ, AME Mount Zion Tabernacle; professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida.

Family: Two grown daughters and two grandchildren.

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