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Geraldine McClellan’s call to ministry was stronger than obstacles she faced

Geraldine McClellan’s call to ministry was stronger than obstacles she faced

Leadership


Geraldine McClellan’s path to the ministry was complicated and roundabout, but it wouldn’t have seemed that way when she was growing up on the banks of the St. John’s River near Palatka, the fifth of eight children in a devoted Methodist family, in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Her calling then might have seemed inevitable.

Besides being principal of the school the children attended, East Palatka Elementary, her father was a Methodist minister. So were her grandfather and two uncles, and the grandfather and one uncle had been district superintendents. It was bred in the bone.

By the way, being the principal’s kids didn’t make them teacher’s pets. McClellan is very clear on that.

“He wasn’t one to allow special privileges just because we were his children,” she said. “He would ride to school in an old buggy, but we couldn’t ride with him. We had to walk a quarter-mile to catch the bus.

“Then he would meet the bus, and we had to get off and say, ‘Good morning, Professor Williams’ like everybody else, and we couldn’t call him father.”

As might be expected, young Geraldine grew up serious, studious, and devout. But she was a girl instead of a boy and black instead of white, and that would make things difficult later.

Geraldine McClellan, seen here with the P.I.N.K. Girls, is a role model for multiple generations.

Ultimately her career, becoming the first ordained black woman and first black female district superintendent in the Florida United Methodist Church, came to symbolize the struggle of the church itself to become more inclusive of all God’s children.

McClellan says she acknowledged her call to the ministry as a teenager in the 1960s. But the church at that time wasn’t entirely friendly toward black people or women as clergy.

Her family’s home church, Emmanuel Methodist (“United” wasn’t part of the name then), and all the ministers in her family were part of a denomination segregated by race, and with a stained-glass ceiling for women.

As described by church historian Barbara Troxell, the Methodist Church had formed from three separate denominations in 1939.

But only one of the three gave women full clergy privileges, and it gave that up to join the merger.

Another of the three, the Methodist Episcopal Church South, insisted that a separate organization, the Central Jurisdiction, be formed to accommodate black churches.

Thirty years later, at the same time, McClellan was feeling her call to the ministry, the church was feeling a call to change.

In 1968, after years of work and negotiations, the United Methodist Church was born in another historic merger between 750,000-member Evangelical United Brethren Church and the 10.3 million-member Methodist Church.

The Central Jurisdiction was abolished, folding black churches into the new denomination. Technically, that meant the new United Methodist Church was now equally open to blacks and whites, men and women, in the ministry.

But it didn’t work out that way in practice.

“Even after being accepted, we still continued to have to bring down barriers in race relations and inclusion,” said Rev. Kevin James of Palm Coast UMC, a friend of McClellan’s for 40 years.

McClellan, he said, was a major figure in pushing for that acceptance in the Florida church.

“She continues to fight the fight even though she’s retired, and we laugh when we say that word,” he said. “She may be retired on paper but not in community involvement. She works every day.”

Even though the teenaged McClellan had felt her calling and the explicit ban on women pastors was lifted, she couldn’t forget what a black pastor and close friend of her father had once told her: “God does not call women to the ministry.”

She never had a chance to talk about that with her father – he died when she was 13 -- “but he would have had the same idea,” she said.

And her mother probably wouldn’t have disagreed.

“Momma knew that I always had a heart for the underdogs. Maybe she thought I’d be a social worker or something of that sort” – but probably not a pastor.

McClellan had grown up swimming in the river and playing on her family’s five acres with children who made little distinction about race. Hers was one of two black families in a mainly white area.

“Black and white didn’t matter to us,” she said. “We played together; we were in and out of each other’s houses.”

But when the civil rights movement and federally mandated school integration began, things changed.

“It was baffling to all of us,” she said.

Racial animus crept into everyday life, and the Ku Klux Klan became a sinister force that made her mother’s 17-mile drive from her home in East Palatka to her job at Florida Memorial College unnerving.

In 1966, McClellan became one of two students to integrate Saint John’s River Community College but says she didn’t truly experience the civil rights movement until she moved on to Bethune-Cookman College (now University) in Daytona.

“When I got there and saw how things were, it made me angry,” she said.

She moved off campus and got involved with a Citizens’ Coordinating Committee in Daytona. She was eventually escorted out of town by cops after organizing a picket of a segregated daycare center in New Smyrna Beach.

“I did cause a little trouble,” she said. “Those were my radical days … we weren’t brought up that way.”

One way or another, the idea of the ministry seemed, at that time, unreachable.

“The mantle of ministry had been on my shoulders since high school, but I did not follow the calling,” she said.

McClellan got a job at Florida Memorial College (now University), then left “to go on an adventure” with friends, running a liquor store in a down-and-out neighborhood in Fort Pierce.

For the next few years, the closest she came to the ministry was when the local Episcopal priest came in to buy communion wine.

“I was tested in that community,” she said. “But I learned to relate to anyone in the community -- drug addicts, prostitutes, criminals.”

Then an event happened that to this day remains vivid in McClellan’s memory.

One day as she worked behind the counter in the store, she looked up and saw the silhouette of a man in an overcoat and hat darkening the door. It was the president of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, the Rev. Dr. Major J. Jones, who had known and followed her family for years – and whose views on women in the ministry differed from her father’s.

Her mother had told him where to find her.

“This is not what God called you for,” he said, looking around the liquor store.

From that moment, her path unwound. But it still wasn’t straight.

During and after getting degrees in religious education and divinity at Gammon, she worked as a counselor in a prison and mental hospital and as an assistant pastor in Atlanta, then as campus minister at Florida International University.

But her hope to be ordained in Florida didn’t go smoothly.

McClellan said she had to appear before the Conference Board of Ordained ministry five times before winning her ordination as a deacon in 1980.

“At one point, I was asked why I wanted to be part of a white church – I answered that it wasn’t a white church, it was God’s church,” she said.

“And at one point I told the board Jesus didn’t have to sit in a chair and defend his call to ministry. They said I was arrogant, defiant. For five years, this continued until they finally decided they’d let this crazy little black woman in because I wasn’t quitting.”

She said she won ordination after deciding to follow advice from a mentor: “Give them what they want until you get in, then give them hell.”

In 1988, McClellan first came to the church where she spent the largest part of her pastoral career, Mt. Pleasant United Methodist in Gainesville, where her grandfather had been pastor.

The Civil War-era church is located in one of the city’s oldest black neighborhoods, Pleasant Street – once prosperous and now starting to gentrify, but at the time of her arrival, severely blighted. The parsonage was in the center of the blight.

The previous pastor had moved out, she said. McClellan insisted on living there – “I felt God had placed me where he wanted me.”

She walked the neighborhood in jeans and T-shirts, becoming a familiar face on the streets “before it dawned on people that I was the pastor.” She spent a lot of time at a spot called The Rock, a concrete slab foundation of a demolished building that was a night-time hangout.

She would arrive at the church to find vagrants drinking and smoking dope on the steps.

“Finally, they figured out who I was, and they would hide the booze and reefer when I went by,” she said. “I became the pastor for the community. When the bootleg house or the drug house would get raided, I’d go down there and get involved.”

But the congregation was wary of a female pastor.

“Even though this congregation was familiar with my family members who served in leadership roles, and even though they knew me as a child, I had to prove myself to them,” she said.

In 1991, she married Richard McClellan, who was an ordained minister but worked as a tax preparer and chemist for a dry cleaner, and they had two children.

She became a widow in 2015; her daughter is a nurse, and her son works for a security firm, both in the Atlanta area.

In 2000, she was appointed district superintendent of the church’s North Central District, where she served until 2008.

After that, she could have gone where she chose, but she chose to go back to Mr. Pleasant UMC.

When she retired in 2018, the congregation’s initial wariness was long gone.

A retirement celebration the Gainesville Sun called “a grand outpouring of love and respect” included the mayor and chairman of the county board of commissioners.

“I appreciate that you go outside the church walls,” said a former county commissioner and evangelist speaking at the event, Rodney Long, the Sun reported. “You take the ministry out to the streets at Duval/Eighth Avenue.”

Today, McClellan still lives in Gainesville, and still takes her ministry to the streets.

At Rawlings Elementary, she founded a mentoring group of girls from the disadvantaged neighborhood who call themselves the PINK Girls, for “pretty, intelligent, nice and knowledgeable.”

She’s on a middle-school dropout prevention task force, on the board of the PACE Center for Girls, and a lifetime member of the PTA, among other things.

She’s Florida chairwoman of an organization set up in the wake of the 1968 merger to press for effecting the integration of the church, the Florida Caucus of Black Methodist for Church Renewal.

She’s also the annual speaker at the United Methodist Women’s retreat – “It’s predominantly white women, and yet they continue to call her back to be preacher and presenter because she has the gifts to proclaim the Gospel,” said James.

“She can speak to the hearts of all people.”

--William March is a freelance writer in Tampa

 
 

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