Her boisterous laugh warms the nearly empty sanctuary. She is flanked by three young black journalists who are wrapping up an interview for a TV station that airs out of Columbia, South Carolina.
It’s Dr. Betty Deas Clark’s fourth week as the first female pastor of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, affectionately referred to as “Mother Emanuel.” The pew she grips while chatting with the young men belongs to the same set inhabited by the nine churchgoers massacred last June by 21-year-old Dylann Roof, a white supremacist.
“Hold on,” she tells me before we start the interview. Clark wants to switch up her attire. “I have an African outfit in the car,” she says with a beaming smile as she hastily exits the room.
Among the nine slain in last year’s attack was Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor and a South Carolina state senator. The church’s interim pastor, Norvel Goff, has been accused of mishandling church funds and not giving support to AME’s grieving congregants, according to the Post and Courier. (Goff has vigorously denied the allegations.) Clark has been hired to replace Goff and to fill the hole of the beloved Pinckney.
She returns to the sanctuary donning a lightweight coat with little figures of dancing people on it.
We take a seat in the middle pew, first row.
“Coming back to Charleston is coming home,” the pastor says. Clark hails from Awendaw, South Carolina, a small fishing and hunting town with a population that hovers around 1,200 and is just a 40-minute drive from Charleston. “One good thing about growing up in a small town like Awendaw was that there was a great sense of community,” Clark tells me. “When something happened to a neighbor, it happened to you. You cared about it, you cried over it, you celebrated it.”
Growing up in Awendaw, though, didn’t shield Clark from racism. “When integration was first initiated in the area I left the predominantly black school to go to the ‘white school,’ and let’s just say they didn’t have open arms when I got there,” she says. Clark remembers receiving a “less than desirable” grade on a pop quiz and getting made fun of by a white classmate. “That’s when I realized there was a double standard,” she says. “That I was destined to fail in the class, while others were destined to be successful.”
Awendaw, too, was where Clark first went to church. “Indirectly I always knew I had a special relationship with God,” she says. But it wasn’t until she was an adult that she “felt an unction” to be part of the ministry. “While I had pioneers before me,” Clark says about being a woman in the AME church, “I saw myself as a pioneer in my own world.”
It’s Valentine’s Day, and the church is packed. Congregants and visitors are festooned in red hats, ties, shirts, skirts and dresses. Clark presides over the room with a maternal, unmistakably female energy. “For the Apostle, martyrs, heroes and sheroes of the faith,” she says in the Founders’ Day Litany, adding in the word “shero” to the written text provided to churchgoers.
Clark is unabashed about being a woman at the pulpit. During a part of service where visitors to the church introduce themselves, one particular gentleman calls out, “I’m going to ask, like I do every year.” She begins to fan herself. “Will you be my valentine?” The church erupts into laughter and cheers. “The answer is yes,” she says to her husband. More laughter and clapping.
Marlena Davis, a lifelong Mother Emanuel congregant says that while she doesn’t know Clark too well yet, she is excited to have a female pastor. “This is a huge job,” Davis says. “I appreciate her because if someone asked me I wouldn’t have done it.” Another Mother Emanuel goer, Tim Brown, echoes Davis’ sentiment “It’s a big deal” to have a woman pastor, he says. But, Brown says, women have always played a vital role at the church.
About being the first woman pastor to lead Mother Emanuel, Clark says “I take special effort in acknowledging that I am a female who happens to be the pastor here. But I also try to separate it because I’m called here because of the anointing.” So she says, “while I am a female pastor, I am a pastor who happens to be a female.”
When news broke of the massacre at Mother Emanuel, Clark was two hours away at Mount Pisgah AME church in Sumter, South Carolina. “I’m from Charleston,” she says with a pride in her voice only possible from a native daughter. “I had spent many nights and days praying in this sanctuary,” she says. “Worshiping, fellowshipping, laughing, talking with individuals.” Clark recalls having a conversation with the late Rev. Pinckney less than 10 days before the attack. Both were hosting a major meeting for their denomination, Pinckney in Charleston and Clark in Sumter.
“It hurt when I heard the news,” Clark says, her voice now shaky. “It hurt because of where it was,” she says. “It was in the house of the lord. And no one expects tragedy in the house of the lord.” It’s a place of refuge, she reminds me. “And when that is violated it’s like, ‘Well where can I go?’”
Clark has no illusions about where her congregants are going to come to grieve. Right back to AME, the same site causing them trauma. “It is painful, it was painful, and it will be painful,” she tells me. “Because it’s a process.”
Eight months have passed since the massacre at Mother Emanuel. And the church is still reeling from the losses. The sermon Clark delivers to AME in her fourth week is about remembering that God is there even in the darkest of hours. “God does not want us to rely on the tangible, He wants us to rely on Him,” Clark bellows to a chorus of “amens” from the crowd. “When life gives you lemons, don’t pull away from God!” When life is going well, she says, it’s easy to praise God. It’s when times are tough that a believer’s faith is tested. Clark knows many in the congregation are still in their darkest hour, and that their faith may be tested.
In her short tenure as pastor, Clark is still assessing the congregation’s needs. “Everyone grieves differently,” she says. “I will have to spend time with them and figure out how I can journey with them in the process of grieving.” But, she adds, “It’s too soon to see how that will play out.”
In the intermittent months the church has embraced and spoken out in favor of expanding gun control measures. Last month the church participated in a day of gun violence awareness dubbed “Stand Up Sunday”.
Clark says she plans to carry on that torch. Her views on gun reform, she says, did not change after the shootings, but were “intensified.” Clark reiterates that she plans to focus on the needs of her congregation but tells me “We must stand for gun control. And stand against people being issued guns without proper, completed background checks.”
For now, however, Clark is concentrated on connecting with her congregation. “I’ve reached out to all of the families,” she says. “My desire is to extend myself to them, let them know I care.” Clark’s journey at Mother Emanuel is just beginning. And so too, are the congregants grief. “This is not the end,” she says. “It’s a period. But we still have to write the paragraph.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.