Duke pushed her to think critically, challenge Scripture, see it in the context of the times, tear apart verses and put them back together, says Hale. She appreciated how professors including Tom Langford, Roland Murphy, and John Westerhoff made the Bible come alive.
Westerhoff, who served as Hale’s spiritual director, retired to Atlanta, where he is resident theologian at St. Anne’s Episcopal Church. Duke might have served Hale well, he said, but she came to Durham with the potential to do special things in the pulpit.
“She was one of those students who stood out,” says Westerhoff. “She always brought a creative edge to everything, something new, something original that wasn’t just giving back the facts and information.”
Don’t be fooled by the fact that she leads a church whose worship style is “free and easy,” as Westerhoff describes it. Beyond the emotion and theater that is part of the texture of the black church experience, hebelieves Hale’s ministry is grounded in what she learned at Duke.
Theology and theater?
“She can do those things together,” says Westerhoff.
Hale recalls debates at seminary about whether women were called to preach. But the arguments of doubters were doused by the weight of the evidence.
“The women there,” she said, “were such strong preachers and such strong partners in ministry. The doubters had to get over it.”
‘A Magnificent Presence’
Hale spent seven years as a chaplain with the Federal Bureau of Prisons, work that she says prepared her to handle budgets and bureaucracy. Working with criminals also toughened her to the point that the unpredictable life of a megachurch leader does not faze her. She can, by all accounts, run a meeting, put out fires, and deal with the politics and personalities that are part of every church.
On a typical Sunday, after preaching two back-to-back services, Hale returns to her office wiping away tears. During the second service, a first-time visitor dressed in cut-off blue jeans had answered the altar call.
When Hale asked the men of the church to come forward to pray for him, more than 100 men responded, enveloping the stranger in prayer. Soon, Hale, the men, and the rest of the congregation realized the man was deaf.
“That’s what got to me,” says Hale afterward. “We had to communicate God’s love to him through sign language.” It was not the first time, says Hale, that she had been moved to tears in the sanctuary.
Yet more often than she cries, Hale laughs — either over something at church or in her life. Her willingness to reveal and share what she is feeling and thinking endears her to many, says former Duke classmate Michael Battle D’76, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. “Cynthia Hale has a magnificent presence in the pulpit that demands attention.”
It is nearly 1 p.m. Hale has been at church since the sun came up. She’s preached two sermons and she’s shed tears. But she is soon smiling as she raises her arms high in a V and says, “The congregation loves when I do this. That’s my signature ‘Hallelujah!’”
That one word, an exclamation in her case, is the answer to the question she posed as a 9-year-old: “Is God like my father?”
It is her response to the challenges she meets in life.
It is an expression of the call that caught fire at Duke.
Every time she faced a question about her call or her qualifications to start a church, she’d look to God.
“I always felt God leading me to respond, ‘You tell them I called you.’”
Ken Garfield, director of communications at Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., writes often about religion for Divinity and other publications, including Charlotte magazine.