At a neighborhood evangelism program in her hometown of Roanoke, Va., 9-year-old Cynthia Hale turned to an adult family friend and asked, “Is God like my father?”
“Yes,” the friend told her, “he is just like your father.”
Nearly 50 years after that day when she accepted Christ, Cynthia Hale is the founding pastor of 5,100-member megachurch in Decatur, Ga., with a budget of $4.5 million. A profound achievement for any pastor, it is virtually unheard of among African-American women in a world where race and gender remain challenges to leadership in and out of the churchThere were obstacles along the way, including skeptics who questioned her call. “Some people are just negative,” says Hale. “They’ll try to shut your dreams down. I’ve always believed that I, along with other people, could change the world for Christ.”
Hale began Ray of Hope Christian Church in 1986 with a small Bible study in her living room. Today, The Ray’s two Sunday morning services average 1,500 worshipers, many drawn by the charisma and widening reputation of its leader.
According to Mark Chaves, Duke professor of sociology, religion, and divinity and head of the National Congregations Study, those figures make Hale an exception on multiple levels.
Based on the 2006-07 survey of 1,506 U.S. congregations, Hale’s The Ray is among just 10 percent of American churches led by women. And the larger the church, the less likely a woman is in the pulpit. A 1998 survey of 1,234 U.S. congregations revealed that just 4 percent of churches with more than 350 regularly participating adults had a woman in charge.
While African-American women have had some success in getting their own churches, Chaves said many of these congregations are small and outside of mainstream denominations.
Such numbers mean little at The Ray. When members are asked whether a woman is able to preach the word, Hale says their response is short and sweet: “She does it every Sunday.”
Going Her Own Way
When Hale lost out on a job to lead a church of 25, she realized it was going to be difficult for a woman to get a pulpit no matter its size. So she started her own.
Independence is a hallmark of Hale’s leadership. While many other megachurches have shed denominational ties, The Ray is content to remain in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The lay leaders appreciate that their denomination allows them to interpret Scripture for themselves. It allows a church like The Ray to embrace a style of its own, says Hale.
Yet there’s nothing unorthodox about The Ray’s mission, which is “to bring people into a personal relationship with Christ and then send them back into the world.” The church offers literally hundreds of classes and ministries, and worship might best be described as high-energy.
Members embrace Hale’s challenge to worship, learn, and serve. And they are fiercely proud that their spiritual leader is also a trailblazer.
When Hale shared that she had been invited to pray from the podium at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the congregation erupted in applause. Hale stumped for Barack Obama and was part of a weekly conference call in which pastors prayed for him.The opportunity to lead a prayer at the historic convention, she says, was the highlight of her career.
On Sundays, the upbeat vibes are unmistakable as Hale shares hugs and conversation with folks between services outside the auditorium-style sanctuary.
Will Finch first met Hale 13 years ago at a church in Euclid, Ohio. She was there to speak. He was the guy who was supposed to turn on the microphone, supposed being the operative phrase: “She has a look that she gives people like, ‘You better get it together.’”
Having seen the no-nonsense side of Hale, today he drives 50 minutes from his home in Loganville, Ga., because he is drawn to her more pastoral side. He has gone from 325 to 265 pounds after Hale preached on the importance of exercising and eating well. A patient-sitter at nearby DeKalb Medical, he started double-tithing after Hale’s sermons convinced him that giving is the only real path to prosperity.
Arlie Holliday, who is divorced, draws comfort from the fact that Hale, who has never married, “understands the struggles.”
Hale encourages single women to find intimacy through their relationship with God and their family. And she reminds them that this is just a season — though, laughing, she adds that for her it is becoming “an eternal season.”
She lives in nearby Conyers, Ga., alone since her beloved cat died. She’s close to her parents, Harrison and Janice, and spends time with a half-dozen African-American women who also are in ministry. The best friends call themselves “The Six-Pack.”
She loves to read, work out, and go to museums and concerts. Watching Law & Order reruns on cable TV is a guilty pleasure. She and her girlfriends often call each other up and ask, “Have we seen this one?”
Holliday makes another point about Hale that is irrefutable, given the fact that the pastor is a gifted orator who stands 6 feet 3 inches in heels. “When she walks in a room,” Holliday says, “you know it.”
Gibson White, whose red knit shirt is embroidered with a Ray of Hope usher logo, joined The Ray in 1993. From the start, he accepted Hale.
“There was a stereotype that a woman is not supposed to lead,” says White. “To me, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a man or woman giving the word, provided it’s achieving what it’s supposed to do.”
‘God Was Going To Use Me’
Hale grew up singing in the choir at Loudon Avenue Christian Church and embracing ministries like Youth for Christ. Her home life was a fulfilling blend of the secular and spiritual that reflected her parents’ fun-loving nature. In other words, she remembers a lot of joy.
But her father, who worked for 20 years as a waiter for the railroads and later opened his own catering business, had doubts about his daughter’s chosen path.
“I honestly didn’t think she would stay with it,” says Harrison Hale, 85. “I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Hale’s mother, Janice, 80, had more confidence in her first-born’s determination and remembers her as “both fun-loving and spiritual.” Both parents enjoy worshiping at The Ray when they visit Hale in Decatur. “It’s a wide-awake church,” her father says.
Hale says there was no one turning point, but a series of challenges she overcame to enter ministry. The civil rights struggle and murders of JFK and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. opened her eyes to the harshness of the world beyond Roanoke. In her own life, that harshness took the form of people’s doubts thrown in her face. In high school, a friend insisted to her that she couldn’t teach the Bible because she was a woman.
Then at Hollins College, a private liberal arts college in her hometown of Roanoke, Hale herself began to struggle with accepting the call to preach. “I had not seen any women do that at all,” she recalls. She dreamed, instead, of becoming an opera singer.
As one of the few women of color at Hollins, Hale felt the weight of a double challenge, an African-American woman further set apart by her determination to become a preacher and use her pulpit to end the racism she felt was pervasive.
“God,” she was convinced, “was going to use me in some unique way to change his world.”
At that point in her life, there was still another matter to take up with God.
“I told God, ‘You get me to Duke Divinity School and I’ll go.’ I thought Duke Divinity School was unattainable for me. I’m a woman, I’m a music major. I said, ‘I just don’t know, God.’”
She came to Duke on a full scholarship.
‘Duke Was the Beginning’
“Duke,” says Hale, “was the beginning of a wonderful new life for me. It launched me in ministry.”
Nearly 30 years after graduating, she speaks nostalgically about the Divinity School. “Everybody was together, black and white, rich and poor.”
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.