Cynthia Hale D’79 leads two morning worship services each Sunday at Ray of Hope Christian Church. As founder and senior pastor, she has attracted a membership of 5,100.

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.”

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