Oak Park church rolls into future

AME Zion welcomes its first female pastor to Sacramento

The Rev. Gloria J. Clemons-White has a vision “not only for the church, but for the community.”

The Rev. Gloria J. Clemons-White has a vision “not only for the church, but for the community.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

Just north of Broadway on 42nd Street, Kyle’s Temple African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Church occupies a well-kept brick building. This part of Sacramento is a battleground between police and drug dealers, but inside the church, there is another face to Oak Park. It is the bright and determined countenance of people who are not apathetic, who have not conceded this territory, and who work every day to make it a safe and livable environment.

The most visible face in the building these days belongs to the newly appointed 27th pastor, the Rev. Gloria J. Clemons-White. As the church’s first female pastor, her June 5 appointment may be the most dramatic shift in the church since it was literally rolled across town to its present site more than 40 years ago.

“I’m thankful that the Lord led Bishop [Clarence] Carr to appoint Rev. Clemons-White,” said parishioner Marcia Ann Jones-Wylie, acknowledging that some church members were less than eager to accept a female pastor. “She totally complies with the rules for a preacher’s conduct. She is a Bible-preaching pastor who sincerely loves preaching the word and truly loves her church.”

Clemons-White, who said she is “humbled by our church family and very grateful” for the opportunity to serve in Sacramento, explained the opposition to her appointment as an interpretation of scriptures. “[Paul] was talking to the Corinthian church [of his day],” she said. “In the society of the time, women were held in a lower position than men, and women had no voice. Not only in the church—they didn’t have a voice anyplace else.”

Rocking the boat is nothing new for the AME Zion Church itself, which dates back to a time when black people either were not allowed in church or were consigned to the balcony so as not to inconvenience white worshippers. The AME Zion Church in America was founded in New York in 1796 so that, as Clemons-White said, “people of color would have a free place to worship.”

Clemons-White said women long have had a voice in the church organization, both as members of the clergy and, for at least the last 50 years, as associate ministers. But it wasn’t until the late 1980s, she said, that women have become pastors of major churches within the denomination. And to this day, the percentage of women in the clergy remains very small.

“We wrote letters of support, encouraging the bishop to appoint her as regular pastor,” said Jones-Wylie. “We’ve known her for a long time, and we feel that she has a vision that will be helpful not only for the church, but for the community.”

Clemons-White first came to Kyle’s Temple in the mid-1970s, and in 1985 she, along with a group of 11, went to North Highlands to organize an AME Zion Church there. She came back to Oak Park in 2001. She has been serving as interim pastor since last August, while waiting for her official appointment at the AME Zion Church’s 136th annual California conference, which was held this June in San Francisco. Back then, the local church was in need of a pastor after the Rev. Keith I. Harris was sent out of the area. AME Zion Church’s itinerant ministers have to be prepared to move on at the end of any one-year appointment, as Clemons-White said, whenever “the bishop decides to send you to some other work because there’s a need.”

The 383 registered members of Kyle’s Temple had already seen Clemons-White in action, not only in the pulpit, but also teaching Sunday school; holding down a full-time job with the state of California; raising her 13-year-old son, Daniel; and continuing her education at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in divinity. She previously graduated from the University of South Alabama and studied at Trinity Bible College.

In Sacramento since 1916, Kyle’s Temple always has been active in community improvement and the struggle for racial equality—the first president of the Sacramento chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was a Kyle’s Temple pastor—and church officials say that legacy continues today. “Currently, we have a feeding program through which we reach out to the community,” said Clemons-White. It serves free meals at noon on Fridays, including meat, bread, vegetables and desserts, as well as fruits and vegetables on Sundays for anyone in need. “The church has to be a part of the community; the community has to be a part of the church, because the whole idea is to save men, to save people that are around you.”

John Wade praises Clemons-White’s leadership ability and talent for bringing the church community together. Wade said he and other members of the church are graduates of Sacramento and McClatchy high schools and have “been in Sacramento forever,” so they remember Oak Park wistfully as a very different kind of place. Their vision of the future of Oak Park is informed by that memory.

Indeed, a high proportion of the congregants have been in Sacramento for most if not all of their lives, and many can remember the day, back in the late 1950s, when the original building was wrested off its foundation and transported on rollers from the triangle at Fourth Avenue and Broadway to the 42nd Street location, where it still sits in an alcove behind the pastor’s office of the present-day church.

During a recent gathering at the church, Wade Bird Jr. summed up the long association between Sacramento and Kyle’s Temple. “This is my home,” he said quietly. “It was a must for me to come.”