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Pastor continues to ‘fight uphill’ for Black community (Holston Conference; UM News)

August 31, 2023

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — Even when she went to seminary, the Rev. Dr. Charlotte Williams did not want to be a preacher. “That was not on my radar. It was not on my bucket list,” she says.

Growing up in poverty with an addicted parent, Williams saw and experienced things that put her on a different quest: to build community and stand against the oppression of Black people.

Along the way, she became a United Methodist preacher and a Georgia state social worker who has never had it easy — but who stays on the difficult path because she has seen “the hand of God” in her journey.

“Sometimes I question myself and my sanity because it has not been a smooth transition at all,” Williams said recently, as she sat in the fellowship hall of one of the two churches she serves. “It has been a fight uphill every second … So you have to have a sense of a higher calling to be here.”

Williams is pastor of two Black churches in Chattanooga, both part-time appointments. For the last 10 years, she has led Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church. After she was ordained as an elder at Holston Annual Conference in June 2023, Williams was already into a new ministerial year when she was asked to take on a second appointment.

Six weeks ago, Williams walked into Bethlehem-Wiley United Methodist Church, a historic downtown church that has seen better days. The congregation is currently grappling with financial hardship and the recent loss of several members along with the former pastor. When she was asked (by the district superintendent) to lead the church, she saw it as an example of the “ancestral obligation” that has been threaded throughout her life.

“When you are a Black person in America, you actually have an obligation to help other Black people, because it was other Black people before us who lived and endured the hardships so that we can be here,” she said.  

After she met with Bethlehem-Wiley’s members, she said, “I’ll give it a try.”

Williams, age 52, grew up in Chattanooga and Mobile, Alabama. Both her parents were Vietnam veterans in the U.S. Air Force. Her father brought back health issues related to Agent Orange and trauma from the battlefield that Williams believes led to his addiction.

“I think he used the heroin as self-medication,” she said. “But he was able to overcome all those demons.”

Her mother, Martha Helen Stabler Williams, worked hard to make ends meet as director of child care and also custodian at Stanley United Methodist Church, in addition to other jobs. Whenever it got too hard, Martha Williams took her two children back home to Alabama, where family could help.

“In Mobile, we were able to get our needs met,” Williams said. “So, I understand poverty. You know how some people say, ‘Oh, I was poor but we didn’t know it?’ I knew it, and I didn’t like it at all.”

During those times, Williams was influenced by how she saw her communities behave. In Chattanooga, “I saw how people looked out for each other,” she said. “When one person went fishing, they came back and divided up the fish for everyone to have something to eat. I remember when our lights were out and we had no water, we would go and borrow water from a guy next door.”

In Mobile, Williams witnessed race riots which later led her to wonder why she didn’t see the church speaking out against police brutality or oppression of Black people. Instead, the fight against racism seemed to be coming from the streets or outside the church.

“These were the times I would see Black people actually fight back. And that had a huge impact on me,” Williams said. “I didn’t see any fear at all. They stood their ground.”

When Williams was 18, her father got clean and got a job as an addiction counselor at the Council for Alcohol & Drug Abuse Services (CADAS) in Chattanooga. He went to the same streets where he used to do drugs to convince people to change their lives and enter rehab.

A few years later, the addiction counselor answered the call to become a United Methodist local pastor. The Rev. Stanley Reuben Willliams served a few other churches before landing at Eastdale Village Community United Methodist Church in 1995. He led Eastdale for 18 years until his death in 2013.

At Eastdale, her father continued his mission of reaching out to “the least, the lost, the last and the left out,” his daughter says. In the meantime, Charlotte Williams pursued her own mission, educating herself about how to help the Black community while raising a son and working several jobs.

In addition to an associate degree from Chattanooga State Community College, Williams has a bachelor’s degree in African American history and African American psychology from the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga.

In 2000, she completed her master’s degree in community psychology from Florida A&M University. In 2007, she received her master’s in divinity from Gammon Theological Seminary.

“I went to Gammon actually to find out more about God and our people more so than myself,” she said. “I informed all my professors I was not looking to be a pastor.” But as her father’s health began to wane due to kidney disease, he asked his daughter to “step up” and help him fulfill his pastoral obligations.

“I did it out of duty to my father, and as I did that, people told me I had a gift. I would say the community recognized it before I did,” she said.

When her father died, the Rev. Charlotte Williams accepted an appointment to follow him at Eastdale Village.

For the last decade, she has served as a bi-vocational pastor, often sought out by the media to speak up for social justice. She’s also employed as a full-time social worker, helping Georgia children stay out of the foster-care system.

She is a leader in several organizations, including president and founding member of CALEB: Chattanoogans in Action for Love, Equality and Benevolence. In addition to advocating for affordable housing and helping children stay in school, CALEB helps incarcerated persons pay bail fees so they can keep their jobs and care for their families until they can stand before the judge.

In the summer of 2020, Williams decided to return to Gammon Theological Seminary after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. She was frustrated when the violence didn’t seem to move the church to take radical, transformative action against racism. She hoped Gammon would help her discern “how to articulate what needs to be done.”

In May 2023, Williams graduated again with a doctorate in divinity. A few weeks later, she walked across the Lake Junaluska stage with “Rev. Dr.” in front of her five names during the ordination service: Charlotte Shynellen Nzingah Nyaboke Williams. Three of the names she has had since birth. Two are African names (Nzingah and Nyaboke) given to her by African persons in more recent years on separate occasions.

Laughing at the memory, Williams said she was grateful and proud when Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett correctly pronounced all of her names during the ceremony.

Now that she’s beginning a new journey with the Bethlehem-Wiley congregation, Williams knows “a massive amount of work” is ahead. She is “praying to God for strength and resources,” but she didn’t have it easy, either, when she was appointed to Eastdale after her father’s death. Several members left the church then because she was a woman and too young, in their view, to be a pastor.

That experience and many others have prepared her for the next chapter, she said.

“Bethlehem-Wiley and these members have been here for a number of years, so we’re going to do the best that we can to make sure they continue,” she said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make bricks with no straw.”

Holston Conference includes member churches in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia, with main offices in Alcoa, Tennessee.