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Dr. Betty Deas Clark: Inside Looking Out

BARRYTOWN –  Every person has their own set of difficulties and hardships to overcome on their way to discovering their value and place in the world. The lessons learned from those, often, daunting tasks we are challenged to overcome, mold our character and define us as the people we ultimately become.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark, recently completed teaching the second week of the Doctor of Ministry (D. Min.) program on the Barrytown campus of the Unification Theological Seminary (UTS) on the subject of, Faith Formation, Spirituality and Counseling within the Contemporary Family. Her journey to this point, has had its own unique set of challenges… and triumphs.

From early childhood she struggled with the effects of asthma and was forced to remain indoors to avoid the dust and pollen floating in the air that could easily trigger an attack. It was from this vantage point, from inside what she termed “the box,” that she began to look at the world from a less than ordinary perspective.

“I knew at an early age that there was something different,” said Dr. Clark, “that there was more to life for me than the traditional roles in life – grow up, get married, have children. I didn’t know what it was then, but now I know it was God wooing me into ministry.”

That personal journey “into ministry” brought her to the height of success… and tragedy. In January of 2016 Dr. Clark, who holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Erskine Theological Seminary (S.C.), was named the first female pastor in the 200-year history of the Emanuel AME Church of Charleston, S.C., the oldest independent black denomination in the United States.

“Mother Emanuel,” as it is most often referred to, entered the homes of mainstream America on the night of June 17, 2015, when a young, white man – Dylann Roof – shot and killed nine people during a night of Bible study. While the shooting no doubt shocked America, what may have shocked America even more was the almost immediate pronouncement by the congregation that they had already “forgiven” the killer for his unrepentant act.

One of the nine who died that night was the church’s senior pastor and state senator, Clementa C. Pinckney. For the next six months Rev. Dr. Norvel Goff, Sr. served as the interim pastor until Dr. Clark’s appointment the following January.

Tragedy – and controversy – would find Dr. Clark once again in the not too distant future. On June 12, 2016 the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida was the scene of another horrendous shooting incident. This time it was also a lone gunman, Omar Mateen, who professed his allegiance to ISIS and proceeded to kill 49 and wound 53 in what became the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since September 11, 2001, and the largest ever against members of the LGBTQ community.

I believe when we’re called to ministry we’re called to community, not just the congregation. And I believe we have to view it from a holistic perspective.”The Rev. Dr. Betty Deas Clark

Upon hearing the news on that Sunday evening as she was preparing to attend the United State of Women conference at the White House where she was to be honored, Dr. Clark made the choice, as a minister and a woman, that she could best be of service to those afflicted by this tragedy by offering, as she put it, a “ministry of presence

“My motivation was Mother Emanuel,” said Dr. Clark. “and the community and members of Mother Emanuel that had experienced a horrific situation. So, to go there with a ‘ministry of presence’ and to say to them, the same God who is yet still leading us, healing us, He will heal and lead you. Not based on gender, not based on sexual orientation, but based on the love of God.”

While some admired her decision to go to Orlando and forego the White House invitation, not everyone agreed with her choice. Only five months after being appointed the first female pastor of Mother Emanuel Church – and 12 days after her trip to Orlando – she was reassigned to a church in Georgetown, S.C.

While she may have not have been prepared for the repercussions that followed, she had – and still has – no doubt that the choice she made was the right one for the right reason.

“It (her decision) was controversial for others,” said Dr. Clark, “but it wasn’t controversial for me. If I can help somebody, no matter who they are, no matter where they are, and if I feel there is something in me that can contribute to their betterment, then I’m going to do it.”

It was not long after, however, that she was asked by Dr. Luonne Rouse, a professor in the D.Min. program and one of her former instructors at Erskine, if he could submit her name to Dr. Kathy Winings, Director of the D.Min, for consideration as a teacher in the program.

Having been at the center of more than one controversy, Dr. Clark had no qualms about teaching at a school founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, deeming the opportunity, as she put it, “an interesting challenge.”
“I believe that any opportunity we have to share, or be a part of the “good news, the Gospel, we avail ourselves,” said Dr. Clark. “I think we have to find ourselves in a larger context than what we are accustomed to.”

Leaving, it seems, no stone unturned, Dr. Clark is also the National Spokesperson for the Brady Campaign (To Prevent Gun Violence), and the chaplain for the police department in Georgetown, S.C.

“I believe when we’re called to ministry we’re called to community, not just the congregation. And I believe we have to view it from a holistic perspective.”

Her faith and devotion have left its impact on others, especially those who know her well. Her daughter, the Rev. Roteshia Jackson, has followed in her mother’s footsteps and lives with her husband, Antwan, and their 3-year-old daughter in the small coastal town of McClellanville, S.C., not far from Georgetown.