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Interview with the Reverend Claire Hurst

Hurst, Claire
Crawford, Vickie
Date of Interview: 
Spiritual conversion; Religion; African Americans and religion; Women and ministry; Religious calling; Parish ministry; Church and education; Church and mutual aid; AME Zion Church; Evangelistic work; Gender roles.
An AME Zion minister, the Reverend Claire Hurst discusses religion's role in her life and in the larger African American community. Hurst talks about the importance of religious traditions and about her spiritual conversion and calling to enter the ministry. She discusses the church's centrality in the lives of black men and women and the ways it has sustained blacks socially, economically, and emotionally. She talks about the historically traditional roles of women in the African American church and argues that both rank-and-file members as well as male leadership have perpetuated those roles, even in the face of recent changes. She discusses her own experiences as a woman and senior pastor and argues that gender affects pastoral style and relationships.
Charlotte, 1950s-1990s
Levine Museum of the New South, Amazing Grace Series
CH (Claire Hurst): Can you--? Can I talk to you a little later on? OK.
VC (Crawford, Vickie): OK. Today is August the 16th. The interviewer is Vickie Crawford. I'm here interviewing Reverend Claire Hurst, H-U-R-S-T, here in Charlotte. She is the pastor of--.
CH: Reeves Temple AME Zion Church.
VC: In Davidson.
CH: In Davidson, North Carolina. Uh-huh.
VC: OK. Why don't we just start out by having you just talk about what influences led to your becoming a minister.
CH: It was a calling from the Lord. It was exactly that. I cannot say anything else because I was in a church, in Charlotte. A member. And I was sitting there one day and suddenly, just as if a voice was speaking in my ear, I heard this say "Preach." Well I looked around to see who was saying this and who I was supposed to tell this to because it certainly couldn't apply to me. I had no intention ever of preaching. And this was in my late, you know, later in my life. I was quite mature. And I had raised my family, had moved down here and come brought my mother down who had Alzheimer's disease. And just, just, that was it. It was just a calling from the Lord. And I mulled over it for a while, and then I said, "Well, no he couldn't have been talking to me." [Laughter] "He must have meant that for somebody else." But there was this little nudging and this dissatisfaction in my, in my spirit. And I kept saying to my friend, Carrie, Carrie Bolton, who was sort of like a spiritual mentor to me; she's a minister. I said, "Carrie, there's something I want you to pray about." I said "The Lord has something for me," you know, and I had already told her about this. She said, "I'm not going to pray." She said, "The Lord has already told you what you was supposed to do, so you just, just go ahead and answer." Well, then, there was no choice I had. And I spoke with my minister, and he said I've been wondering what was taking you so long. And a number of people had seen this before I had, you know, admitted and agreed. So that's how I came into the ministry. I had preached my initial sermon and stayed as an assistant at Gethsemane AME Zion Church in Charlotte with my pastor and then moved to an assistant in another church, Big Pineville AME Zion Church and, for a few years. And then, my former pastor, Bishop Battle now he is, said "Don't you think it's time for you to have your church?" I said, "No! I'm not a pastor. I, I have a ministry, but I'm not a pastor." He said, "I think you better think about that again." And I thought about it and I prayed about it and it began to get, to seem exciting to me. So I was appointed to this church in Davidson four years ago. I'm entering into my fifth year in the pastorate at Reeves Temple now. It was my first assignment, and it's been a, it's been the most exciting thing I think that has happened to me since raising my family.
VC: What are some of the challenges? What, what, what do you like best about it?
CH: What I like best--?
VC: What's it like?
CH: What I like best is seeing lives change. Seeing people who were walking like in defeat, you know. Walking sort of just unsure about which way, and seeing these people grow. Seeing them grow spiritual and seeing them grow in confidence. That life can be, can be better for them and, and for others. And that has been a real, a real exciting thing to see changes, to see lives change. And I think that's probably one of the best things that I can say about being in the ministry. And seeing people become more interested in knowing what thus saith the Lord, what God has actually said about their lives and how it can be different, how it can be better.
VC: What was your experience like growing up? Did you have a strong religious influence? Could you talk about growing up.
CH: Yeah, when I was a little girl. I remember we used to love to go to church, of course, because there was always something going on. Now that was one thing that is, is, I think is missing now that was then. Church was the center, you know, of our social life and everything. On Sunday evenings, growing up, we'd go to the Christian Endeavor and that was where the social intercourse would take place. The boys and the girls would get to together and talk. And, even as a little, little child we were brought up in like things like the Buds of Promise. You ever heard of Buds of Promise? Buds of Promise was a group of children. It's still is in existence in the AME Zion Church. Children between the ages of six and twelve were the Buds of Promise, and we used to come on Saturdays and learn all kinds of things, sing songs and, you know, do things, and recite poems. And we always had to take part in programs at church. Things like that we did. We had to stand up and be before the audience, and as a child, that's what we grew up, you know, learning and hearing about Jesus. And at age nine- I remember this very vividly-we had an evangelist, a woman evangelist named Sister Player, who came and used to, used to conduct revivals. Now in the AME Zion Church years ago, women were not pastors; they were evangelists. And they would go around like on a circuit and come and conduct revivals in the various churches, and Sister Player used to come every year. Well, at age nine, she preached a sermon one night, and I went up to be saved. I remember that, and to take the Lord into my life. And as I grew up, of course, I forgot about that. I forgot I had, had done [Laughter] it. But I like to say the Lord didn't forget. He didn't forget. And he just decided when it was time for me to, you know, to come back and to--. Because I didn't as an adult pay particular attention to Christianity and church going. I went to church because I thought it was a good thing to do but not because of any conviction or anything. But then the Lord changed all that. He saved--. He reclaimed me is what I like to say. But growing up, it was, it was church because that's where the action was, between church and school as a little girl. Uh huh.
VC: OK. What are some of your--? Do you have a favorite sermon? What was the sermon that you preached on your trial--?
CH: The sermon that I preached on my trial sermon is not my favorite. I preached on my trial sermon, I preached a sermon on revision or regeneration. Now that was a real challenge to me because most people like to change their lives, you know. They like to say, I'm going to turn over a new leaf, or they like to, to say, you know, I'm going to do better. But, you see what the Lord wants you to say is to be a new person. He creates a new person in you to grow. And so that's what regeneration is: you become a new creature in Christ. And so, that's what I preached for my trial sermon. It was, it was pretty good. I felt pretty good about it. And it was, it was interesting because at the end of it, two or three people came up to receive Christ and to be reborn and to be regenerated. But my favorite, I think, of all is about--. It's in the fourth chapter of 2 Kings and it's "It is well." It's about a Shunammite woman who helped the prophet Elisha as he was going to and fro. And he prophesied for her, and she had a son. And she had a son and then later on that son was killed or died out in the field. And she brought him up and put him on the bed that she had already offered to the prophet that he used to come and sleep in. And she went out looking for the prophet. And as she met people they asked her, you know, "How are you? Is it we--?" She said, "It is well." Now her son was laying up on the bed dead, but she said, " It shall be well." And she knew that if she could get to that prophet, she could get some help. And she would not say anything. She didn't fall all out and start crying about her son being dead or anything. She believed, and she believed. She believed enough so she got the prophet to come back to her home, and she received her son because he revived her son. And I call the power of a positive confession. We don't have to go around telling how bad things are because we have a God who is in charge. And, and, and he can fix situations that we have no control over. So what it--. That's my favorite, that's my real favorite sermon.
VC: What does the Christian ethic mean to black people? What does Christianity mean in terms of the context of the black church tradition you think?
CH: The, the, the thing that is so, I think, so powerful about the black, about the black Christian experience is knowing that through all the things that we have encountered and through all the things that we have experienced- slavery, the persecution of black folk, all this stuff- that there is indeed a God who sees this and who knows what's going on. Who knows our situation, and who is in control. We are not in control as can be seen by the things that have happened to us historically. We, we certainly are not in control. But, through the persistence and the prayers and the faith of our, our ancestors, we have come, you know, from a, from a long way. The old songs they liked to sing, "Look Where He Brought Me From," says, [Singing] "Look where he brought me from, [Singing and clapping] Look where He brought me from. He brought me out of darkness. I'm walking in the light. Look where he brought me from." That's a wonderful song. They used to sing that, you know, and people say, yeah, that's what he's done. He's done it. And we can see it from our own history what God can do and what he's done. And our people believe, I think literally, that God can do anything. And, and, and I do believe that is what has sustained us. And that's what is the essence that he's involved in our lives, that he cares about what happens to us, and that he can do something about it. That's to me--.
VC: Do you have any favorite scripture?
CH: Uh-huh, I do.
VC: Can you share with me?
CH: Yeah, there's one that also comes from, I think, 2, 2 Kings. It's about a woman who had, was, was on the verge of starvation, she and her husband. It's in 2 Kings, the fourth chapter again. This is a good--. I love the Old Testament stories because they really begin to tell you, you know, about the power of God and the concern of God and his involvement in our lives. And that's what's so good. But this was a woman who was in poverty, she and her son, and the prophet came to her and asked her if she would make him, or, if she would make something, a cake of, of bread. She said oh I don't think she said, because, you know, we, we don't have anything, and me and my son are just getting ready to eat this little bit of bread and then we're going to prepare to die because we're starving to death. He said OK. He said just make me one first. Make me a cake first. Do you remember this scripture? Have you heard this story? Well, she did. She gave--. And she made the cake using the oil that she had. Well then the prophet said to her, go and get your all the empty vessels that you have in the house and go borrow some from your friends and get them all there. And they did. And she went. And the vessels became filled with oil, filled with oil. And she, he told her to go and sell what she didn't need. And she did, and she as able to sustain her family. And the oil didn't run out until the famine was over. And use what you got in the house. I like that because God can take something, take nothing and make something out of it. If we use what we have, God will make the increase, He will take care of doing it. And I like that. Oh, I had an experience one time when a friend of my came down, and this sermon came to mind, because I had just moved in and I was in really, you know, bad situation. And, my toilet got stopped up. Now, I didn't have a plunger in the house, and the toilet was looking like it was ready to overflow. I ran around looking, and I found the vacuum cleaner brush. Put the hose of the vacuum cleaner brush and plunged it down in there and unstopped the toilet. Well, my friend laughed. She tells everybody about that. She said that Sister Hurst used what she had in the house. [Laughter] And that was one of my favorites. It was--. It's a good story, and it's a good lesson for us. Because so often, you know, we look around and we think we don't this and I don't have, I don't have. There's a girl that wrote a song about the "I ain't gots". I ain't got no this and I ain't got no that. But she said, "I got my mind, I got my heart, I got my soul, I got my body, got my [Singing] liver." Nina Simone.
VC: Um-hum.
CH: used to sing that song.
VC: Um-hum.
CH: About don't worry about what you ain't got. Use what you got, yeah that's my, one of my favorite scriptures too--. Sermons.
VC: What do you think about when you hear the song "Amazing Grace?"
CH: I think about God and the grace of God by sending Jesus. You know when he sent Jesus--. I was just thinking about that this morning, too. He sent him because we were sinners, and we could not correct our own lives. We couldn't save ourselves, and he sent this person, this God, who he was, to come down and take on the human form and come and take on all the sin for all the people for all time. And when he went to the cross, he did the work for us, so the grace that he provided was that we don't have to pay the price for our sin. If we appropriate what Jesus did and just accept him as our Savior, then we can go, go on with, with, through the grace of God and live the kind of life, the victorious life, that Jesus meant for us to do. He didn't mean for us to be walking around in defeat and, and in pain and in worry and in doubt and fear. Jesus didn't intend that; that's not why he came. So grace, the grace of God is this, this wonder provision for us that if we allow Jesus to be our Lord and Savior and to, to live his life through us, then we, we are victorious. And that's just--. I tell you that wakes you up in the morning. Makes you get up out of bed [laughter] in the morning.
VC: What are some of the current issues that the black church faces? What, what has changed about the church and what has remained the same historically?
CH: Um-hum.
VC: What are some of the things before the church right now, some of the issues?
CH: The issues before the church are to get back to the things that we did for each other in times past. The church, the black church was primarily the social agency for black people. We provided for our needy people. We took care of the children in the church. We helped young mothers who had babies out of wedlock. We didn't put them on welfare. We took care of the needs of our people, and we're not doing that. You see, the government has, has taken over that. Agencies have taken over that and, and our responsibility now is sort of empty, like we just like come to the church and then we go home. And we keep the religion, the Christianity, separate. African religion, when the Africans-and I went over in West Africa and talked about traditional African religion. It is not a separate entity of life. You don't separate the church and the rest of your life. You don't separate God from the rest of your life. He is life. And everything that Africans do, you know, is related to the deity. And, and this is what we used to do. We used to, you know, we used to be Godly people, but now we're Godly on Sunday and we're, you know, secular the rest of the time. And we try to keep those compartments of our lives separate, but that is not the way it's intended. That's not the way our church was. I wish you could go out to one of these camp meeting grounds. You've never seen a camp meeting ground, have you?
VC: No.
CH: Well, it's the most fascinating thing.
VC: Describe it for me.
CH: They have--. They build, the people have built shacks, families have built shacks. I can't really describe it; you have to see it. But in the center of these shacks, these people's families have come, and they've built these shacks where they come in the summertime and families come back from everywhere for camp meeting. And they have the preacher come, and they've got what they called a brush harbor. You never heard of that. And the brush harbor is where they have the services. And these brush harbors used to be--. They'd have a cover, you know put brush across, like they did back in the days when Jesus was there, cover them with brush in case of a rain shower, the people would be protected. But then they began to build the brush harbor's up. Build them with tin roofs and everything and the one that I'm getting ready to describe is one with a tin roof. And, and these families, these shacks they put them together and they hooked up like, like townhouses. But they've been there for years and years and years and years and years. And during camp meeting the people come and they celebrate, and it's a joyful celebration. People are preaching, and the families are cooking, and they're eating, and they're going from shack to shack, and they're greeting each other. And it's just the most wonderful thing. And, and children are all about, you know, just running and playing. It's, it's, it's exciting. So if you ever get a chance before you go, I'm going to take you out there.
VC: Oh, I'd love to see a camp. Oh!
CH: I want you to see a camp meeting.
VC: And that's still going on?
CH: It's still goes on ev--.
VC: Camp meetings?
CH: Uh-huh. Every year.
VC: That's fabulous.
CH: Uh-huh. I'm going to one--.
VC: I'd love to see that.
CH: One of my member's families has that. Um-hum.
VC: Do you have a particular song that you like?
CH: Well, of course, everybody knows that " Amazing Grace." And that is one of my favorite songs. "Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saves a wretch like me. I once was lost--." And that's true of my life. "I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see." But then there's another one that I really like; it's a great hymn. It's called "A Mighty Fortress is our God." "A bulwark never failing. A shelter here amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing." And it goes on to talk about our enemy, "our ancient foe who seeks to work us woe." Talking about Satan, "his craft and power are great and armed with cruel hate on earth is not his equal." We cannot compete with Satan. We have to have Jesus as our, as our warrior because the Bible says God Jehovah is our banner, his banner over us is love, and he will fight our battles for us. So that's, that's one of my--, one the ones I really like. I don't remember who wrote that, but it's a strong and powerful song. [RECORDING INTERRPUTED] [RECORDING RESUMED]
VC: Let me ask a final question about the role of women within black churches. What, what has been that role historically?
CH: Historically the women have been missionaries. Now, you know, before women became pastors, they were missionaries moving across the, the lands, going over to Africa and working with people and saving souls. Women who wanted to be ministers were encouraged to be missionaries. And, and recently, though, this has changed. You know that there are women taking all kinds of roles in churches now, pastors and so forth. It took some doing, and it took some doing not on the part, not necessarily on the part of church leadership as much on the part of church followership to accept women as pastors because so many [Laughter], so many churches feel that, no, we don't want a woman pastor. Let me tell you something, when I was first sent up to the church that I'm now at, my members told me, said, "We weren't that happy to see you. We, we never had a woman, you know, minister before, and we weren't that happy to see you." But, they said, we, we ready for you now. After about a year or so they felt that it, you know, that I might work out [Laughter]. They might let me stay. But this has been, it's been a dual thing. The leadership have a difficulty accepting women, you know, in the role of pastors and ministers as well as the membership, the lay people.
VC: What changed so that--? What made that switch? I mean, what, what, what about the church changed so that women were, people were more accepting--?
CH: Um-hum. VD: At least the leadership--.
CH: I think experience, experience of finding out that there were women who really lived the life that they, they preached about and women who were willing to spend time. And there's a difference in the ministry of women, I think, even so, because women are nurturers. Women take roles, and I don't want to, to say anything that, that men are not nurturing or anything like that, but what I want to say that there is a difference in the character of a women's ministry and a male's ministry. And, and as long as you don't try to be a male. I told my members, I am a woman first. I was a woman when God saved me, I was a woman when God called me, and I'm a woman now, so I'm not going to try to be a man. You know, I'm not trying to be mas--. What I have and what I'm bringing to this ministry is what my life experience has been and what God has done in my life. So it is different from a man's ministry.
VC: And what do you bring to that ministry?
CH: I, I bring, I think, mostly to love the people, loving the people and being willing to be a servant rather than to be served. And a willingness to, to get involved in the lives of my people and to take it, you know, to take it in, into, into a different dimension from, I think, from what a man would do. I, I don't know what, you know, what all male preachers do but I think that we just do it differently. [Laughter] We just do; we just do it differently. And the response is different, I think, to a woman minister, too. I think it's just a softer kind of relationship that you have. I guess that's about, about what I would say as far as being a woman minister. Yeah. I think that's, that's about it. Uh-huh.
VC: Well I just want thank you so much for taking this time out to share your, your life with me and.
CH: Aah!
VC: To talk with me with on tape.
CH: Well, that's a joy.
VC: This is a wonderful, wonderful interview.
CH: Well, you're a joy.
VC: Thank you so much.
CH: Um-hum.