Woman’s ministry, and baby in a basket, are remembered at N.C. church
In the 1970s, a woman had the courage not only to be a leader in ministry, but to bring her daughter, in a baby basket, to church meetings.
On Sept. 25, a North Carolina church honored that courage — and much more about her — by naming a special space after her.
Long years of service
At a service celebrating her legacy, speakers at Community UCC remembered that Rogers-Witte had that baby in tow at regional UCC meetings even before she became their minister.
Church member Mac Hulslander described a sequence of search-and-call events that landed the baby’s mother at Community UCC as pastor in 1977. He suggested that the infant, Mary Ann — at the time of the call — was “no longer content to be in the basket.”
Rogers-Witte said “yes” only after Community’s search committee approached her a second time in that process. She then led the congregation for 17 years. She later served as Conference Minister of the UCC’s Southwest Conference, and, nationally, as executive minister of Wider Church Ministries and as co-executive of Global Ministries, a common overseas ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
‘The table where Jesus is’
The Rev. Lacey Brown, Community UCC’s current pastor, opened the service with prayerful words of invocation: “Today we celebrate Pastor Cally and the legacy here at CUCC. We remember her light, joy, ministry and love. We dedicate the Narthex to her honor. Her memory among us inspires and comforts. May her story live on in this community of faith and reside deep within our hearts.”
A significant portion of Rogers-Witte’s story echoed with justice-minded words during the service.
Joan McAllister, along with many others who planned the dedication event, had spent countless hours reviewing more than 50 of Rogers-Witte’s sermons in search of common themes, planning for a creative display of her words. McAllister highlighted one such theme: “inclusivity.”
Quoting from a sermon, McAllister read words the former pastor spoke in a message embedded with a banquet metaphor from Luke’s gospel. “If we want to be at the table where Jesus is, we had better be there with the hungry child, the unemployed man, the homeless woman, the shunned and poor and forgotten. That’s where Jesus is and that’s where we need to be if we want to receive the blessing. When we leave anyone out, justice is not done.”
A woman’s journey
Women ministers were not visible with Jesus at that table in Rogers-Witte’s sermon — and she knew well the doors that were not ready to open for many women in her own generation.
Hulslander spoke of the challenges faced by women in ministry in the 1970s. He recalled serving on a Southern Conference task force for “Women in Church and Society” with the Rev. James Lightbourne, Conference minister at the time. The group’s work included energy around the Equal Rights Amendment, but also, he said, “opened up a number of churches in the Conference to consider women in ministry.”
Community UCC, “a forward-thinking congregation,” as Rogers-Witte herself once said, “took a chance on calling a young female minister in 1977.”
The ‘baby’ remembers
The daughter who was an infant at that time — Mary Ann Ciciarelli, now a mother herself —spoke with noticeable emotion. She expressed her early youthful naivete in assuming the normalcy of women in ministry — until she was in her mid-20s, when she began to see that not everyone shared that view. “I was sad when I figured that out,” Ciciarelli said. “My mother has always been a minister. I never realized how unique this church was, how special it was, until that later time in my life.”
Beth Garriott, younger child of Cally and Frank Rogers-Witte, described — from her perspective as a “PK,” or preacher’s kid — her recollection of her mother. “She chose to be a leader in a profession that was not very welcoming to women at the time, and she did it with such conviction and energy and love. Seeing her at the front of the pulpit every Sunday, and going with her to countless weddings, funerals, hospital visits, church meetings, potlucks, baptisms and more, gave me a sense of belonging and comfort, as well as a sense of purpose and service that was such a gift for a young child.”
Frank Rogers-Witte was not able to attend the Raleigh service, but offered a statement of gratitude to the Southern Conference and Community UCC. Each, he said, “nurtured Cally’s passion for peace and justice and helped develop her as a person, pastor, preacher and leader. Her time in North Carolina served as a training and proving ground for her move to Conference ministry … and then to executive leadership as a member of the Collegium of leaders of the national UCC denomination.”
Personal, social dimensions of faith
The image of a baby in a basket also surfaced during an interview with a retired Conference minister, the Rev. Rollin Russell. He remembered meeting Rogers-Witte when he was an associate Conference minister in South Central. “The first time I met her,” he said, “she came as a staff representative of OCLL [the UCC’s Office for Church Life and Leadership]. The meeting was at Slumber Falls; she had baby Mary Ann in her arms and I’m thinking, ‘this woman, how awesome.’ She did what she needed to do.”
Russell described her as a person who could connect the dots. He attributed his own call as Conference minister in the Southern Conference to a prior connection with a Southern Region Church Educators’ group that included Rogers-Witte, the Revs. Ken Clapp and Purcell Alston. Out of that group emerged a recommendation placing his name as a candidate.
“The meeting at Catawba College, where I was elected — I remember walking into the Keppel Auditorium and there was Cally with a table set up, promoting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment,” Russell said. “To think how long ago that was, and North Carolina still hasn’t done it.”
At Community UCC, some of Rogers-Witte’s words are etched on a dedication plaque, displayed on a wall of the Narthex: “This congregation has never let me forget either the personal dimension of our faith or the social. We see it in our very motto, ‘Nurturing personal faith’ as we used to say it, or in recent years we have changed it to ‘nurturing spiritual growth and working for social justice.’ I hope that this congregation will never forsake that self-understanding.”
C.L.”Curly” Stumb, is editor of the UCC Southern Conference E-news.
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