By Judy Willis
Religion is the category for the final story in this series. The Rev. Victoria Sizemore Baldwin, a pastor in the United Methodist Church is featured. She has chosen her late mother, Hazel Bridges Sizemore, as her “shero” and the Rev. Cynthia Ashford Cross as a shining star in the clergy.
“My mother had a do-or-die attitude and never let anything get in the way of her taking care of her family,” says the Rev. Victoria Sizemore Baldwin. “She taught me to have a strong sense of self-worth. She’s always been my shero.”
Hazel Bridges Sizemore was born in North Carolina in 1915 and was among the nearly two million who left the South during the Great Migration, the mass movement of blacks who sought sanctuary from lynching, an unfair legal system, inequality in education and denial of suffrage.
She attended college in Boston where she trained as an opera singer. During WW II, she toured with the USO at a time when it was segregated. After marrying, she gave up her career to be a wife and mother.
The same can-do spirit would inspire her daughter Victoria Baldwin’s exodus from New York to Mississippi in 1989 to pursue her calling to the ministry.
Baldwin is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church Mississippi Conference who formerly served as the district superintendent of the Senatobia District before being assigned to the Hattiesburg District at St. Paul and St. John United Methodist Churches. She received a bachelor of arts degree from Drew University and a master of divinity degree from Duke University Divinity School.
“I always knew I wanted to be a pastor. I would line up my dolls and siblings and preach. I was about 3 years-old then.”
Baldwin proudly stands on the shoulders of black women who were the backbone of the church. “We were the compass and guideposts for what was moral and virtuous,” she says. “I remember my grandmother saving her pennies so that our family church – Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, N.Y. – could have a new building. The church is still active and functioning today.”
Baldwin says the role of black clergy is to teach the love of God and inspire the congregation to create an authentic connection to him. “Our preaching, teaching and mentoring gives the congregation a sense of who they are as God’s children. We must always be obedient to his word.”
“At St. Paul, where I pastor, we emphasize the affirmative aspects of who we are. We must lift up the positive people right here in Mississippi and create a language that emphasizes who we can be through Jesus Christ.”
She wants to continue to serve God in the ministerial position she’s currently in, even though there’s a possibility she may be assigned elsewhere. “I want to endure as an ordained clergy.”
It’s the fire and spirit of her sister-in-Christ that Baldwin celebrates. The Rev. Cynthia Ashford Cross is an ordained elder and district superintendent in the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. Since 1998, she has been a prophetic voice of hope, encouragement and release for those held captive by sin.
“When I answered the call to ministry, Rev. Baldwin was my first mentor,” she says. “One of my laments to God was, ‘what in the world does a preacher woman look like?’ Through her faithfulness, courage in leadership, love and trust in God, integrity and compassion for her sisters and brothers, Rev. Baldwin has shown me what a woman of God truly looks like.”
Cross says that the secular world is far ahead of the institutionalized church as it relates to sexism and racism. “This has been a slow journey, especially in the black church, because of the traditional role of the “king priest.”
“As clergy, we must reach out by all means possible to spread the gospel,” she says. “Jesus believed in meeting people where they are, and it certainly behooves us to do the same.”