LAKELAND -- The biblical story of Deborah, a female prophetess who judged Israel, is said to illustrate how God used a strong woman to engineer a military victory that resulted in 40 years of peace.
The Rev. Mary Whitley Moss admires Deborah as her Biblical heroine.
“If I had to parallel myself with any Biblical character it would be Deborah, because, and I believe this with all my heart, she sat under a palm tree between Ramah and Bethel,” Moss said. “Bethel is the house of God and Ramah is the house of sin and idolatry.
“Here I am, and here we are as a church, seated between those two poles,” Moss said, referring to the story from the book of Judges, Chapters 4 and 5. “That’s where I sit with my students and with my (church) members and the Louisiana Area Women in Ministry who call me. I’m seated under that palm tree, and God has called me for that task.”
While many Protestant denominations ordain female pastors, a woman in a Baptist pulpit is practically unheard of in the South.
Moss is the first female pastor of the historic St. Alma Baptist Church, which recently celebrated her fourth year as pastor with a well-attended appreciation service. She is the first woman to be ordained as a minister of the Gospel at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, and is the first female pastor in the Fourth District Missionary Baptist Association, a group of 165 Missionary Baptist churches in the six-parish area.
Moss, 60, is also the director of the Southeast Regional Biblical Institute, an extension of the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, Birmingham, Ala.
Now in its fourth semester, 30 students meet weekly at New Life Church on Staring Lane in Baton Rouge to earn certificates in various Christian studies.
Moss has been a leader since she was a point guard on her West Livingston High School, Class of 1969, basketball team. “I had a pretty good jump shot,” she said. “We always made the district playoffs.”
Born Mary Whitley on her father’s 40-acre rural Watson homestead, the fifth of eight children, Moss experienced “a strong nuclear family.” William M. Whitley Sr., now 88, went off to work each day and is still taking care of his land. Her mother, Mamie Whitley, now deceased, cared for the children and taught Sunday school.
When Moss was 12 years old, she sat on the front “mourner’s bench” at St. Peter Baptist Church along with the other pre-teens who were of age, during a two-week fall revival.
“On the last night, I was the last one — all the other kids had accepted Jesus,” Moss said. “I didn’t see anything and I didn’t feel anything but I just knew: I knew Jesus died for my sins. To this day I preach Romans 10:9, which says if people confess with their mouth and believe in their heart that God raised Jesus from the dead, they will be saved.”
That next Sunday, wearing a white gown and a white handkerchief tied to her right arm, she was baptized in the Comite River.
“The ladies would be singing ‘take me to the water,’ and we still sing that song here in order to keep the tradition going,” Moss said, rocking back in her office chair remembering the youthful experience. “I remember I was crying and when I came up out of the water I could hear them singing on the banks, ‘I know I got religion,’ then I had a joyous feeling. I knew something wonderful had taken place in my life.”
After high school, she attended Southern University but dropped out to get a job with the phone company. Wanting to be more than a switchboard operator, she got an “outside technician” job climbing poles.
She married Carl Moss Jr., in 1973, and they have three children, twins Michelle and Rachelle, born in 1974, and Nicole, born 1977. He is a truant officer at Valley Park Alternative High School in Baton Rouge. The family has since grown to seven grandchildren.
When Moss began “to feel a pull — an unrest,” she left the phone company to work at a bank and was teaching Sunday school at Shiloh Baptist Church.
“They told me I was actually preaching Sunday school,” Moss said with a laugh.
In 1991, that unrest pulled her to a favorite wooded spot on her father’s homestead.
“It was just me and God, next to a muscadine tree. I said, ‘God if this be you, I know what I’m facing.’ ”
Moss said she said, “Yes” to God, “and something just came over me.
“God put a calmness in my spirit. I knew it was him,” Moss said. “The same spirit that filled me on the day I accepted Jesus Christ was the same spirit that spoke to me then. I accepted my call to preach.”
She told her husband, then her father, then her spiritual father, the Rev. Charles T. Smith, of Shiloh Baptist.
“Carl has been my cohort in my ministry, my biggest cheerleader, my biggest support system,” Moss said. “Daddy said, ‘It is well with me,’” and Smith told her, “I knew this was coming.”
She quit the bank and went straight through the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary’s programs earning an associate degree in Christian studies in 1993, a bachelor of arts degree in 1994 and a master of divinity in 1996. She was ordained by Smith at Shiloh in 1998 and worked part-time as minister of evangelism. She then became a full-time minister of Christian education for 19 years.
Moss was unanimously elected Dec. 23, 2007, as the seventh pastor of St. Alma and installed by the Fourth District Baptist Association into the St. Alma pulpit on Feb. 17, 2008. She earned a doctor of ministry degree from Beeson Divinity School in 2009.
The St. Alma church, founded in 1874 on the St. Alma Plantation, had recently undergone a split prior to her election, but has grown from just more than a dozen to more than 180 in four years.
As a longtime Bible student, she said, her life verse is 2 Timothy 2:15, where the Apostle Paul advises his young friend, “Study to show yourself approved unto God, a workman that needs not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”
She said she preaches Paul’s message that, “We are to live as though Christ’s coming will happen at the next moment. He is coming and I believe that if folks really believed that we would see a decrease in crime and violence,” Moss said.
“I believe the church is a family unit. I believe the word of God that the home is first and then it moves to the church — the next institution. Those two institutions working together can impact the world.
“I don’t believe another town meeting will solve it. I believe we can preach Jesus in the home. Stop preaching prosperity theology and all that stuff, and preach Jesus. There will be systemic change. We’ve got to somehow get back to that,” Moss said.
Donovan W. Jones, 49, is chairman of the deacon board and grew up in St. Alma Baptist, the grandson of its longest serving pastor, the Rev. Cenas Jones, who served from 1950 to 1993.
“She’s a great leader, a great pastor, she’s a great teacher,” Donovan Jones said. “She is all that you would want in a pastor. The congregation really loves her.”
“We wouldn’t know what to do without her,” added deacon Edward Free. “She is a Bible-preaching, Bible-teaching pastor who doesn’t mind taking the time to explain things in more detail.”
Smith said, “Mary is an outstanding young woman. I had the privilege of accepting her call to the ministry, her ordination and her installation at her church (St. Alma Baptist Church).”
The Rev. C. Ferris Jordan, retired professor of Christian education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, taught Moss, was her field supervisor for her doctorate program and donated most of his personal library to the St. Alma Church.
“The pastorate came seeking her, and she answered the call of the Lord and the church,” Jordan said in an email. “She is a biblical preacher and is deeply concerned that pastors be students of the Word and learn how to properly interpret and proclaim it to their congregations.
“Her compassion extends beyond her congregation into the community where she serves,” Jordan said. “Servanthood is her concept of ministry.”