Cheryl Allen is a senior pastor because she literally has gone where no man would go.
They had that strange look and air about them, the men who visited Berea Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa, that Sunday morning.
Near the end of the service, the men suddenly moved to the doors and the gates and pulled out guns.
Cheryl Allen, Berea’s senior pastor at the time, went to the microphone and told her congregation not to be concerned. She did what any scared-to-the-bone church leader would do.
She led in prayer.
“Our time is in God’s hands,” she said. “Ask God to give these men a chance to repent. But if they came here to rob us and not repent, then ask God to get them.”
Suddenly, the robbers took off running, seemingly for their lives. “I don’t know what they saw when I was leading the prayer,” she recalled. “I certainly couldn’t scare them. Maybe they saw above me big angels with really big swords or something.”
Then, Allen did what any really angry church leader would do under the circumstances: She took off after the robbers and two were apprehended at the gate.
She also did what many compassionate senior pastors would do.
She invited them back to church.
“I told them they were very welcome to come, but without guns and not to rob us,” she said.
Just another Sunday in inner-city Johannesburg, Ninevah in microcosm.
Allen, now 61, is the only female senior pastor on the executive board of the Baptist Union of Africa. Her selection wasn’t hard. She’s believed to be the only female Baptist senior pastor in Africa.
She was in the United States last week to receive the Brooks Hays Christian Citizenship Award at Second Baptist Church, Little Rock. The annual award is presented in memory of the late U.S. congressman and former lay president of the Southern Baptist Convention who lost his seat in Congress in 1958 to a segregationist, write-in candidate because of his stand on integration.
Allen was presented the award for starting “Door of Hope.” This mission at Troyeville Baptist Church in Johannesburg, where she is currently senior pastor, rescues and cares for babies that are left in a bin in her church.
She is a senior pastor because she literally has gone where no man would go.
When she felt the call to be a pastor, she was rejected at most places and scorned by many leaders in power. One of the only options for Allen, a white female, was Berea, which is 99 percent black male in one of the roughest communities in Johannesburg, if not the entire world. The week before she arrived as pastor, three men were killed in the street. The neighborhood was averaging eight deaths a night. At one point, the mortuaries in the community had to temporarily close because they couldn’t handle all the bodies.
The neighborhood consistently carries the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world. That’s not even considering the drug deals and rapes she has seen in the street. It was not unusual for her to have to step over dead bodies on the way to work.
Originally trained as a nurse, she remembers praying: “‘Lord, I’ll go to parts of Africa for you. I’ll go to China for you. But please, don’t send me to a place where I have to speak in a service.’ I don’t think God heard that prayer.”
“But actually, I think God may not send you to places that actually fit all your talents and abilities because you can rely on yourself to do things that way,” she said. “He sends you to places where you have to rely on him and learn to trust him. I’ve learned to trust him. Everyone needs to deal with fear. All men have fear. Jesus Christ tells us not to be afraid.”
Allen’s style has become a marvelous blend of Mother Teresa, Queen Esther and Joan of Arc.
“I like the challenge of living on the edge,” she said. “And I believe God rewards faithfulness.”
She remembers, on the way to help a church member at night, staring down a street gang whose members had rocks in their hands. They stood ready to bash in her car after she told them she wouldn’t leave until they quit beating a person in the street.
“It was a ‘You leave—No, you leave!'” type of confrontation until she hit the accelerator and scattered them with her car.
“I don’t know if that was very Christ-like, but I was mad at what they were doing to that human being in the street,” she said, “and Jesus got pretty mad at folks when he ran people out of the temple.”
On another occasion, one of the youth in her congregation showed consistent signs of being beaten by his father at home. She went to the father and said:
“I am good friends with a guy who is about a ninth-degree black belt. I have a connection with the Lebanese mafia who owes me a favor for helping treat his wounds one time. I have a friend with Hells Angels who owes me a favor for helping him. If you don’t quit beating your son, which of these people would you like to see at your door?”
“I’m not sure that was the right thing to say,” she recalled, “but he quit beating his son.”
She remembers once praying for a little publicity for her “Door of Hope” mission.
A team from the BBC showed up.
“Another example where God probably overdid it a bit,” she said.
The BBC crew did its filming and refused to stay for the church service, but their vehicles were trapped by other vehicles in the circular driveway. She also had some church members block the front door. She told the openly anti-religious crew: “You are on my turf, and the only charge for you to come and get this story is for me to pray for you. I promise you, it will not be painful.”
Some of the crew, as she described it, “headed for the hills.”
“I could only grab two of them by the collar,” she said. “I prayed for them.” She did a similar thing for German photographers later seeking a story, and one of them told her, “No one ever prayed for me before.”
Allen continues loving on the edge.
“God has been really gracious to a really crazy woman,” she said with a laugh. “Whenever I head out on something, I can imagine God in heaven saying to the angels, ‘There goes that crazy woman again. Send in the troops!'”
David McCollum, a member of Second Baptist Church, Little Rock, is a columnist for the Log Cabin Democrat in Conway, Ark.