By Jessica Connor
SUMTER–The Rev. Telley Lynnette Gadson is no stranger to pomp and circumstance, having grown up in politics and community service. But when she got the rare opportunity to experience a holiday party at the White House this Christmas, she had one word for it:
“The experience was more than I could imagine,” said Gadson, senior pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church, Sumter. “You knew you were in the presence of royalty, but it was such a feeling of being at home.”
The daughter of the first black mayor of Hollywood, in the Lowcountry, and the first black female to graduate from the College of Charleston, now longtime director of Rural Mission, Gadson has accomplished much since her ordination. Not yet 40 years old, she is described as a trailblazer in the conference with a passion for Christ.
The Rev. Ken Nelson, S.C. Conference congregational specialist, African-American ministries, credits Gadson’s leadership in turning around a declining local church that is now empowered by a vibrant membership with new enthusiasm and vision for making disciples.
“I am certain that this invitation has come as a result of those in the corridors of power learning of the transforming power and witness of her ministry among the people of God,” Nelson said.
Gadson’s invitation to the White House arose after several years in spiritual connection with President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
In February 2007, Gadson was asked to share a “spiritual charge” at a prayer breakfast in honor of then-presidential candidate Obama, just two weeks after he announced his run.
In her several-minute reflection, titled “The Audacity of Faith” (a spin-off of Obama’s book, “The Audacity of Hope”), Gadson connected the biblical Barak from the Book of Judges with Barack Obama the presidential hopeful, underscoring the importance of overturning injustice and dealing with disparity.
Two days later, he called to thank her, asking if she would serve on his national prayer team.
“He actually highlighted a couple things from what I’d said,” Gadson said.
Gadson then began a weekly conference call with other pastors across the nation who would lift up Obama in prayer throughout the race.
A year later, in February 2008, Michelle Obama came to Columbia for a meeting with black women leaders, and Gadson was again asked to speak as a prelude to the future First Lady’s message.
Gadson did part two of her “Audacity of Faith” reflection, talking about Michelle Obama being in the biblical role of Deborah, who guided Barak in the Book of Judges.
Gadson was invited but unable to attend the National Prayer Service in conjunction with Obama’s inauguration. And she always hoped she would one day get the opportunity to visit the White House.
On Dec. 14, she finally got her chance. She flew to Washington, D.C., to attend one of the holiday parties the Obamas hosted at the White House.
There, she experienced the sort of spectacular grandeur witnessed by most people only in the movies–ballrooms, gardens, beautiful music, massive Christmas trees, gorgeous decorations, not to mention the pristinely maintained building itself.
“There were strawberries the size of apples!” Gadson said. “The hospitality was overwhelming. … I truly felt like it was well, well, well done.”
Gadson said the Obamas are deeply spiritual Christians, and she is grateful to have had the experience.
“I count myself really blessed and amazed at the doors God keeps opening on my behalf,” Gadson said.
It’s an experience she appreciates on another level, as well–for her mother Linda Gadson, a tireless mission worker for the rural poor, whose familiar saying “from the outhouse to the White House” echoed in her ears while she was in Washington.
“It was almost like I was fulfilling her prophecy, or she was vicariously having that experience,” Gadson said.
In her 12th year at St. Mark, Gadson saw the church from a two-point charge to a station church with a brand-new building.
“It’s been a journey, but God is faithful, and we are very, very blessed,” she said.
Gadson will be profiled in an upcoming book on black preaching in the UMC, being written now by Dr. Gennifer Brooks, homiletic professor at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Illinois. And she continues her work to create disciples and spread the word of God–from the outhouse to the White House.