Hands down, Carolyn Dillard wins two superlative categories in my book. For one, she is the most stylish person I’ve met in all of Charlottesville. When we meet to talk in the Belmont neighborhood, she’s wearing a fitted top in an army fatigue pattern with a generous ruffle detail on one shoulder. Her leopard print purse hangs off one arm and she is balanced in black high heels, each embellished with a gold-toned DKNY metallic brand plate. The nails are done and I make sure to ask her for her lipstick details before I leave so she can help up my game: Amour Beauty’s Sugar Butter in shade Copper 308. (You think I wasn’t taking copious notes? My order will arrive in 3- 4 business days.) She reminds me of The Commodores’ 1977 hit “Brick House.” She’s fashion on legs: “well put-together,” they sang, “everybody knows/ This is how the story goes.”
The other superlative? She’s also the most rooted person I’ve met in all of Albemarle County. The property she lives on in Keswick was purchased by her paternal grandparents, Gordon and Cora Miitchell in 1929, ninety-four years ago. It’s the same site where she grew up. In comparison, our life stories, at least in terms of geography, differ greatly: hers is steady, a continued line of local and multi-generational knowledge. Mine, a sampling of life experience far and wide. Where she goes deep and consistent, I go broad and varied. In this regard, she reminds me of the Cheers theme song from the late 1980s: she lives where “everybody knows [her] name.” And her husband’s. And her children’s. And her sister’s. And her parents’, Kenneth & Bernice Mitchell, who have passed on.
We both recognize the rarity of our encounter and look to learn from each other, and she generously spoils me with details of her life. We start in her childhood and she tells me that her father drove a cab for 48 years and her mother worked in service to a local family, mostly in the way of meal preparation. Every report card from her teachers, she tells me, stated “Carolyn talks too much.” Hence, as an interviewee, she is every journalist’s dream as she keeps the conversation flowing.
Long threads of intimate bonds are a recurrent theme in Carolyn’s life. Her friends today date from her Head Start Program, high school, and her historically Black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at George Mason University, which she pledged in the fall of 1984. Even the man she married 23 years ago was one she met while a teenager in high school. Were that not enough evidence of her grounding, Carolyn, too, grew up immersed in the Christian church, attending every Sunday, faith being an important expression of identity for both of her parents. And as Proverbs 22:6 states, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he shall not depart from it,” Carolyn’s destiny brought her to the pulpit. With a Master’s of Divinity degree from the renowned and historically Black Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, Carolyn, ordained, is also the first female pastor of Keswick’s historically Black Zion Hill Baptist Church.
The call to carry out the Lord’s plans wasn’t one Pastor Dillard heeded readily. But, even in that reluctance, she is like those who came before her. Biblical precedent appears to all but require hesitance and doubt. Let me rattle off a few Biblical names and scenarios for you. These quotes, clearly, are verbatim. We’d never publish anything less.
Sarah to God: You want who to have a baby? You got jokes. Lord, I’m an old lady!
God: Do it anyway.
(Genesis 18:12- 15)
Moses to God: You want me to speak for you? You know I ain’t no wordsmith!
God: Do it anyway.
Jonah to God: Who’s supposed to share the good news? Surely not I! I’m gonna take a swim!
God: Do it anyway.
Carolyn Dillard to God: Huh? Who? What? When? Where? How? Why? Me?!
God: Do it anyway.
(Early 2010s before Carolyn launched her clerical path)
Needless to say, some resistance was encountered on Pastor Dillard’s proverbial road to Damascus. She will celebrate five years as pastor where she leads her congregation, offering a range of services, among them sermons on Sundays and premarital counseling for couples preparing to jump the broom.
When I approach the house of worship, I see that the property is surrounded by tombstones that honor past church members and congregants, which have all been mapped by the church’s family historian, Gloria Gilmore. Honoring one’s ancestors is part of Zion Hill Baptist’s essential fabric. The traditional, white, steeple-like structure on the building contrasts with the sign on the door asking all who attend to wear masks. While the architecture takes me back to the 19th century, the precautionary measures for avoiding COVID-19 remind me readily that we are living in 2023. This juxtaposition is central to church-related discourse across the nation: tradition vs. modernity.
Pastor Dillard’s church, like many others in the United States, is following national trends. Fewer and fewer young people are making it into the pews. I think about that as I sit in the last row on Good Friday, looking at the stained glass windows, eyeing the hymnals stored throughout the sanctuary, and taking in the beautiful banner that celebrates over 150 years of the church’s existence. It’s the first time I’ve sat in a church in over three years, little of that absence having much at all to do with the pandemic. I was trained to put on a dress and Mary Janes every Sunday, provide tithes and offerings, and shout “Hallelujah, Jesus is Lord!” But I have doubts about returning to that training and those roots.
Whether the decline in youth attendance is because of general disillusionment with organized religion, broadening views about inclusion, or the distractions brought about by the rapid advancements of a technologically connected society, the result is the same: this church’s members are largely seniors, or close to it at age 55 or above. If younger folks are achieving a sense of community, it appears that often it isn’t through church, contrary to the cornerstone it once was up through the mid-20th century. Pastor Dillard and I try to place our fingers on what precisely changed but come up empty-handed. While I’m undecided about whether my feeling about this fact is one of lamentation, I do not deny the church’s organizational power of the past and how it ushered our people forward.
What we do agree on is the need to question the information with which we’re presented. Who wrote the books of the Bible, when, and for whom? Did the authors envision the texts traveling overseas and becoming the comfort of an enslaved people of African descent? And does that matter? To what extent does a textual world of kings and concubines, stonings and pestilence, resurrection and redemption apply to a modern one of mass shootings, gender fluidity, climate change, artificial intelligence, medicine, and terrorism? Pastor Dillard lives fully in the present and finds that “often what people need is more than a prayer,” she says. “Doctors, psychiatrists, and therapists, too,” she acknowledges, are part of an entire gamut of resources for our wellness and systems of support. She preaches love and insists that damning people to hell is not the answer. “People need to be heard and loved and loved on,” she says. And as far as I have seen, she walks the walk and talks the talk.
Pastor Dillard’s ministry is groundbreaking not only for turning away from the messaging of condemnation and hellfire, but also because she’s the first woman to lead the body in a century and a half! Numerically speaking, Pastor Dillard realizes that the clergy is a man’s world and her mere presence disrupts ages of assumptions and homogeneity. And were that not enough, she is also employed full-time at the University of Virginia as the community partnerships manager. One of her roles is helping local residents to be informed about the university’s plans of development and expansion through neighborhood engagement. Her passion can be found in “the horror and healing” found in the walls of the “Virginia Mist” granite of the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers (MEL). So she wears many hats, bringing unique flair and fashion to an old institution in a new age. It is unlikely that any faith leader at this time has a clear roadmap forward, but Carolyn Dillard, rooted and robed, can be sure about one thing: her momentum will be one of great impact that nods to the past and embraces a future of love– and lovely couture.
To find out more about Carolyn Dillard and her many roles in the Central Virginia community, visit Descendants of Enslaved Communities at the University of Virginia (https://www.descendantsuva.org/). Sunday services at Zion Hill Baptist Church are held at 11:00 a.m. at 802 Zion Hill Road, Keswick, Virginia 22947.