The call to serve

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The Rev. Dr. Cathy Gilliard creates a welcoming environment at Park Avenue United Methodist Church


  • “People report coming to us and feeling at home. They feel safe.” Photo courtesy of Cathy Gilliard

To celebrate Park Avenue United Methodist Church’s 175th birthday, its congregation hired an archivist to delve into its storied history. The most notable discovery that stuck with the Reverend Dr. Cathy Gilliard revealed that one of the church’s earliest pastors was an abolitionist who had been suspended for publicly speaking out against slavery.

This particular moment in PAUMC’s history stood out so boldly to Gilliard because, a few months earlier, she had become the church’s first African-American pastor.

“For a pastor to be speaking out against slavery, which was a crime against state and church 180 years ago, to say slavery is wrong,” Gilliard says. “And for me to come and be the first African-American pastor of this church ... that was like coming full circle.”

PAUMC has not strayed far from its progressive roots — in fact, its diversity is one of the things Gilliard says she loves most about her church. She says that of 130 people the small church brings in each week, there are nearly 30 represented nationalities, with members spanning different ages, sexual orientations and socioeconomic and political backgrounds.

“In my own theology, I wanted to be in a context where I was able to live out fundamentally what I believe, and that is God is God of all people,” Gilliard says.

Gilliard has served as PAUMC’s senior pastor for nearly seven years, but her ministry career reaches back much further than that. Originally from North Carolina, Gilliard says she knew she was meant to preach when she felt the call to serve almost 26 years ago. “This was the thing that I feel that I was put on this Earth to do,” she says.

After receiving her Master of Divinity degree from Duke Divinity School and her Doctorate of Ministry from the United Theological Seminary, Gilliard served on the pastoral staff at a North Carolinian Baptist church until she was approached by a United Methodist pastor from New York. The pastor offered her a spot on the Christ Church United Methodist’s staff, but there was a catch: not only did it mean she’d have to move cities, but it also meant Gilliard, originally ordained an American Baptist, would have to adopt a different Christian denomination.

“It was an opportunity to step into something that was, for me, other,” she says. “Because I was quite comfortable in my traditional African-American Baptist Church in the South, and here was there opportunity to say, ‘Cathy, what do you really believe? Do you stay “comfortable” where you are, or do you take a leap of faith and step into something new and learn something else?’”

And so Gilliard took that leap, joining the United Methodists in New York. She was part of the Christ Church United Methodist’s staff on Park Avenue for eight years before she moved 26 blocks north to serve as PAUMC’s senior minister in July 2011.

Gilliard speaks highly of her staff; together, they put great emphasis on giving the church a strong and meaningful community presence. Whether it’s as small as the quote board hanging next to the door with inspiring words of wisdom, or as big as the semiannual fundraising rummage sale used to send local children to summer camp, Gilliard strives to make a difference for the Upper East Side.

“People report coming to us and feeling at home. They feel safe,” Gilliard says, pride in her voice. Being able to create a welcoming environment is the most rewarding part of the job, she says, which she’s able to do by keeping her sermons relevant: rather than read the gospel word for word, she’s giving it new meaning by relating it to what’s going on culturally and socially in this country.

Not only is Gilliard PAUMC’s first black pastor, but she’s the church’s second woman. She’s a mother of two sons, and a grandmother to five. She’s also a divorcee, another unrepresented cohort within the church. “When people come and see me, I think that’s helpful,” she says. “They think, ‘Oh my god, it’s a woman! And she’s divorced! And she’s happy!’ It’s healthy; it’s real.”

She draws inspiration from the people in her life — her mother and her grandmother, her theological mentors, the staff she works alongside at PAUMC — and she says she’s glad to be in a place where what she’s doing matters.

“I’ve been exposed to these people who’ve done these amazing things and so I want to do my little part, whatever that is,” Gilliard says. “And not only by showing up in black skin and femininity, but also by making my mark in the body of Christ as best as I can.”

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