By Jessica Love
Dr. Cynthia Talley grew up in a Christian home and knew early in life that God was calling her to do mission and pastoral work.
“It was the PTL [Praise the Lord] Club, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker,” Talley recalled. “And I didn’t want anyone to know that I watched it…When my parents would get up and go to work, I would get up and turn the TV on quietly every morning.”
One morning, 12-year-old Talley said she felt this overwhelming call to do mission work in Africa.
“On this particular morning, Tammy Faye Bakker was singing ‘If It Had Not Been for The Lord Who Was On My Side,’ and I just felt this sense of calling. I just knew what I was supposed to do,” Talley said.
While Talley discovered her call to ministry young, it took her 13 years to finally answer it.
She wrestled with her call, trying to learn where God was leading her. After earning her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from the University of Tennessee in 1992, she went on to pursue a master’s degree in special education. She also sold car insurance part time.
“I was doing all three of those things and I was not succeeding at any of it,” Talley recounted. “Nothing was right, and nothing felt right, and I remember I just hit the wall one day. I remember arriving at home and I just fell on my knees. I said, ‘OK God, you win.’ And the next morning I called the District Superintendent.”
Now, Talley is answering her call to ministry as a 2020 Angela P. Current-Felder Women of Color (WOC) scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary in in Wilmore, Kentucky.
The Angella P. Current-Felder Women of Color (WOC) Scholars program is administered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM), and is designed to provide financial, intellectual and personal support to United Methodist women of color pursuing doctorates in religious studies at seminaries and universities across the U.S.
Dear Mother, This is for You
Talley’s journey has been long and difficult, especially during her third year in the program.
“Last year was my hardest year because of my mother’s health. I was trying to be available for my mother and pursue a Ph.D. at the same time,” she said.
Talley’s mother, who was her best friend, was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year.
“I’ve watched her care for my father. I’ve watched her care for her children in their times of sickness,” Talley said. “My father died of cancer in ’99, and she made sure that he was never at the hospital by himself, and so I just was not going to let her be by herself.”
Talley spent her nights faithfully on chairs and cots in the hospital, doing homework at her mother’s bedside.
“The major events with her health happened in the last week of the semester when finals were happening or major assignments were due…I had to take incompletes because I just couldn’t complete my assignments,” Talley said.
Unfortunately, Talley’s mother died April 26, 2019. Now, Talley is determined to finish what she started because it would be important to her mother.
“She was my biggest cheerleader. Part of my success is because of her,” Talley said. “It is only because she was helping me that I finished. I would write a paper and as I was writing a section, she was editing and proofing…So, she’s very much a part of this.”
WOC Scholarship Makes Way for Untold Stories
Talley explained that the WOC scholarship has been an important financial anchor in her life, especially during that hardship because without it, she would not have been able to pursue school while caring for her mother.
“It’s been a blessing,” Talley said. “I’d been pastoring since 2008, and we know that when you pastor small churches, you don’t make a lot of money. So, I could not have done this without the WOC scholarship, so I am indeed grateful.”
Talley is now a fourth-year doctoral candidate pursuing a degree in intercultural and contextual studies. Her research explores socialization and identify formation of women in patriarchal societies, specifically in Liberia.
“I want to know how these women come to develop their values, their beliefs, their ideas about themselves, their understanding of themselves as women,” she said. “How do they come to understand what their role is as a woman in society and their role in a home?”
Talley also earned a Doctor of Ministry degree in leadership and preaching from Asbury Theological Seminary in 2016. In that program, Talley heard stories about women’s oppression in Liberia that inspired her Ph.D. research.
“Just hearing how something like not being able to give in offering at church—how that keeps them [women] separated from God because it makes them feel like nothing,” Talley said. “And how women who have training to do a thing, but because they don’t have the resources to participate in this type of work, they live in abject poverty. They talk about having training, but they die with the knowledge in their heads.”
Telling the stories of these women is why Talley believes the WOC scholarship is important.
“The kind of scholarship that is coming out of the work I see women doing is critical, especially in this day and time, in any time, because women’s stories have not been told,” she said. “It’s 2020, and women are still being marginalized, even in this country, and that story needs to be told.”
A Calling Ministering to Women in Africa
COVID-19 hampered Talley’s original plan to return to Liberia to do research and continue her missional work. However, she knows God has called her to minister to women in Africa one day.
“I want to start a nonprofit that provides seed grants and micro-finance loans for women who have gone through the United Methodist Church’s women’s empowerment training programs [in Liberia],” she said. “I would like to help these women work toward becoming economically self-sufficient which for many of them is directly related to their self-esteem.”
You can help more scholars like Talley embrace their missional and pastoral calling by supporting the WOC Scholars Program. To give directly to the program, visit: www.gbhem.org/donate4students.
About GBHEM: The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry embraces the ministry of learning and leadership formation in The United Methodist Church and Wesleyan tradition; serving Christians around the world who are shaped by a process of intellectual engagement, spiritual and character formation, and leadership development. We cultivate a dynamic culture of call and vocational discernment that encourages lay and clergy leaders to discover, claim and flourish in God’s ministry and mission for the Church, the academy and the world. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook: @GBHEM.