Deaconess Clara Ester
Inspired by the deaconesses she knew in her community, Clara Ester became one herself. Today, Deaconess Clara Ester is proud to own the word “retired” yet remains committed to the call to Christian service she has known all her life.
Ms. Ester retired in December 2006 as executive director of Dumas Wesley Community Center, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution, located in the Crichton neighborhood of Mobile, Ala.
As an African American woman who has spent all her life in the South, she is shaped by her experiences as a community organizer amidst the tumult of the 1960s and a builder of racially inclusive programming through the ministries of Dumas Wesley in the years following.
In retirement Ms. Ester continues ministries in mission and evangelism through her community and local church. Recalling Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25:31-46, she said that when she participates in ministry that sees to the needs of those less fortunate, she is serving God in Christ.
She understands herself to be a part of the priesthood of all believers and asserts, “No one can stop me from doing what I know I should do as a Christian,” Ms. Ester said. “If we all did what we know we’re supposed to do, what kind of world would we have?”
Growing up in Memphis, Tenn., Ms. Ester spent a lot of her time at the Bethlehem Center where her mother worked as housekeeper and cook. Two deaconesses were running the center at this time, Mary Lou Bond and Louise Weeks. These two single white women brought their ministry of love and compassion to a primarily black neighborhood in Memphis prior to the Civil Rights Movement.
Their ministry focused on offering programs and classes for the youth of the community. During her childhood, Ms. Ester was the beneficiary of their innovative ministry through classes in music, art, pottery, etiquette, drama and dance. Ms. Bond and Ms. Weeks aimed to offer programs that would give neighborhood youth opportunities to pursue interests that might otherwise be ignored.
These two deaconesses took Ms. Ester into their hearts and regularly encouraged her to accompany them in their ministry activities. One particular afternoon stands out in her recollection: Ms. Ester accompanied the deaconesses on a visitation to a blind woman living in the nearby low-income housing project. When they entered the home, she was immediately struck by the large number of roaches crawling on the walls, floors and furniture. Frightened to sit down and eager to leave, Ms. Ester was confused when the deaconesses did not seem to notice the roaches.
They sat down on the couch with the woman and stayed to talk. Ms. Ester squirmed in her seat even more when a rat appeared from behind a chair. The deaconesses remained still and calm. When they left the home, Ms. Ester voiced all the thoughts that had been racing through her mind:
“Why did you sit there? Didn’t you see all those roaches on that couch? And was that a rat that came out of that chair?”
The deaconesses explained that they were the ones visiting and it would have been disrespectful to stand when the woman had invited them to come in and sit down. Ms. Ester persisted with her questions:
“But why do y’all do that? Why are you going into black people’s homes and doing stuff for them?”
Their response was, “That’s just what you’re supposed to do.” This was her introduction to deaconess ministries of love, justice and service.
As she got older, Ms. Ester “hung on to this basic stuff,” and began community organizing for the Wesley House in Memphis. Part of a team of organizers, she would go door to door to meet families and discover their needs.
In taking the time to meet and talk with each family in the neighborhood, she found that rodent control and health care were the two primary needs of the community. With her help, the Wesley House designed a clinic to serve their health care needs.
She was asked to go to Dumas Wesley in 1970 to develop similar community services in Mobile, except this time she would be doing it on her own. Starting with four city blocks near the center, Ms. Ester became acquainted with the community that surrounded Dumas Wesley.
On the first day, the people did not share their needs. On the second day, it was the same story. While they would not tell her their needs, it only took a little attention and observation to see that children were playing outside in areas that were unsafe, filled with garbage and abandoned appliances.
What this community needed was a safe recreation space for children to play along with education on how to properly dispose of old appliances like refrigerators and stoves so that children would not get hurt.
Ms. Ester knew that “you don’t tell people what they need; you wait for them to see it for themselves.”
She began a conversation with the people she was meeting about the safety of their children and the neighborhood’s recreational spaces. She made a few gentle suggestions to those who were the most vocal and assertive of their rights. In a few months, the community organized a clean-up campaign that drew the mayor’s attention and made local news.
Following the success of the clean-up campaign, Ms. Ester began to spread the word about Dumas Wesley Community Center, and invite community members to visit and participate in the center’s activities. The center had primarily offered services to white people, but as the community changed it recognized a need to serve those who lived near the center, an increasingly black population.
Ms. Ester explained her approach, which is still relevant for communities today:
“As times are changing, we have an obligation to serve the people who are here,” she said. “You can’t sit and expect people to come to your center. You have to go to them and invite them to your house.”
It took the care and attention Ms. Ester offered to make the diverse community feel welcome at the center. She had gotten to know everyone, and they became as much a part of her as she had become a part of them.
“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.” -John Wesley
These famous words of John Wesley have had a profound and lasting impact on Ms. Ester. Although it was difficult for her as a child to clearly connect these words to the meaning and purpose of Christian service, her early exposure to ministries of love, justice and service shaped her understanding of what it means to be Christian.
Ms. Ester followed the example that had been set for her by Ms. Bond and Ms. Weeks. In developing relationships with the families in the Dumas Wesley community, she came to see that not everyone was on the same level economically, educationally and socially.
She sought to unite the community as one, guiding those who were better off to see that in helping their neighbors they were helping the whole community.
Ms. Ester’s passion for outreach remains in her heart. When asked to reflect on her ministry of mission and evangelism, she responded: “You can’t simply bring God to people. You can bring food, pay their utility bills, be there to take someone to the doctor and pay for their medical expenses — then people will see God in those things.”
For Ms. Ester, mission and evangelism are more than supplying goods and services and sharing the Gospel. They are about letting God show through your actions, taking the time to get to know our neighbors and caring for one another.
*Deaconess Myka Kennedy Stephens works developing congregational libraries and information ministries in Chicago, Ill.