Pioneering pastor turns 90 Church says 'Amen'

March 21, 1994|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Writer

Mother Ruth O. Dixon took to the pulpit once again yesterday morning, as she has for more than four decades, slowed a bit by her 90 years on God's earth but not in her eagerness to spread The Word.

"Thank you, Jesus!" cried the diminutive senior pastor of the Holy Church of Christ, the Pentecostal church she founded in 1948. "Lord teach us. . . . You've been so good to us. . . . Oh God, save everyone in here!"

Shouts of "Amen" and "Hallelujah" from the several dozen worshipers punctuated her calls. They raised their arms and swayed in the basement of the small white church on East North Avenue, decorated with purple streamers and balloons to mark her birthday.

At a time when nearly all women were relegated to the pews, Mother Dixon started her own church in the front parlor of her home in the 1300 block of N. Central Ave., with prayer services starting promptly at 6 a.m.

Not long before, she had been told during a state meeting of elders from the Church of God in Christ that she couldn't possibly become pastor of a church. Assist, maybe, but not run one.

"People who needed help would go to Mother Dixon's home, somebody sick or with a problem," recalled her grandson, Christopher E. Windley, co-pastor of the church, during the service yesterday. He added with a chuckle that he sometimes harbored a youthful annoyance to those in need: "I used to say, 'Why don't these folks go somewhere else?'

"But somebody had to care," he said to the congregation before turning to his grandmother. "Somebody had to do it."

Mother Dixon smiled: "Amen."

She and her late husband, James Dixon, moved from Mount Olive, N.C., in 1929 to Sparrows Point, where she worked as a beautician and he worked for the railroad. Reared as a Baptist, she still yearned for a deeper spiritual life, and in the early 1930s began attending the Church of God in Christ No. 3 at Lombard and Dallas streets, putting aside the checkers and occasional snuff she considered vices.

During the next decade, she worked hard in the church and became assistant pastor in 1947. But when she was not allowed to become pastor, she left.

"They didn't accept women," recalled Mother Dixon matter-of-factly in her soft Carolina accent, resting before the service in her flowing red robes.

She was one of the few women pastors in Baltimore. Now, church officials believe, she is the oldest woman preacher in Baltimore and perhaps the country.

From several worshipers in her living room, the church expanded to a building on North Carey Street and then to North Gay Street before arriving in 1968 at the present location, which is now under renovation. The church has more than 100 members.

Asked how she was treated by the male pastors, she said, "They treated me then like they treated a man." But during those early years, church officials recall a different story. Male pastors made several attempts to take over the church.

The church has not only grown but spurred the creation of others around the country. And former parishioners have gone on to become elders and bishops in the denomination.

"Mother Dixon is a walking and talking symbol of God's blessing," Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said from the pulpit yesterday, armed with a proclamation declaring yesterday Ruth Dixon Day in Baltimore.

In late afternoon, children and adults rushed around the church basement readying last night's birthday meal and cake. Some came over and offered greetings, kissed her cheek, or sat down to chat.

She asked some when they were "saved." And she pointed out an associate pastor to a visitor, saying he will soon have his own flock. That's what Mother Dixon wants to do as she enters her 90th year: Start a new congregation.

Her congregation shouldn't be surprised. An hour earlier from the pulpit, she gazed over them and said, "Oh, we thank you, God. . . . I gave you my life when I was 16, I haven't stopped yet."

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