I still fondly recall her journey as a trailblazing minister, civil rights activist and southern wit. Helen often referred to herself simply as ‘a country girl.’ Yet her humility and humor could not disguise the fact that, like those who years before first settled the countryside, she was a pioneer, which makes her life story ultimately one about venturing into new frontiers.”Allen Smith, friend of Helen Crotwell, November 2004
Helen Gray Crotwell (October 8, 1925 – April 9, 2006) served as the Associate Minister to Duke University from 1973 to 1979. She had previously served as the Methodist campus minister. During her time at Duke, Reverend Crotwell published a compilation of sermons written by women and participated as a campus minister in the Silent Vigil at Duke University. She was the first woman appointed as a United Methodist district superintendent in North Carolina, and one of the first in the Southeast. During her time as a district superintendent, she served as the chairperson of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women, advocating for inclusivity and female empowerment in the church. Her work bridged the worlds of worship and liturgy, women and the Church, women and theology, student mentorship and counseling, and myriad social and political issues.
I. Early Life
Helen Crotwell was born Thursday, October 8, 1925, in Newberry, South Carolina, as the daughter of James Calvin Crotwell and Mary Helen Gray Crotwell.2 She grew up in Leesburg, Georgia, where she and her family attended Leesburg Methodist, a small rural church. Her mother, a member of United Methodist Women, provided Helen with her first example of female leadership in religious space. Her mother was very active in the church – so much so that Helen later said, “We were so much a part of the church we didn’t know we had to join.”1 In the 1970s, the by-then Rev. Crotwell reflected that the church had always meant a lot to her, even as a child, and so she became determined to be a minister even though the Methodist Church at the time would not ordain women.3
Helen came from modest means; her father drove a milk truck and her mother was a homemaker.1 Helen’s dresses were often pieced together from scraps. Even as a child, Helen loved reading and writing; in high school, she and a friend wrote a novella that was never published. With typical good humor, Helen looked back on the novel with amusement. Her friend, she said, “had a lot of influence over the shape of the novel, because she was a big fan of Gene Autry. I didn’t like Gene Autry, but she did.” 1
Crotwell graduated from high school when she was sixteen years old. She went on to the Georgia State College for Women, now known as Georgia College & State University, in Milledgeville.4 She attended during World War II, from 1941 through 1945. Her college years ushered her into communities of strong, smart women; one of her fellow students, in fact, was Flannery O’Connor.1 Perhaps because many men were in combat, most of her professors were female. College surrounded Helen with networks of educated and aspiring women, offering her various examples of female leadership during a wartime that challenged traditional gender roles across the country As Crotwell sharply noted, however, “Only men were the president of colleges at that time.” 1
Crotwell’s academic choices reflected a social consciousness that stretched beyond her rural upbringing; the one elective she chose in college was “Current Trends in Social, Economic, and Political Affairs of the World.” 1 At Georgia State College, Crotwell also gained a more nuanced awareness of race. At one point, fellow students asked her about the population of Leesburg, Georgia. She gave the typical response of the time: “Six-hundred if you count the blacks.” A friend responded, “Why don’t you count the blacks?” Crotwell later cited that moment as one that opened her eyes to prejudice. 1
Crotwell remembered her religious life in college with fondness. She joined the Wesley Foundation, a Methodist campus ministry that she would go on to lead at other schools. The ministry was deeply invested in social justice issues, and took its students on trips around Georgia to work with various communities.1
After graduation, Crotwell moved to upstate New York to join the Lisle Fellowship, an intentional Christian community.2 At Lisle, unlike in Georgia, she was immersed in an ethnically and racially diverse community in the wake of World War II. She wrote of a Fourth of July she spent there, standing on a bridge with her friends—Japanese, Chinese, German, Jewish, and African American. “It was just the enemies all standing there together, and for me was a very powerful experience.” 1
Crotwell’s world expanded in New York, baffling those back home. Exposure to ethnic and racial diversity isolated her from her communities in Georgia. Her parents never responded when she sent a letter telling them that she shared a room with an African American woman. When members of her home church learned of her diverse friendships, they stopped asking her to teach, preach, or participate in worship leadership at her home church until her ordination several decades later. Helen found the separation painful, but her parents encouraged her to remove herself from the church community. In fact, Crotwell’s family feared that tensions were so high in rural Georgia in the late 1940s that she might be physically attacked for her friendships in New York.1
III. Early Career
After leaving Lisle, Crotwell worked for a year and a half as a home economics teacher in Fort Valley, Georgia, a profession she pursued because she thought she could “help people have a better life.” 1 Volunteering in a local Methodist church opened her eyes to a new career possibility: work in ministry. In fact, as Crotwell discerned her call, her mother confided that she herself had once wanted to become a missionary, but had given up that dream for marriage. Her mother explained that at Helen’s birth, she “dedicated her daughter to God.” 1 Helen’s desire to enter ministry seemed like a natural extension of her mother’s faith.
With her parents’ support, Helen decided to pursue work in the church. The Methodist Church did not ordain women, so Crotwell decided to obtain a master’s degree in religious education from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.14
Upon her graduation from Candler, Crotwell searched for a position in campus ministry. Crotwell wrote that she picked campus ministry in part because it was more open to women, explaining, “It provided the opportunity to minister and work with people without feeling like I had to be second string.”3 She soon found that she had a gift for it. She first entered campus ministry in Rock Hill, South Carolina at Winthrop College, at the time a women’s college and now the coeducational Winthrop University. There she was director of the Wesley Foundation, which served over 300 students.5 Her work with campus ministry at Winthrop was dynamic and interesting, and she engaged her students in discussions linking theology and social justice. After college surrounded Crotwell with strong female role models, Crotwell found herself assuming the same role at the all-women’s college. At Winthrop, she grew close to the women around her. Crotwell offered her students authentic and nurturing friendship while opening their eyes to systemic injustice around them. She traveled with them on service projects and protests around the state, including a march at a college that closed its doors to African American.1
Crotwell still felt called to ordained ministry, a vocation she couldn’t pursue, but her first work experience in campus ministry took her a step closer. Being a Wesley Foundation director was “the closest [she] could come to being a pastor in the South.”1 Winthrop gave Crotwell her first education in pastoral ministry. In her words, she did what she could do, and she did “everything except communion.” 1
Crotwell left campus ministry to further her education, demonstrating a desire to push beyond her comfort zone – a characteristic that would shape the rest of her career. The choice, however, was not without sadness; she knew that “if [she] did not make herself leave, [she] never would.”1 Crotwell moved to Boston, spending one year at Harvard Divinity School.2, 4 At Harvard, she took classes with Paul Tillich and Krister Stendhal. Crotwell later cited Stendhal as one of her most formative teachers; he “brought the church alive” in a way that she had never before experienced, ushering the body of Christ into the center of her faith. 1
After her year at Harvard, Crotwell moved back to New York, where she spent two summers at Union Theological Seminary.1, 4 Eager to continue her studies, she then decided to move to Europe. Her time abroad seems almost intentionally patchwork. She jumped from institution to institution, dipping her feet in a variety of Christian communities.
Crotwell studied German for a month at the Goethe-Institut in Germany, and then visited the Iona Community in Scotland.1, 3 In Europe, Crotwell ran up against some of the same walls she encountered at home. She asked for a place at the Taizé Institute, an ecumenical monastic order in Burgundy, France, but found that they only accepted men. Crotwell joined one of their second orders for a month, a retreat center and House of Silence that included women but forbade talking.1
Crotwell’s European education had one final stop. She spent a semester in Edinburgh, where she lived with an elder woman who presented a model of vocational possibility. Her host was the first woman to be ordained in the Scottish church, and the first woman Crotwell had ever met who was ordained and had worked as a minister in a rural setting.1
In Scotland, Crotwell decided to return to the United States at last. A friend had decided to take a leave of absence from his position at Duke University and asked if she would like to serve as the associate to the Methodist campus minister there.1 In 1965, Crotwell moved to Durham, North Carolina to serve as associate director of the Wesley Foundation.3, 6
V. The Wesley Foundation at Duke University
In 1965, Helen Crotwell returned to a country immersed in the civil rights movement. She thus began her time at Duke at a moment when merging her two passions – campus ministry and social justice – seemed of paramount importance.
When asked about that time in history later on in life, Crotwell responded, “What I remember is the grief.” 1 As the associate director of the Wesley Foundation at Duke University, Crotwell quickly became a leader for students eager to become part of a national dialogue. Twice she travelled with students to protests in Washington D.C.1 Then, fewer than three years after her arrival at Duke, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. brought Crotwell into the center of one of the most historic cases of student action Duke University has known. After hearing of King’s assassination on April 4th, 1968, nearly five hundred Duke students marched to President Douglas Knight’s house.7 Faculty members joined in, and President Knight invited the crowd into his home.8 Some of the students called for a campus minister, and so Crotwell joined the sit-in. She stayed the night, sleeping on a landing at the top of a stairwell and offering conversation, counsel, and companionship.1
The crowd remained in President Knight’s residence for two days, and then marched to the main Duke quadrangle, right in front of Duke Chapel.9, 10 The action, later known as the Silent Vigil, was one of the earliest of the mass student protests that emerged around the world in the weeks following King’s assassination.8 In a matter of days, the demonstrators’ numbers grew to two thousand, nearly half of the undergraduate student body.10 Students occupied the quad around the clock, bringing the university to a near standstill. They protested injustices embedded not only in their nation, but also in their university – students pushed for living wages and university recognition of an employee labor union. 9, 10
Crotwell was a faithful presence at the Vigil, offering solidarity to students grappling with the pain of their era. Tamela Hultman, one of the student leaders of the Silent Vigil, recalled, “Among our most stalwart supporters were campus ministers like Helen Crotwell, whose apartment in the Methodist Student Center had always been a place of nurture and refuge, while she herself was a role model, especially for women students.”8 The Vigil lasted from April 5 to 11, 1968. It resulted in Duke’s recognition of a nonacademic employees’ union, a raise in worker’s salaries to the federal minimum, and the withdrawal of several university administrators from Hope Valley Country Club, a segregated club to which many faculty members belonged. 7-10
Crotwell’s time at Duke was marked by more than one kind of national unrest. She had arrived not only during the Civil Rights movement, but also at the heart of the Vietnam War. Campus ministries became a refuge and a hub for organization. Crotwell and her students offered food to activists protesting the war and supervised the burning of draft cards at Duke.1 In 1969, along with other religious leaders on campus, she signed a statement published in the Duke Chronicle that called for an end to the Vietnam War.11 She also signed a statement written by Duke’s Religious Life Council recommending the discontinuation of the university’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), arguing that it perpetuated military interests.12 Ever-sensitive to the emotional lives of young people, Crotwell also aided the Christmas Fund Committee at Duke in 1969, which organized funds to purchase gifts for American draft deserters who were living in Canada.13
Perhaps in light of calls for unity in a time of national division, Crotwell spent much of her early time at Duke bringing various Christian denominations together into shared community. As she put it, “Whatever was happening stood for change, not just around us, but in campus ministry.” 1 Crotwell and her students observed communion in different campus ministry buildings, bringing together Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians for a shared sacrament. She was not ordained, but other campus ministers found her exclusion unfair; together, they decided that she would serve communion. Nearly everyone agreed but the Episcopalian minister. Crotwell treasured the memory of her first time serving communion. In her words, “The Roman Catholic stayed. That was a powerful experience. Tears came to my eyes and all of us started crying.” 1
After her work with the Wesley Foundation, Crotwell left Duke and moved to St. Mary’s College in Lexington, Maryland. She had loved her experiences with her students, but felt that she was perhaps “beyond the age for campus ministry.” 1 At St. Mary’s, she did administrative work for residential halls. She found the work unfulfilling. By stepping out of ministry, Crotwell learned that ministry was where she belonged; she became determined to pursue ordination, a goal she had harbored for years.
Some of the Methodist denominations that merged to form the United Methodist Church had begun ordaining female ministers as early as 1956, but in the 1970s, regional conferences still had jurisdiction to deny ordination.1, 14 Crotwell knew she wanted to remain in the South, and so she began to speak to Methodist leaders in South Carolina. The South Carolina Conference of the Methodist Church had recently integrated their jurisdiction. Its leaders told Crotwell that they could not ordain a female minister at the same time as they brought African Americans into their conference; they had no interest in grappling with social upheaval in multiple spheres at once.1
Just as Crotwell began to realize that becoming ordained in South Carolina might prove impossible, administrators at Duke University contacted her. They asked if she would return to Duke in order to become the Associate Minister to the University. The position required ordination, and so with the support of the university, Crotwell pursued ordination in North Carolina.3
In 1973, Rev. Crotwell was ordained as a deacon in the United Methodist Church at a time when over ninety percent of the clergy in the North Carolina Conference were men.15 The title did not necessarily change Crotwell’s understanding of her role in the church; she later explained that people had already accepted her as if she were ordained.3 A couple of years later, she reflected, “I feel what the church has done is to make a public and community acceptance of what happened in the beginning of my work.”16 At the same time, Crotwell knew her ordination was a triumph in the fight for greater equality. She wrote, “It is very important for women to have the same priorities, the same responsibilities as the male ordained people. I don’t see this as compromising the quality or strength of the church, but rather as increasing it.”3
Two years after her ordination as a deacon, Crotwell broke yet another barrier set against female leadership in the Church. On June 2nd, 1975, she was ordained as an elder alongside another woman, Rev. Gladys R. Williford of Raleigh.17-19 She and Crotwell were the first two women ordained as elders in the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, the highest order of ordained ministers in the church.20, 21
At the N.C. Conference, Reverend Crotwell used her position as an elder to make gender equality a central concern.15, 22 She served as the chairperson of the Commission on the Status and Role of Women. During her time on the commission, she worked to prevent what she called a “women’s circuit,” a practice in which women clergy are rotated among only the churches that seem comfortable with female pastors.15 She served as a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry as well, and for the General Church served on the Curriculum Resource Commission and General Board of Discipleship.23
VII. Duke Chapel
Reverend Crotwell was asked to become the associate minister of Duke Chapel in 1973.3 She accepted the position, which included presiding over worship services in the Chapel once a month, as well as preaching three times a year.9 She also served as a member to the Advisory Board of “Friends of Duke Chapel,” an organization founded in 1974 for those interested in supporting the ministry and programming of the Chapel.24 At the time of her appointment, she was the only woman on the religious life staff at the Chapel.25 Yet Crotwell felt that Duke was an easier place for a female pastor than local churches. Though it was the first time many of the Chapel congregants had seen a woman lead worship, Crotwell found her students and congregants to be excited about and supportive of her new role.1
Rev. Crotwell’s influence stretched beyond the walls of the Chapel. At Duke, she also worked with the Duke University Parish Ministry, the Sexuality Counseling Center, and various women’s groups.22 She acted as the advisor to the YM-YWCA, and started women’s theology programs.25 Along with teaching classes at the Divinity School, including one called “Women and Ministry,” Rev. Crotwell also counseled students and staff members in the Duke community. She supervised a number of service projects at Duke, including an initiative to provide money to Durham residents who could not afford to heat their homes.26 Rev. Crotwell even monitored a project that turned timber from Duke Forest into firewood for local families.27
A stalwart supporter of creating spaces for dialogue among students, Crotwell served as an organizer of University Christian Movement seminar groups at Duke, which included such topics as “The function of the individual in the university,” “Raising Theological Questions,” “Contemporary Poetry,” and “Medical Ethics.”28 She also organized a student living group called the “Omega House” on Oregon Avenue, an intentional Christian community for students who participated in worship, community service, and – ever the non-conformist – guerilla theater.29
During her time at Duke, Rev. Crotwell also published a compilation of sermons written by a diverse group of both ordained and lay women from a variety of political and theological backgrounds. Her compilation, titled “Women and the Word,” was published by Fortress Press in 1978.22, 30 Crotwell viewed the book as a refutation of the notion that women in ministry are not suited for the pulpit.31 She wrote that churches that invite female preachers “may well hear the word of God come to them in a new and different way,” but also observed that no major pulpit in the country was at that time filled by a woman.32
Rev. Crotwell brought her experiences as a female minister to bear in arenas outside the university as well. In August of 1977, she was named as a trustee of the Resource Center of Women and Ministry of the South, founded by her close friend Jeanette Stokes, a Presbyterian minister.33 She spoke at various events outside of Durham as well. For example, in 1977 she presented a lecture at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke titled “What Values Will Have to Change for the American Woman?,” and in 1978, she participated in a panel in Chapel Hill, NC for the American Association of University Women, in which she discussed her experience as a woman in a traditionally male profession.34, 35 In 1977, Crotwell also served as a principle speaker at a United Methodist conference at the University of San Diego, where she delivered a talk on gender inclusivity in Christian theology.36
Rev. Crotwell’s remarkably productive time at Duke Chapel came to an unexpected halt six years after her arrival. In October 1978, Reverend Robert Young, University Minister, informed Rev. Crotwell that her contract at Duke Chapel would not be renewed. He explained that the university had recently adopted an “unwritten policy in which junior positions are changed regularly to provide new and creative thought.”25
The decision upset faculty and students across the campus.37 Some felt that Crotwell would not have been dismissed had she been male, and suspected that Rev. Young may have felt threatened by her popularity on campus. As the Durham Morning Herald put it, she had “been one of the most visible women leaders on campus.”37
A student group called “Coalition on Chapel Policy” formed in response, and circulated a petition calling for Crotwell’s reinstatement.38, 39 They were troubled not just by her dismissal, but also the precedent it set. In a Chronicle column, Charlotte Dickson, a member of the Coalition on Chapel Policy, wrote,
It is significant that a woman was the first to be affected by this policy. With its application, how are we to know that women will ever attain significant positions of leadership and authority within the university. If women are confined to junior positions which are subject to frequent turnover, their chances of advancing are slim. A university administration dominated by white men should look seriously at these implications.40
Other groups also acted on Crotwell’s behalf. Members of the Duke Chapel Choir circulated a petition of their own.41 Female faculty members in a group called “The Women’s Network” partnered with students to petition to have Reverend Young reverse his decision; one member of the Network suggested that Crotwell file suit against the university. They also proposed alternate hiring and contractual procedures for the university, and pushed for a council that would advise Young on future decisions.42 The council even wrote to several universities to collect information about their associate ministers’ contracts.43 Their efforts prompted Duke’s trustees to ask for a plan for a Duke Religious Affairs Council.42, 44 In response, Duke President Terry Sanford released a statement expressing concern and calling for the creation of an administrative body called the University Council on Religious Life.38 Rev. Young replied to criticism, explaining, “Administratively, there has been no group to work with me. Some of the decisions with regards to staff people…should have been considered and evaluated differently.”42 Young, however, did not revoke the dismissal.
In the spring of 1980, as per the recommendation of both the Network and President Sanford, the University established the Religious Life Council to advise the Chapel minister on policy and personnel decisions. After Crotwell’s dismissal, the Religious Life Council remained to improve transparency and accountability in Chapel administrative procedure.45
Though Rev. Crotwell could have remained at Duke for one more year, she decided to leave, accepting a position at two rural parishes in Granville County.46 James B. Craven III, Duke class of 1967, wrote in the Chronicle on June 18, 1979 that Crotwell’s dismissal “Upset just about everybody connected with Duke—men and women, whites and blacks, faculty and students. Helen’s two new churches are to be congratulated, but Duke has suffered a real loss.”47
IX. Later Career
In June 1979, Crotwell was appointed minister of two rural churches in Granville County, North Carolina: Banks Church, and Grove Hill Church.44, 48 Crotwell performed the superwoman feat of preaching at both churches each Sunday morning.46 Under her ministry, church attendance and tithing increased.15
At Banks and Grove Hill, Rev. Crotwell instituted small changes to promote gender inclusivity. “I don’t change our hymns,” she said in an interview at the time, “But I don’t refer to people as masculine. I don’t refer to God as masculine always.” The changes seemed to stick. Rev. Crotwell explained that two and a half years after her arrival, her parishioners had begun to correct one another, changing “chairman” to “chairperson.”15 She challenged the prejudices of the church community in multiple spheres, encountering some resistance when she organized the church to build a house for a refugee family. In her words, “That was disturbing to some people in the community, but there were enough to support it.”1
Three years after leaving Duke, Wake Forest and Millbrook, two other churches in North Carolina, requested that Rev. Crotwell transfer to their ministries. The District Superintendent of Raleigh told her that she could not go to Millbrook, the larger of the two churches, and explained that “We’re going to give that to a man.”1 Confined again by patriarchy within the Church, Rev. Crotwell moved to Wake Forest United Methodist Church in 1983.49 Offended by the presence of a woman, some of her congregants left the church. Yet just as she had in Granville County, Crotwell’s personality and leadership quickly changed assumptions about female ministers. Wrote Bob Allen, one of her parishioners, “Maybe those folks who think God doesn’t call women to preach just never had the opportunity to hear Helen.”1
On July 1, 1986, Rev. Crotwell was appointed Fayetteville District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church while serving as pastor at the Wake Forest United Methodist Church.50 She was the first woman to be appointed a United Methodist district superintendent in North Carolina, and one of the first in the southeast United States.51
Crotwell’s work as District Superintendent was extremely rewarding. She found it to be an effective platform from which to prompt change in district churches, and focused primarily on bolstering small congregations – particularly those of racial and ethnic minorities. Rev. Crotwell learned that she had a gift for giving attention to small churches that had been long ignored. She also planted churches serving a variety of communities. Crotwell brought together an African American congregation in a community in need of a church, and used the same building to organize a church to serve the many Koreans living in Fayetteville at the time. Rev. Crotwell also worked closely with a small Native American church in danger of losing its independence, and their partnership preserved the autonomy of the community.1
Crotwell’s attention to global issues manifested itself in her role as District Superintendent. In anticipated of the United Nations deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait on January 15, 1991, Crotwell, alongside other ministers, organized pastors across eastern North Carolina. Churches across the region held special services on Sunday, January 13, and noon prayer services on Monday, January 14. Crotwell explained that prayers were “for peace, for the leaders making the decisions, and for the people who might be affected by those decisions.”52
As the Fayetteville District Superintendent, Crotwell also served on the national revision committee of the United Methodist Hymnal.1 After a four-year revision process, the committee finally released the book in October of 1989. Crotwell called the changes “radical.” Some of the songs in the new hymnal were written not only in English, but also in Spanish and Korean to reflect the diverse membership of the Methodist church. Crotwell ensured that the songs included were gender-inclusive. She edited lyrics for gender-neutral pronouns, even changing the titles of various pieces. The song “Good Christian Men Rejoice,” for example, became “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.” The new hymnal also included Gospel music, a genre pioneered in black church traditions, and even featured a piece by Duke Ellington. Crotwell was deeply aware of how necessary the new hymnal was to the Methodist community. She said of the revision committee, “It was the first time we had a committee that wasn’t an elitist committee. The church was determined that the hymnal be a hymnal that every section of the church could use.”23
During her time as District Superintendent, Crotwell’s reputation began to spread across the Southeast. In December 1990, she was honored with an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree by Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC, and soon after she preached before 3,000 people at an annual meeting of United Methodist Women in Louisiana.1, 53
In 1992, a group of women of the southeastern caucus asked Rev. Crotwell to run for bishop. Her candidacy made her the first woman endorsed as a nominee for the episcopacy of the United Methodist Church.51 If elected, Rev. Crotwell would serve the southeastern jurisdiction of the nation-wide governing body of the United Methodist Church. Crotwell and the nominating women quickly organized a campaign. They chose to buck the traditions of bishop elections; as a group, they decided that they would not swap votes with other candidates. Rev. Crotwell did not win the election, and once again, the bishops remained all male. Crotwell remembers, “I was disappointed. I was sad. I don’t remember being angry, but there was a sadness. And it was not so much, it really wasn’t so much just me, as what had happened.”1
After serving as District Superintendent, Crotwell wanted to return to a small church. She was appointed to Mt. Bethel, a small congregation just outside Durham, NC.6 Crotwell encountered extreme prejudice in her new church. When some congregants learned that she wanted to invite African Americans to become part of the worship life of the church, they began a campaign to force her out of the church by Christmas. Politics were tense at Mt. Bethel, but Reverend Crotwell stayed for two more years.1
X. Later Life
In 1994, Rev. Crotwell retired from the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.6 The District Superintendent of the region of Georgia in which Helen was born contacted her, asking her to serve at a church near her hometown of Cordele, GA. Though North Carolina had become her home, Crotwell decided to accept the position; she would be only five miles from her sister.1 Rev. Crotwell retired from the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church. She moved back to her home state and served as pastor of the Wynona United Methodist Church for two years.4, 6
Rev. Helen Crotwell spent the last years of her life with family. In 1996, she moved in with her sister and brother-in-law, Neal and Demp Posey. She passed away peacefully in her home on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2006. Her ministry was highlighted at the United Methodist Annual Conference on June 15, 2006 during the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of Women’s Full Ordination in the United Methodist Church.6
Reverend Crotwell spent her life pushing the Church towards a more inclusive and more exploratory future. She crossed boundaries wherever she could, ensuring that her ministry always intersected with the social justice movements of her communities. As she explained in a 1975 article in the Durham Morning Herald, “It seems to me the church needs different viewpoints, different perspectives, different talents…I think all of this needs to be included in the total picture of the church.”3
Crotwell never failed to offer different perspectives. A child of a poor white family in rural Georgia in the 1920s, she traveled extensively and studied or worked at several elite universities, all while maintaining her commitment to small, rural communities like the one that raised her. She served congregations that resisted her, taught students who had never before met a female preacher, and opened the eyes of others not only to sexism, but also to prejudice in its various forms. In a 1977 talk about experiences of American women, for instance, Crotwell explained that to be a black female in the United States was to be “doubly oppressed.”54
Crotwell’s faith offered her a foundation from which to resist the damaging narratives of church institutions. She continuously reminded her communities that referring to God in masculine pronouns was only an analogy, and a dangerous one at that. Crotwell drew attention to imbalances in Biblical commitments, explaining that it is expected for women to study the men of the Bible, but uncommon for men to show interest in studying the women of the Bible. Sensitive to the cultures in which Christian theologies developed, Crotwell also pointed out not only that the Bible was written by “an awful lot of men,” but also that men have changed Scripture throughout history, distorting the role of women. Helen Crotwell’s criticism was often marked by characteristic wit. She once commented, “Woman is considered inferior because she was created out of the rib of Adam. What does that make man? He was created from dirt.”54
Helen Crotwell never married. Though there were interested men in her youth, she “didn’t want to get married just to get married.”1 Crotwell did not regret her singleness. Though as a young woman she imagined that she would one day choose a husband, she chose to invest in larger communities first and foremost. Settling for a relationship for the sake of it meant that her “commitment to [her] call to ministry could have interfered.”1 In fact, Crotwell often used her status as a single woman in ministry to teach others about sexism in professional and social circles. At a talk at Pembroke State University, a student asked about her marital status. Crotwell responded, “Am I married? Why? Is that important?” As a reporter notes, Crotwell smiled, and then continued. “No, I’m not… a man is addressed as Mr. From that, we have no idea if he is married or not. But for women, the use of the Miss or Mrs. makes it very obvious as to her marital status.”54
Crotwell’s choice to devote her life to her work never isolated her. On the contrary, her warmth and vision drew others into her friendship for all her life. In fact, Helen was a beloved host. She was known for preparing extraordinary meals for the dining room while at the same time holding political and theological conversations in the living room. Crotwell was a woman who could dissolve the boundary between traditional male and female roles in many spheres, including hospitality. In the words of one of her friends, “Martha busied herself at the kitchen, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet. Helen was Mary and Martha all rolled into one.”55
Crotwell’s boundary-crossing work in various churches meant she was no stranger to the complexities and tensions of a life lived alongside others. In the midst of prejudice, protest, and reform, Crotwell served as a role model and mentor to many. Her ability to bring communities together – cultivated in student ministry, sharpened by her time in small churches, and honed during her leadership in the North Carolina Conference – taught those around her to examine the prejudices present in their world. As one of her friends remembers, “We discovered feminism along with her, but she was already occupying so many feminist roles. We just didn’t have language for it yet.”55
Reverend Helen Crotwell’s life reminds us of how deeply we can dwell in community with others, and how a community can transform each of its members. It is with great wisdom that she wrote,
Any group can become your family if it can bear the marks and carry the weight of being family – a place where you are nurtured and sustained, where you can be healed in your hurts and share your joys, called into question about your selfishness, supported in your doubts, where you share a common commitment toward what is important and of value in life.1
To Helen, commitments to core beliefs – to social justice and service, feminism and faith – were inextricable from her commitments to the people around her. She was both a role model and a friend, and with graciousness and grit she transformed community after community into something that looked like family.
1. Smith, A., Pastor Lady: The Life and Work of the Reverend Helen Gray Crotwell, 1996, Duke University Archives: Reynolds Price Papers, 1927-2011 and undated, Box 2O-7, c.1.
2. “Historical Records: Section 6.” In North Carolina Annual Conference: North Carolina United Methodist Church, 2006.
3. Huff, John. “Men, Women Must Share Church Duties, Roles, Says Clergywoman.” Durham Morning Herald, January 22, 1975 1975.
4. “Obituary: Helen Gray Crotwell.” The Albany Herald, April 11, 2006.
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