Tune in to CBF’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/cbfinfo) on Tuesday, January 18, at 7pm Eastern as CBF’s Rev. Kasey Jones speaks with Rev. Adamson about her trailblazing work that has saved lives and transformed communities.
By Chris Hughes
For the Rev. Cheryl Adamson, living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ means embodying a ministry of presence, meeting the tangible needs of her community and, most of all, providing a ministry of truth telling.
“One of the scriptures that informs my living is John 8:31-32, where Jesus says to the people following him: ‘You are truly my disciples if you remain in my word; and you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free,’” she recites chapter and verse from memory. “I’ve always been about the freedom that comes with telling the truth,” Adamson added.
Adamson is a 2021 recipient of the McCall Racial Justice Trailblazer Award presented by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at its annual General Assembly. The award is named for the Rev. Dr. Emmanuel McCall, the first African American to serve as CBF moderator and a trailblazing leader who has devoted his life as a student, denominational leader, pastor, author and scholar to the pursuit of racial justice. The Trailblazer Award recognizes individuals like Adamson who have created inroads into uncharted, unequal or unjust areas of life.
As the founding pastor of Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church, a CBF-partner church in Conway, South Carolina, and the executive director of the church’s outreach, Palmetto Works Community Development Corporation, Adamson has a history of blazing trails. She was among the first Black students to graduate from Conway High School and also from the University of South Carolina, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1974. She went on to earn a Master’s degree in health education from the University of Maryland at College Park in 1982.
In the first part of her career, Adamson worked in public health for South Carolina as the state’s first HIV/AIDS educator, then shifted into a number of roles in local government and with community nonprofits/organizations.
But God had more in store for Adamson as she began to sense a call to ministry. “I preached my first sermon at age 46 and then began attending divinity school at age 47,” she said. Through the Baptist House of Studies at Duke Divinity School, Adamson forged relationships within CBF life through mentors like Curtis Freeman, Duke’s Baptist House director, and Marion Aldridge, then coordinator for CBF South Carolina (CBFSC).
For more than 15 years, Adamson has served as the pastor of Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church and for the last nine years as executive director of Palmetto Works. Through Palmetto Works, the church offers several ministries to address growing inequalities in Conway, including Palmetto Kids! Music and Arts Academy for children from five to 12 years old, Palmetto Youth Leadership Academy for teenagers 13 to 18 years old, and Culinary and Hospitality Operatives Prepared to Serve (CHOPS), a program which sells South Carolina-grown and produced fruits and vegetables to the community. Palmetto Works is located in a USDA certified food desert, meaning there is not a grocery store within one mile.
“In everything we do, we’re trying to raise the visibility of certain conditions in our community that don’t reflect Jesus Christ, that don’t reflect a true belief in the Imago Dei, and that don’t reflect the belief in the infinite abundance that our faith should represent,” Adamson emphasized.
The church remains nimble in its approach to ministry. Housed in a leased storefront, Palmetto Works is the only property that the church operates. The congregation worships in the chapel of St. Paul’s Anglican Church. They also work in partnership with other churches to offer summer camps and after-school programs. “We are a church without walls,” Adamson said. “We put people over programs over property.”
Palmetto Works and Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church have also created several partnerships with educational institutions and provided mentorship to a new generation of pastors, health professionals and community advocates. Over the past four years, the church has served as a field education placement for students from Duke Divinity School. In addition, the church has supervised a number of students in the Public Health program at Coastal Carolina University. Many of them have gone on to replicate what they learn in their professional lives by starting food ministries, urban gardens and after-school programs in their own communities.
For Adamson, it is not just about what these students learn while with Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church, but the context to which they are exposed. “Not every Black student who goes through Duke gets to train in an African-American context,” she said. “I consider this to be social justice because it influences Black students who get to see how they can have an impact in their communities; and, for white students, it exposes them to communities that might not reflect their own experiences.”
Her ministry has garnered praise from church members, city leaders and from across CBF life. “As a church starter associated with CBFSC and as the first Black Baptist woman to pastor a CBFSC-partner congregation, she has paved the way for a growing relationship between CBFSC and other African-American Baptist pastors,” said CBFSC Coordinator Jay Kieve.
As a “church without walls,” Palmetto Missionary Baptist Church serves the community through partnership with other churches to offer summer camps and after-school programs, as well as through the ministries of Palmetto Works and Culinary and Hospitality Operatives Prepared to Serve (CHOPS).
“Cheryl has brought souls to Christ, modeled a Christian life, and dedicated her life to meeting the needs of her neighbors,” said Barbara Jo Blain-Bellamy, the mayor of Conway. “She is in the same mold as Emmanuel McCall,” remarked longtime former CBFSC Coordinator Marion Aldridge. “They are two peas in a pod, heroes for the 20th and 21st centuries.”
“The award is an honor because of the person it represents and the cause that it stands for,” according to Adamson. “It’s humbling because of the extreme sacrifices and hardships made by other women and men who came before me. But it’s also a challenge to excellence in whatever I do going forward to pave the way for those who will come after me.”
To reckon with racial injustices of the past and present, Adamson believes it is time for churches to start telling the truth. “What is needed now is for Christians, churches and ministers to learn our true history here in America, and to face the implications of that truth,” she says. “We have to move with just as much commitment and intensity as the forces of racism move in the other direction in order to truly be anti-racist.”
This article first appeared in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of fellowship! magazine. Read online and subscribe for free at www.cbf.net/fellowship.