Still preaching at 96: Pentecostal pastor who pioneered female leadership inspires in Baltimore and beyond

The energy level is building at Faith Tabernacle Apostolic Church in Madison-Eastend one recent Sunday, with praise music swirling from an organ, a male elder proclaiming that God is “good, good, good,” and worshippers chiming in with periodic “Amens.”

A tiny, white-haired pastor takes the stage. The Rev. Lucille T. Calloway, 96, gets the crowd singing “Jesus Loves Me,” preaches from the Book of Job, and bangs the pulpit as she thanks God she’s still able to do what she loves.


By the time the great-great-grandmother who was born when Calvin Coolidge was president lights into her trademark “happy dance,” the pews are full of clapping and praise.

“It’s phenomenal to see Pastor up there preaching and inspiring after all these years,” Faith Tabernacle member Shanna Darden, 38, says of Calloway, now in her seventh decade as leader of the small but lively Pentecostal congregation in East Baltimore. “It reaffirms that God is real, that he’s faithful, and that he keeps the people he loves.”


Talk to the legions in Baltimore and beyond who know the pastor some call “Big Mama,” and they’ll tick off the feats of her long career, from blazing a trail for women in a male-dominated church to surviving two illnesses her doctors believed would be fatal.

Then come tales of the smaller but no less meaningful acts — the prayers said, sick beds visited, weddings performed, money given away — that add up over the generations, all bolstered by Calloway’s tireless preaching on family, forgiveness and love.

“Pastor loves everybody, and she shows it in her preaching, words, and most of all, in her actions,” says Donald Minor, an Apostolic pastor in Prince George’s County, who calls her a mentor. “Have you ever heard of anyone pastoring this long, let alone in leading the same church? That kind of love and dedication takes root and spreads. It’s all coming back to bless her now.”

Calloway needs help to walk to the pulpit now, her voice is more a whisper than a shout, and when she speaks in the sanctuary she had built half a lifetime ago, it’s not to deliver the sermon. It’s at the end — “to give everybody something to take home with them.”

As the flock of about 60 files out, the mood is buoyant, the conversation upbeat, as men, women and children bid each other farewell.

Calloway’s eyes smile above her black mask as she watches them leave.

“I’m still preaching,” she says, and laughs.

She was born Lucille Tanzella Durham in Rock Hill, South Carolina. One of her grandfathers was enslaved, though Calloway didn’t learn that until years later, when one of her daughters researched the family’s genealogy.


African American families rarely discussed their histories in those days, she says, and never with children in the room.

“They’d say, ‘The grown-ups are talking now,’ and send us all upstairs,” she says.

Her mother, Eugenia, was a “very religious” woman Calloway remembers serving food to anyone who stopped by the house looking for help, a common sight during the Depression, and sending each away with a boxed meal.

But her mother’s lessons didn’t sink in right away. Calloway lived what she calls a “hellbound” life for years, sneaking out to party and finding herself in scrapes.

One day another girl — upset at her friendship with a young man — kept bothering Calloway in church. When the service was over, Calloway threw the girl across a pew so hard that she had to go to a hospital.

“I never started a fight, but I never walked away from one,” Calloway says.


Her life took another direction when she was in her early 20s, when she was newly married to a young steelworker named Leon Calloway and living in Baltimore.

Intrigued by music pouring from a nearby church, she went to a service and, to her shock, saw a woman fall to the floor “shaking and hollering” during an altar call. When she went back the following week, the same thing happened to her.

Such an experience — a sudden sense that a higher power is in control, known to Pentecostal Christians as baptism in the Holy Spirit — is considered an anointing for special service.

Calloway says she felt as if she had come through something, changed for a new kind of fight.

“That’s when I got the Holy Ghost,” she says. “If you got it, you wouldn’t trade it for nothing else! And it hasn’t left me yet.”

The Rev. Erwin Scofield, a bishop in the Apostolic church, is writing a book about Calloway’s life, chronicling where the spirit has led her.


At first, it was meant as a simple encouragement to women. But it became clear her influence was so widespread that he needed to cover her life and ministry. The book traces Calloway’s leadership, her rise to prominence in the international Apostolic church, and the dedication she inspires.

“You have to have the type of respect that will allow people to follow you that long,” Scofield says. “She has some of the most loyal people you’ll find in any denomination.”

A dozen or so stopped by her house in West Baltimore one recent afternoon, some to seek encouragement, others to check on her welfare or give her a hug. A handful stayed for several hours to help Calloway, whose memory can waver, tell her life story.

One of Calloway’s seven children, Tannie Berger, recalls her mother’s early days in ministry. The family attended a small church in a rented space in Turner Station in southeastern Baltimore County. Berger says that because the pastor was often late, Calloway brought her kids in 90 minutes early and held a small service of her own.

The bishop in charge was so impressed that he asked Calloway, then 23, to take over the congregation. It was an unheard-of move in a denomination that had always taken literally a New Testament passage suggesting that women should “remain quiet” in church.

Calloway met a wall of resistance as many made it known they wanted no part of a female pastor.


Her strategy: Mix humility and strength. She gave fiery sermons from the church floor, not the pulpit. She worked to treat men as she would anyone and made clear she “wasn’t taking away anybody’s manhood.”

Within months, more men than women were attending the church, an unusual development in the Apostolic faith and one that continued as Faith Tabernacle grew.

“Some of those men stayed with me until the day they died,” she says.

Members of the Apostolic Church, a branch of Pentecostal Christianity, believe in the infallibility of the Bible and the power of miracles. Calloway’s friends see the mark of the otherworldly in her life.

There was the church’s decision in the 1960s to move to a larger space. A vacant school on Ashland Avenue seemed right, but it was out of the church’s price range and needed work. A man in the neighborhood liked the idea so much he made the down payment, and the 200 or so congregants dug up enough cash to pay off the mortgage in nine months — and get stained-glass windows installed to boot.

“Whatever we’ve turned our hand to has been blessed,” says Ella Clark, who joined the congregation in 1978.


Calloway survived advanced breast cancer in 1975 — in the wake of a radical mastectomy, her hair not only didn’t fall out, but grew — and a more recent bacterial infection that caused gangrene. She followed medical protocols, but church members are certain their prayers and hers played a major role.

“We thought she was on her way out,” says David Carpenter, a Faith Tabernacle member since 2004. “But she’s a woman of faith who believes the biblical idea that with faith and trust, we can be healed. We’ve got to believe.”

That faith drove Calloway to become a well-known presence in Baltimore’s Pentecostal community, where she delivered sermons in churches across the area, and eventually extended her reach worldwide.

She has represented the Rehoboth Church of God in Christ Jesus, an Apostolic denomination, among fellow believers in Africa, Europe and the Caribbean, became women’s president of the organization, and remains vice president and adviser to Victorious Apostolic Churches, a group with congregations in five states.

Scofield said he hopes the book about Calloway will “encourage people in the ministry to never lose their steam as they serve God, to use her as an example of what the ministry should be.”

For Faith Tabernacle members and others, her influence remains personal.


Clark says she was a bar-hopper before a friend invited her to a service in 1978. She found the experience so joyous she never left. Carpenter was going through a divorce when he decided to join.

Another member, Bobby Owens, confides that he spent years as an alcoholic. One night he stopped by Calloway’s church on an impulse. He was drunk, he says, but Calloway welcomed him so warmly he began coming regularly, calling her blend of compassion and toughness a balm.

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“She’ll tell you one minute that you need to get your act together, then she’ll come out and tell you she loves you,” he says “It’s that two-edged sword — she’ll cut you going and heal you coming back. She really has that gift.”

He’s now an elder in the church.

Faith Tabernacle has shrunk to a membership of about 125 in recent years, members say, the combined result of a broad decline in commitment to formal religion and the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which closed Faith Tabernacle for months last year.

With restrictions eased, though, more are returning. The church routinely hits the current city attendance limit of 25%, and Calloway’s work continues to inspire.


“Even at her advanced age, she’s still running and doing,” Carpenter says. “It amazes me the strength that the lady has. They don’t make ladies like that anymore.”

For her part, Calloway says she hopes she has spent enough time with enough people that her message will resound after she’s gone.

“I’ll keep going till He calls me home,” she says.