PITTSFIELD >> There are many degrees to Sheila Sholes-Ross: Pastor, scholar, activist, feminist, wife.
The reverend is currently at the start of her second year ministering to the congregation of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield. She is the 30th senior pastor of the church, having relocated to the Berkshires with her husband, Nelson Ross, on January 23, 2014. Both come from New Orleans and spent a couple of decades living and working around Durham, N.C. And while Sholes-Ross had first heard her calling to God early on in life — around age 17, she says — it’s only been in recent years she been firmly footed in the ministry, and she is now 59.
“I heard something at 17 years old, but never seeing an African American female clergy person where I grew up, I didn’t think of it,” she said.
By 1978, she had two bachelor’s degrees, and she went on to earn a master’s in administration and supervision, and then a master’s in public health, before finally understanding this calling and pursuing a divinity degree.
“Before I felt the calling to God, I felt the calling to advocacy first,” she said.
She said her first act of advocacy, also a first foray into feminism, got her kicked out of her Brownies troop of the Girl Scouts.
“I didn’t like just baking the cookies,” she said. “I wanted to find out why the boys in the Cub Scout were doing something different than we were. I wanted to be a part of that too.”
She attributes much of her will and character development to her mother, Ruth Nicholas Sholes.
“She was a trailblazer,” she said.
In the early 1900s, her mother marched into a bank and negotiated a loan, becoming the owner and hair dresser for her own beauty salon.
“I always had a strong woman in my life,” Sholes-Ross said, “and I’ve always, since I was a little girl, advocated on behalf of all women.”
She also co-chairs the Equity for Women in the Church Community for the progressive national fellowship known as the Alliance of Baptists.
As the first female, first African-American leader of the First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, the Rev. Sholes-Ross isn’t afraid to state, “Yes, this is history.”
But, she said, her own identity and ownership of that fact doesn’t mean she’s only an advocate for people, or women, like her.
“We are in this together,” she said. “I’m not just going to advocate on behalf of black women or women of color … and that’s the struggle with women — we don’t work on behalf of one another.”
Fortunately, she said, she has a strong ally, her husband of 27 years, who was willing to pack up his successful career as a hair stylist in the South and venture with her to New England.
“I’m a blessed woman,” Sholes-Ross said. “He’s not intimidated by my success, and he’s an advocate for females too. I am so proud of that.”
Beyond her work in the church and towards raising the status of women, she’s also demonstrated in her past year and few months in the city that’s she’s ready to roll up her sleeves and go to bat on its behalf too.
“I know that God has called me here not just to be a pastor of First Baptist but to make a difference in the community,” she said.
One of the first appointments she made was with Pittsfield Police Chief Michael Wynn, not at a desk, but in a four-hour ride along with him in a police cruiser through every back alley and byway.
“We can’t do this alone, and we need all the help we can get,” Wynn said, lauding what he called a gracious newfound partnership during Sholes-Ross’s formal installation celebration last August.
Sholes-Ross now serves as one of the adult members of the recently revived Pittsfield Youth Commission, bringing to the table her experience as past executive director of Communities in Schools in Orange County, N.C., and working with a high-school dropout population in the South.
She’s also been a partner a number of collaborations with Rabbi Josh Breindel of Temple Anshe Amunim, including hosting a joint service to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
At 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 12, Sholes-Ross, along with The Berkshire Lyric Chorus and Blafield Children’s Chorus, Jack Brown, Joe Rose and Wanda Houston, will present “Moving to Glory: A Gospel and Spirituals Concert” at the First Baptist Church. The concert was postponed in February due to the inclement weather and will benefit the Pittsfield Youth Commission.
She’s working to develop youth ministry and outreach through her church, she said, and to reach out to other under-served populations, like people who struggle with mental health issues and things like housing and food insecurity.
“You shouldn’t be made to feel like an outcast when you’re struggling,” she said.
“I try to meet with people, to see where the greatest need is and how I can fit in to help.”
She works to stay actively involved in the community she’s still learning about.
To keep her energy, stamina and focus on her missions of ministry and empowerment, she said, it’s also important to “make time for Sheila,” to help find clarity and stay on task.
“I have my days,” she said. “Things have not always been easy.”
She hit multiple glass ceilings in her effort to find a congregation that would accept her.
“I was denied 33 times as pastor,” she said.
She relied on inner strength and support from friends and loved ones until First Baptist Pittsfield found her.
“We have to take care of ourselves physically and emotionally,” she said. “I want to ensure I’m able to be everything I can be. Every day I get up and spend time with God. I exercise and then come [to the church] to see what’s on the plate. God will put me where I need to be.”
In case she needs a reminder, Proverbs 3:5-6 is displayed on her desk: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.”
On the Bridge
What: The Rev. Sheila Sholes-Ross, along with The Berkshire Lyric Chorus and Blafield Children’s Chorus, Jack Brown, Joe Rose and Wanda Houston, will present “Moving to Glory: A Gospel and Spirituals Concert”
Where: First Baptist Church, 88 South St., Pittsfield
When: 3 p.m. on Sunday, April 12
Admission: $15 general admission, free for children, to benefit the Pittsfield Youth Commission.
On the Bridge is an ongoing collaboration between Multicultural Bridge and Berkshries Week & Shires of Vermont to welcome many voices to these pages. For more, visit berkshireeagleblogs.com/onthebridge.