Rev. Ralph Huling and the role of the African-American minister
The Rev. Ralph Huling is a local minister, author, and retired educator who has served the Columbus community for decades.
As president of the local Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, he has been trying to make the organization more active and visible in the community.
Huling sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about his background, the alliance and socioeconomic issues facing society.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
Q: What was it like growing up here in Columbus?
A: I was raised in East Highland, and growing up in East Highland was very challenging because of the fact that it was a low socioeconomic development. You had to be tough to coexist and to be able to make it out of East Highland.
... My mother and father moved here from Hamilton, Ga., and I’m, I guess, a third-generation preacher, because both my grandfathers were preachers, and my father was a pastor as well. My environment was perhaps a little different from a lot of the kids growing up in East Highland because of the fact that we were Christians. But I did get exposure to a lot of the things that were happening in the neighborhood. And by the time I was about 12, being the youngest, my mother moved because... I had really gotten into some trouble fighting and cutting people because that’s how you almost had to exist. Mom moved to Carver Heights, which was kind of a transition for me, a different environment. It was for my good, and so I moved to Carver Heights, but I continued to go to Spencer High School.
... At 11-12 years old, I had paper routes. As a matter of fact, by the time I was 13, I had people that were working for me throwing papers. ... One of my deacons, he is one of my former paperboys that worked for me. By the time I was 15, I had bought a car. So I was always kind of like the businessman. I learned a lot from delivering papers all over town and had this entrepreneurial spirit. It kind of stayed with me all my life.
Q: East Highland and Carver Heights, those were both predominantly black communities?
A: Yes, they were.
Q: What was the difference between those two communities?
A: Well, Carver Heights was kind of a professional community, and there were more or less retired military people in that area, and the homes were different. People had a little bit more sense of keeping up the community. From a socioeconomic perspective, it was different.
Q: In East Highland, was that public housing that you lived in?
A: Well, fortunately for me we never lived in public housing. ... You see, my granddaddy was a pastor, and so he had taught my mom the advantages of owning your own home. As a matter fact, I used to kind of be jealous of the people that lived in public housing because they had upstairs, and things like that. I thought they were really living a notch above us, but I didn’t understand that we had our own home. I couldn’t appreciate it until I grew up and realized, “Wow, we were doing a lot better than I thought.”
... I learned a lot from Granddad and my mother in owning property. And even right now, I own homes that I rent out to people. ... It’s kind of a part of my ministry.
Q: What type of work did your parents do?
A: My mom, she was a civil servant, she retired from Fort Benning. My dad had been a pastor, and he also worked for Litho-Krome.
Q: At what point did you decide to become a minister?
A: Well, I had been called into the ministry from a young kid. I knew that one day I would have to become a pastor, become a preacher, but I didn’t want to preach. I wanted to disqualify myself in any way I could, because I was more concerned about what people were going to think: “Ralph Huling, the guy that used to fight on the playground, the one that was always getting in trouble at Spencer High School?” I just didn’t want to preach, and so I guess you could say I was running from what God was calling me to do. And then in my early 30s, God just kind of gave me an ultimatum.
Q: Tell me about that experience.
A: ... One day I was out at my house... and I heard a voice that came down the hallway and called my name so loud and so strong and so powerful that it just blew me up against the wall. ... I fell back on the wall and the telephone fell on me, and I was scared.
I knew God was calling my name, and like I said, I had known all along what he wanted me to do. But I called my Daddy, and Dad just kind of smiled and said, “Son, that’s between you and God.” Then on Nov. 16, 1986, while in the shower, God spoke to me again, and said, “This is your ultimatum. Either you’re going to do what I want you to do, or else.” I didn’t want to deal with God’s “or else,” and so God told me what he wanted me to do and how he wanted me to do it. And he told me that he wanted me to first tell my wife. This was on Saturday, and then on tomorrow, tell the congregation at Greater Beallwood Baptist Church where I grew up. And so, I was obedient. I came out of the shower and I told my wife that God had called me to preach. It seemed like for two hours she just sat down and said, “Mmm mmm mmm.”
Q: What happened from there?
A: ... I told my pastor, who was Rev. Willie Hill at the time, and so he arranged for my initial sermon. ... The third Sunday in January of 1987, I had my initial sermon at 6 o’clock in the evening. And it just so happened that Rev. Cecil Hawkins, who was the organizer of St. James when they had built this church... he was at my initial sermon. That night he said that God spoke to him and told him that I was going to be the pastor of the St. James Baptist Church.
I came over here about two weeks later... and became his assistant. ... He was ill, but I didn’t know that he was terminally ill, and he never did come back. ... So I never did get a chance to sit up under a pastor, or learn from another pastor, because the way God called me I had to hit the ground running. ... The church mourned for Rev. Hawkins for 90 days, and then they called me to be the pastor.
Q: How long ago was that?
A: Well, this Sunday will be my 29th anniversary. ... We’ve been here, and we’ve done a lot of great things. God has blessed the church.
Q: How many members do you have here?
A: ...We started out with about eight or 10 — say, 10-12 members at the most. (Now) we have over 200 that are active, and the ministry has sent me to Germany. I’ve gone all over the United States ministering. ... I’m also an author.
Q: What book did you write?
A: “Biblical and Cultural Concepts of Marriage and Family Life.” I do seminars on marriage and family all over the country, and the state of Georgia as well.
Q: You were also a canine sergeant with the Department of Corrections at one time. Tell me about that.
A: ... I had to train the dogs to go capture inmates when they broke out of prison. And many times they would break out, and they would break into homes. They got weapons, and I got a weapon. So it was almost like the Wild Wild West, and who was the toughest. Many times we would capture them, bring them out of the woods. ... Before I became canine sergeant... whenever we would capture a person, drag them out of the woods, things like that, law enforcement had a habit of beating up the guys to teach them a lesson. … The canine sergeant, he is in charge of search, so we broke that kind of stuff up.
Q: In addition to that, you also worked for the Muscogee school district as Family Service Coordinator?
A: I realized that I was going to be the pastor and working with (the Department of Corrections) was going to be too challenging. ... So I went back to school and got my degrees... and then I was able to get hired by the Muscogee County School District. ... That job provided me the opportunity to do probably what a pastor would be doing every day, and that’s helping people, helping families. That’s the kind of job I had, and I loved it.
Q: Black churches have historically played a crucial role in the black community, in terms of leading in the civil rights movement, and being at the forefront of socioeconomic issues. Do you feel that black churches still play that role in the community today?
A: ... I think that we as African Americans, we have to remember from whence we’ve come, and continue that because we have not arrived yet. There’s still a lot of work to do. ... I know that we live in a diverse population, but I still think that African Americans need to support the African-American church, because if it had not been for the African-American pastors, and specifically some Baptist pastors that led the civil rights movement, then we wouldn’t be where we are today — Martin Luther King Jr., for instance, and his noteworthy assistants.
... I realize that the African-American pastor, he’s different from his counterparts. I love my brothers of European descent, but they don’t have the leverage. ... I suppose they don’t have the freedom, if you will, to be able to speak on social changes that are necessary from their pulpits. And you won’t find them out leading social changes because, perhaps, they don’t feel the need to if things are well with them and their parishioners … I’ve seen many pastors of European descent get dismissed from their congregations because of their concern for social issues.
Q: So, a couple things. One is you mentioned that that’s why it is important for African Americans to support the black church. Do you feel that the churches have lost support from African Americans in this integrated environment where people can go to whatever church they want to?
A: Certainly, certainly, yes. We see that across the spectrum. Integration has affected the black church as well. We are finding that many people that are sometimes successful want to take their tithes and offerings across town to other churches, but the people of other ethnicities will not really bring their tithes and offerings to African-American churches. As a result, it creates an imbalance.
Q: Then, two, I’ve heard people in the community say that they feel that black churches aren’t doing enough. They don’t really see the ministers and church leaders at the forefront of socioeconomic campaigns, fighting for equality, and that sort of thing.
A: Yeah, and I will admit that the prophetic voice of the African-American pastor has been somewhat dormant in recent years. But that is one of the things that we are trying to do now, is let people know that God still speaks through his preachers, and that the voice of the clergy in Muscogee County is the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. ... We are collaborating. We are working together. As I often tell the members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, “The strength of the wolf is in the pack. You see a wolf out there by itself, he is no threat. You see a pack of wolves, they can make change.”
Q: Tell me about some of the initiatives that you all are working on right now.
A: ... We are embracing the fact that the Muscogee County School District needs us, and we need the Muscogee County School District. We want to work collaboratively with the superintendent. We want to work collaboratively with our elected officials. We want to work collaboratively with the NAACP. We want to work with the Muscogee County Jail Project.
We are going to adopt schools. We are going to do workshops, try to teach parental intervention, because personally I believe that parental involvement is the single and most determining factor in whether or not our children fail or succeed in school. We’ve got to emphasize this. We’ve got to reteach parents that you don’t drop your child off at school in August and we don’t see you again until May or June. Your children need your involvement.
We are going to get involved with our schools. We are going to get involved with the Columbus Urban League debate teams. We are going to work with our court systems, parents and children who are having problems and the court has deemed that they need intervention. We want to be the agent that works with our children and our parents that need us. Also, when we see something that we feel is not right in our community, we are going to speak out on it.
Q: During the recent school board election, your organization was very vocal about your concerns that board member Frank Meyers was trying to oust the superintendent of schools. You made some very strong comments. Can you tell me why you felt the need to come out on that issue?
A: We felt that it was urgent that we speak concerning that particular issue because it was a crucial vote. ... I want to clarify that I have nothing, absolutely nothing, against any of the candidates. As a matter of fact, I know them. I’ve worked with some of them. I like all of them. ... This was not aimed at the candidates. This was aimed at the potential for the board to be stacked, that the votes would always go a particular way. ... We didn’t want any person to have a monopoly as it relates to the votes coming to the school district.
It had been reported that if a person didn’t vote a certain person’s way, then they were bullied, they were threatened. And so I just felt like that needed to be exposed, and that the citizens of our community needed to know what was going on.
Q: What do you recommend in terms of the society restoring families? What do you think is the problem and what is the solution?
A: Well, one of the things that I see that’s happening is that out of the five institutions of society — the family, the economy, religion, government and education — the family was the first one created. Therefore, insinuating that it is the most important institution... the enemy realizes that he’s no match with God, so he’s messing with God’s children. If you are the enemy and you decide that you are going to mess with the family, and one day you have a meeting with your devilettes and demonettes and impettes and imps and say, “Well, since we’re attacking the family, what is the most logical approach? Where should we attack?” And somebody says, “Attack the head, because if you get the head, the body will die.”
If you look around our society, you are seeing the male is no longer in church like he used to be. You see males that are thinking that they can show their dominance as a male by having children on this side of town, that side of town, everywhere, and not taking care of any of them. There’s really been an attack on the male. ... We’ve seen the family evolve from... being a man and a woman. We’ve seen a lot of things in our society that we have accepted and embraced. And whoever says that they are a family, they are a family. Now, I respect that, but we have seen the family disintegrate from what we know that God actually intended the family to be.
Q: So, what are your views about gay marriage?
A: As a Christian pastor, I feel that God loves everybody, and as a Christian pastor I’ve got to love everybody. God loves us all. He doesn’t love our sin, but thank God that he loves the sinner.
Name: The Rev. Ralph W. Huling.
Current Residence: Midland
Job: Senior pastor of St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Columbus and New Hope Baptist Church in Lumpkin, Ga.; adjunct professor at Chattahoochee Valley Community College, Columbus Technical College and Beulah Heights Seminary.
Previous Jobs: Family service coordinator at the Muscogee County School District for 30 years; canine sergeant with the Georgia Department of Corrections, Rutledge State Prison.
Education: Bachelor’s in criminal justice, Troy University; master’s in counseling and human development, Troy University; doctorate in pastoral theology, Andersonville Theological Seminary.
Family: Dorothy Robinson Huling, wife of 35 years; two daughters, Daisha and Nekita; and one grandson, Nolan Christian Miller.