PORTERDALE, Ga. — When Clara Lett looks back on the 30 years she’s been in ministry as founding pastor of Rainbow Covenant Ministries in Porterdale, she points back to something her mother said to her when she was younger as the thing that set forth the course of her life.
“My mother used to say that I’d take my head off of my shoulders and give it to someone if I could,” Lett said while letting out a hearty chuckle. “I didn’t understand that when she said it then, but now I do.”
That’s because the 73-year old pastor and community servant has dedicated the majority of her adult life to serving others. Whether that’s through the church she began back in 1993 when women ministers and pastors was still a very much frowned upon phenomenon in Newton County, or whether it’s the homeless shelter and warming center she’s established that services hundreds each year, Lett’s life has been all about giving and being a trailblazer.
On the weekend of May 6-7, the Rainbow Covenant church family will be inviting the Porterdale and Newton County communities to celebrate the 30-year milestone with them and Pastor Lett. For Lett, it’s been three decades of loving on a community that, she acknowledges, was sometimes difficult to love.
“A lot of people think ministry is easy,” she said. “It’s not. We’ve gone through so many things over the last 30 years here, and have had so much try to come against us, but we’re still here because of God’s grace, and that’s what we’re going to celebrate this weekend.”
The festivities begin on Saturday May 6 at 10 a.m. when the church will gather at 100 Eleanor Drive and be escorted caravan style to Porterdale’s Yellow River Park by the Newton County Sheriff’s department. That’s where a day full of live music and free food open for anyone in the community will commence.
“We’re going to just have an awesome time,” Lett said. “People can bring their tents, their lawn chairs. It’s just going to be a good, refreshing day to celebrate how, for 30 years, God has used us here in this community and in the surrounding communities of Newton County.”
The celebration will continue on Sunday May 7 when Rev. Hezekiah Benton, the now-retired and once-long serving pastor Covington’s Bethlehem Baptist Church will come to preach during Rainbow’s 10 a.m. service. Things will conclude at 1 p.m. when Bishop William Davenport of Corinth Missionary Baptist Church in Social Circle will lead worship and bring the Word of God.
The 'restless' beginning
For Lett, it all began by her scratching a stubborn itch — an itch that said to her that God had more in store for her than where she was at the time.
“Even in my early years, I was always told there was a calling on my life, but I didn’t understand none of that stuff,” Lett said. “But I remember, back in the early 1980s, I was on a highway driving in Snellville, and I had just had this restlessness about me. And on that highway, I heard the voice of God so clearly. He even gave me the name for this ministry, and I wrote it in my bible.”
Shortly after, she contacted the Rev. W.R. Chewing, who was the pastor of the Early Hope Baptist Church at the time, and told him what she believed she was hearing from God.
“I had that restless spirit, and I shared with him that I really just felt like I needed to something for God,” she said. “That I just needed to launch out and do something for God.”
The fact that Early Hope didn’t recognize women preachers at the time complicated things, but the church’s pastor still licensed Lett as a minister.
“It was May 20, 1989 when he licensed me,” she recalls. “And I tell you, that was some experience. I was the first Black woman pastor to pastor in this community. It was a time when this community didn’t accept women in the ministry. So it made me sort of a trailblazer in a way, and when you’re cutting the way for others, it’s not easy at all.”
In fact, Lett remembers a particular Sunday that she was supposed to preach at Early Hope, but the church’s congregation was so opposed to it that she told her pastor that she’d rather just allow him to preach.
“God will open doors for me,” she said.
Provision through pain
One of those first doors opened when Lett was just beginning to lay the foundation for Rainbow Covenant Ministries. Seven months in, she was contacted by a pastor named David Payne who told one of Lett’s daughters that he had a church building available for her congregation.
Lett acknowledged that she initially didn’t want to begin her ministry in Porterdale. Her family, including her parents, were born and raised in Newton County, and she said she recalls some instances of “racism and prejudice” in the area that made her uncomfortable.
“But I had a sister who was sort of like a prophet to me,” Lett said. “She told me that, ‘God wants us in Porterdale.’”
The way Lett and company came into the building they now occupy sort of proved it.
“I called David Payne, and he gave me a tour of the church,” she said. “After we looked at it, I asked him how much, and he told me $200 a month. I didn’t know either to faint or what.”
After about seven years of renting, Payne decided it was time to sell the building, and when he did, he used all the money the church had paid for renting over the years as a downpayment for purchase. In the spirit of that benevolence, Lett decided to open wide the doors of her church to whomever had need.
“A lot of churches have launched their ministries in this building,” she said. “We have these chairs in here now, but before that, we had pews — benches — and we gave all those away about 10 years ago to a church in Mexico that was just starting up. Over the years, this whole sanctuary would be filled with nothing but clothing and food. People in the community would literally come here and shop. I’ve always told our people, ‘be a giver.’” That’s how it’s always been.
“We went through a lot of stuff being in Porterdale, but I had to learn that when God is getting ready to elevate you, you’ll go through some things. That’s when your faith has to kick in.”
Perhaps no other time in Lett’s 30 years of ministry did that statement become more true than when she found herself in the midst of what she calls her biggest “storm” in ministry.
It happened when one of her sisters decided to start another church in the community which caused a split in Rainbow Covenant.
Faithfulness pays off
“If Christ himself had come down and said this would happen, I’d have said, ‘no way, Lord,’” Lett said. “She was my sister and we were extremely close. When this happened, there would be times that I would be driving and had to exit the highway because the tears I was crying and the pain were so intense.”
Things shifted for her, thanks to a professor at Beulah Heights University, where she attended and graduated in the early 2000s.
“It was Professor Jackson,” she said. “He listened to me, and I did all my little pity crying, and when I got done, he said to me, ‘Now you get back to Porterdale and preach to those on that pew.’ There weren’t be two or three of us at that time, but he told me, ‘you be faithful.’”
Her faithfulness has paid off.
Not only has Lett garnered a reputation for tireless service in the community, she’s also been acknowledged beyond just the church community.
In 2016, Lett she was honored by the Newton County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Among numerous other awards and accolades, she’s been inducted into the “Hall of Faith” as one of the Top 20 leading women pastors of Metro Atlanta.
Now, after 30 years, she admits she’s starting to get to a point where she’s ready to push back from the daily grind of ministry and community service and rest. She’s even tossed around the idea of retiring as pastor, noting that she’d been praying for the right person to be in position to carry on what she started in 1993.
But for now, she’s basking in the satisfaction of what she calls, God’s faithfulness to her, her ministry and her family. And she’s reminiscing on the life lessons she’s learned along the way.
“Sometimes when you’re trying to go forward, you’ve got to kick some things out of the way in order to get there,” she said. “I love serving. That’s my passion. But again, it’s definitely not easy. But you have to continue to do the will of God, what He’s called you to do. If you do that, He’ll take care of all the other matters. I’m a living witness of that, because after all the attacks and all the ups and downs, you know what, yet, today, I still stand.”