“Every morning, I wake up, say my prayers, and ask, ‘okay, what are we going to do today that’s going to make a difference in someone’s life?’”
Pastor Cynthia Macon Gordon Bates grew up during the Civil Rights Movement in North Nashville.
“Growing up here, there was so much history, so much Black history. You were walking on the same streets as W.E.B. Du Bois,” she said. “You were listening to the music of Jefferson Street. It was a powerful place and when I was growing up it was a powerful time.”
Born near the intersection of 28th Avenue and Jefferson Street, Cynthia was raised attending Temple Baptist Church.
“It was a strong community,” she said. “There were struggles, of course, it wasn’t a perfect place. But what I remember most is when we were growing up, there were people who helped and assisted us. We weren’t alone. There was always someone there to help.”
Little did she know then, she would return to her old neighborhood and her former church decades later. But this time, as the person providing help.
A PATH TO SERVICE
After graduating with a Political Science degree from Fisk University, Cynthia went on to receive a Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. From there, she and her then husband moved to a suburb of Washington, D.C.
“We had the highlight of our life co-pastoring a church in Renton, Virginia,” she said. “People said that it would never be done. They said that nobody’s going to hire you and him and pay you the same salary, but it happened. It was the highlight of our ministry.”
Then Cynthia’s husband suddenly passed away. A single mother of a four-year-old son, she decided to make a change and began working for several funeral homes, helping families with grief counseling.
“Out of all the places I had ever worked at the time, I enjoyed that the most,” she said. “To be able to help those who were struggling. I knew that was my path.”
It was that call to service that led Cynthia back to North Nashville and the Temple Baptist Church, after being gone for 20 years. She now serves as the executive director of the church’s two ministries, Samaritan Center and Project S.E.E. – both are Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee Partner Agencies.
“At Samaritan Center, we feed the hungry, provide gently used and new clothing, access to dental services and assistance with finding jobs with our computer program,” said Cynthia. “We also had Bible study and encouragement counseling. Right now, of course, we can’t do much of that.”
While many of their offerings have changed or been put on hold due to the pandemic, Samaritan Center continues to serve 90 to 140 hot meals a day, Monday through Friday, to anyone who comes to their door. Cynthia says their clients range from seniors and families, to a growing number of people who are homeless.
“With the housing turnover and the gentrification taking place in North Nashville, now people who were renting a house and then the homeowner sells the house, there’s nowhere for them to go because they can’t afford the higher rent,” she said. “When you don’t have a home, you can’t buy food, because you have no place to store it. Many of our clients spend what little money they have on trying to get a room at least one night a week and then sleeping outside or in cars the rest of the time.”
When the clients can’t come to her, she goes to the clients. The self-described “hands-on” executive director packs the meals in her car and delivers them out in the community. Cynthia said the work can be hard and the growing need can seem overwhelming at times, but her drive to help others is unwavering.
“This is my community and every day that I come here, I feel like I’m doing something that somebody actually did for me,” she said. “I am a pastor and one of the things that really drives me is the scripture that talks about when you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me. That is the whole notion of feeding people, clothing people, and visiting people when they are in prison. That’s always been a passion for me, to serve the underserved because I was undeserved, and if I miss a paycheck or two, I’ll be the undeserved again.”