During the early morning hours within her Charleston home, Brenda Nelson rises from slumber and falls to her knees, determined to humble herself before God.
She remains there for nearly an hour each morning uttering whispers of confession, offerings of thanks and seeking God's direction.
As a woman "on the comfortable side of 50," Nelson's adulthood has been devoted to spiritual and social service.
Yes, her prayers are many. But they are crucial to the start of her day as an ordained reverend with Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. She also serves as Charleston County School District's Director of Community Outreach.
Long before she held either title, Nelson was a young girl whose days were often spent seated behind a piano or in church pews in Charleston's Wagener Terrace neighborhood.
Nelson can still recall with ease M.M. Brown and other teachers she encountered at the old Rhett Elementary and Charleston High schools during the 1970s.
Their encouragement and high expectations instilled the confidence a shy girl would need to one day step foot onto a pulpit and lead thousands, she said.
"I'm so appreciative of those teachers. I remember in the sixth grade Ms. M.M. Brown was relentless with the fact that you're going to come forward and you're going to take leadership. That was sort of a turning point for me as a girl," Nelson said.
Nelson was an only child of divorced parents and primarily lived with her mother, who taught in Lowcountry schools for 40 years. Her father was a construction worker with a drinking problem that Nelson said ruined his marriage and largely contributed to his death.
She didn't in childhood, but Nelson has come to embrace her family's struggles. If anything, she said, they've deepened her understanding of similar difficulties faced by those who come to her in need of counsel.
She draws from her father's experiences in her work with House of Ruth, a ministry she chartered at Mt. Moriah to help women overcome addiction.
Nelson first joined the predominantly black church on Rivers Avenue in 2001. She said the church quickly made her feel at home.
Augustus D. Robinson Jr., the church's pastor emeritus, said God's anointing is Nelson's greatest strength as a minister.
"The anointing equates to charisma in that she's able to work with people and people are more amped to work with her," Robinson said. "She's a professional, number one. She's creative, she's a woman of virtue and she's one of loyalty and education. She has a heart for children."
The sermons that Nelson delivers at Mt. Moriah are placed on her heart during her private moments of reflection and talks with God, she said.
Inspiration can hit at any moment. When it happens, Nelson said, she stops what she's doing and writes it all down at once.
She recalled urgently scrawling one sermon on a stack of napkins while stuck on a delayed flight. The sermon's title: A delay doesn't equal a denial.
"Ministry isn't something you want to do, it's something you're compelled to do," Nelson said.
She resisted the call to minister for years in her early adulthood, she said.
Instead, she busied herself with her studies while pursuing a bachelor's degree in communications from Morgan State University in Baltimore and a master's in social work from what is now known as Clark Atlanta University.
She used the knowledge she gained to head a number of service and outreach programs in Savannah, where she lived until her mid-30s. She routinely spoke to community groups, addressing teen pregnancy, addiction and other issues, all while rebuffing comments that she would be a natural behind the pulpit.
While in Savannah, an unexpected phone call from a Georgia woman she didn't know helped Nelson realize she could no longer run from her destiny.
According to Nelson, the woman heard her deliver a speech urging a group of young people to value their lives and consider the consequences of their actions.
The woman wanted Nelson to share a similar message at a funeral for her son. He had laid dead for weeks in a New York morgue while authorities scoured for a next of kin.
The woman wanted her son's friends and family to learn from his death. Positive words from Nelson could save someone else's life, the woman pleaded in that phone call.
"I felt God saying, 'You can't run from this. This is it. This is what you're supposed to do,'" Nelson said. "It was a sense of release and it was the greatest joy I could have. After that, everything just started falling into place."
Nelson one day hopes to minister full time. But for now, she said she feels her efforts are needed in Charleston County's schools.
She's held the position of director of community outreach since the position was created in 2007 by District Superintendent Nancy McGinley.
McGinley described Nelson as an "asset" to the district whom she's "honored" to have among senior leadership.
"I was looking for a person who knew our neighborhood and history and was respected by our diverse stakeholder group," McGinley said. "It was my great fortune that Dr. Brenda Nelson was interested in the job. She problem solves, troubleshoots and administers our Children in Crisis Fund. ... On top of all of that, she's a certified social worker. She annually trains intern social workers who support our schools, and she does that at no cost."
Earlier this month, Nelson headed the district's fifth annual "From Boyz To Gentlemen" Summit at West Ashley High School. The event featured interactive parent workshops on issues related to raising young men of color and a resource fair that provided information from regional colleges and universities to help parents and young men prepare for higher education.
Nelson was busy this week tackling remaining tasks for a similar girl's summit that will be held in March.
Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.
Brenda Nelson, director of community outreach, spends her morning sending emails and making phone calls while planning her next event, Girls Summit.×
Dr. Brenda Nelson, director of community outreach, spends her morning planning her next event, Girls Summit.×
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