Reems, Ernestine Cleveland 1932–
Ernestine Cleveland Reems 1932–
Pastor Ernestine Cleveland Reems has experienced pain, suffering, and hurt. She understands firsthand the troubles of poverty and rejection. And yet she is quick to admit that her life has indeed been, as she told Contemporary Black Biography, “beautiful.” Brimming with positive energy, Reems has dedicated her life to serving Jesus Christ and, through His Word, has brought hope and promise into the lives of others.
Ernestine Cleveland Reems was born in 1932, in Oklamugee, Oklahoma, a small town outside of Tulsa, the third of nine children born to Elmer Elijah (E.E.) and Matilda Cleveland. Shortly after her birth, the family moved to Parker City, Oklahoma, and then to Brooksville, Oklahoma, as E.E. Cleveland established himself as a traveling preacher. Reems remembers growing up in a loving household, even though her father was often preaching out of state for extended periods of time while her mother supported her father and tended to the family garden. The family lived in a one-room shack, and Reems can still recall the pot-bellied stove which graced it.
In 1939 Pastor Cleveland’s travels took him to California. Upon arrival, he vowed to bring his family to join him, for he believed that California held the promise of an improved quality of life. When Reems was just nine years old she moved with her family to Richmond, California. Her father could not afford train tickets for the entire family, so he found a ride for the already-engaging and outgoing Reems with a local principal and his wife. When Reems arrived in Los Angeles, she initially lived with an acquaintance of her father’s, Mrs. McKinney, whose family cared for Reems until she reunited with her family.
Reems quickly witnessed how well her father had been received in California, for the deacons of the church where he preached built the Cleveland family a three-room home. Ambitious and creative, Matilda Cleveland then expanded upon the initial structure and converted the space into an eight-room house, adding bedrooms and a sun porch. In Reems’ mind, her family possessed one of the nicest African American houses in Richmond. The Clevelands not only instilled in their children the importance of hard work, but they also impressed upon them the value of resourcefulness.
Reems’s life took a dramatic turn when, at age 13, she
At a Glance…
Born Ernestine Cleveland, in 1932, in Oklamugee, OK; daughter of Bishop Elmer Elijah (E.E.) Cleveland and Matilda Cleveland; married Paul Reems (died 2000); children: Brondon and Brian. Education: Patton Bible College, Oakland, CA.
Career: Center of Hope Community Church, Oakland, CA, founder, pastor, 1968-; E.C. Reems Women’s International Ministries, Oakland, CA, founder, 1988-.
Selected Memberships: Board of Directors, Monument International Church Assemblies, 2000; trustee, International Charismatic Bible Ministries; Board of Regents, Oral Roberts University, Tulsa, OK; Chairman of the Board, Hope Housing Corporation; Chairman of the Board, Hope Development Corporation.
Selected Awards: Outstanding Service in Religion Award, Alameda-Contra Costa Innovators, 1984; Top 100 Black Business and Professional Women in America, Dollar and Sense Magazine, 1985; Outstanding Community Service Award, Hayward South Alameda County NAACP, 1986; Woman of the Year Award, State of California Legislature, 1987; Conferred, D.Div., 1988, Trinity Hall Seminary; Christian Image Lifetime Achievement Award, 1990; Humanitarian Award for Outstanding Leadership and Untiring Service to Mankind, 1990; Excellence in Urban Ministry, Allen Temple Baptist Church, 1993; Outstanding Community Service, City of Oakland, 1996; One of the Top Women Preachers in the United States, Ebony, 1997; Woman of the Year, Urban League, 2000; Rosa Parks Award, Outstanding Leadership and Service, Junior Flair Heritage Foundation, 2000; Conferred Bishop, Monument International Church Assemblies, 2000.
Addresses: 8411 MacArthur Boulevard, Oakland, CA 94605.
was stricken with tuberculosis. Because the disease was highly contagious, she was forced to move to Wiemar, California, where she spent a year, and returned home only to suffer a relapse. Once again she found herself in Wiemar. After struggling for several years with no cure and no hope, Reems had a realization—it was not for her own purposes that she was created, but for God’s. After she decided to devote her life to God, Reems recovered from her illness.
That Reems should turn to her faith is not surprising. She was raised by parents who were intensely committed Christians and who, Reems told CBB, “loved, loved, loved God.” Initially she did not consider herself a believer and instead, as Reems told CBB, wanted “to do it [her] way.” And yet, as she struggled to survive her bout with tuberculosis, she came to know God for herself. Reems felt that God allowed her to experience hardship so that her relationship with Him would grow and so that she would be prepared for her ultimate calling.
In 1951 Reems began to travel to every major city in the country with her brother, Reverend Elmer Cleveland, Jr. in order to preach the Gospel. During this time she met Paul Reems, and they were married in 1958. Working together and starting with nothing, Ernestine and Paul built their life on the pillars of “commitment, consistency, and consecration.” Although she was unable to preach in the church of her childhood—women were not accepted as preachers but only as missionaries and teachers—Reems never lost sight of her priorities, her focus, and her desire to minister from her own pulpit. In 1968 she purchased an old shoe store in Oakland, CA in a drug-infested neighborhood where people were frequently killed on the next corner. She then traveled across the country to evangelize and raise money to open a church on the property. With the funds she collected, Reems built a platform, purchased an organ and a piano, and laid some carpeting. From its initial congregation of four, membership in the Center of Hope Church exceeded 1,500 congregants by 2000.
Fiercely committed to spreading the Word of Christ, Reems preaches with the charisma of one who is baptized in fire. According to a biography produced by her ministry, Reems’s messages are “painfully clear and rich with poetic commentary, startling insights, and contemporary applications of the Bible’s timeless message. They usually expose the frailties of the heart of man and their need of a Savior.” In response to her powerful words, the audience is driven to passionate praise, worship, and spontaneous dancing.
Reems told CBB that her father was her mentor and her hero. Her father simply loved people, and this trait, she told CBB, embodies her inheritance from him. The hallmark of her ministry, then, is her particular calling to people in need. Non-judgmental in approach, she actively seeks those whom society has cast aside and helps them to re-assimilate. By sharing her compassion and her passion with drug addicts, prostitutes, prisoners, and the homeless, she offers, according a biography produced by her ministry, “both the hope of the Gospel message and the practical demonstration of it.” In 1973 she received national attention for her work when the United States Army requested that Pastor Reems minister to the soldiers stationed in West Germany and honored with the rank of Five-Star General.
While Reems is quick to note that she is not racist, she believes that women of color deserve and need a special forum of their own. As she explained to CBB, “I think I can address being poor better than someone else, being oppressed better than someone else, experiencing racism every day of my life.”
Reems also said, “We [African American women] can do beautiful things in our community because we know our culture, our people.” Towards this end, in 1988 Reems founded the E.C. Reems Women’s International Ministries (ECRWIM), headquartered in Oakland, CA. The goal of this ministry is to motivate, instruct, and challenge women to reach their maximum potential in Christ so as to enable them to meet the demands of the 21st century. According to the ECRWIM-Queens’s/NY Chapter web site, “Its members are dedicated to promoting unity among women, community service, leadership development, and career enhancement through a series of regional conferences, publications, and audio-visual aids.” Ultimately, according to the web site, the ministry envisions itself not only as a resource for information and education, but “as a conduit for the development of positive role models in the rebuilding of intra/ interpersonal relationships.” Acting, then, as an advocate, the organization energizes women to become active in their communities and local churches.
While global in her commitment to preach the Word of Christ, Reems’ primary commitments remain within her own community. In 1990, for instance, she opened a 56-unit senior housing complex, the E.E. Cleveland Manor. She also purchased a 17-unit facility to operate a transitional housing program for homeless single women with children. As she told Hunger News & Hope, a prostitute had posted herself in front of Reems’ church, waiting for a customer and Reems quickly informed her, “Honey, you can’t do that here—this is a church.” The woman replied that she was hungry and needed to buy food. Reems told Hunger News & Hope that she felt the event was a message from God: “Open a transitional home for women in crisis.” Combining federal and city funds with private donations, Reems purchased and remodeled a dilapidated motel and, in 1992, opened the home, which also offers programs in such areas as job-training and child-care. In 1998 she established the E.C. Reems Gardens, a 150-unit affordable housing complex. All told, by 2000 Reems managed more than $18 million for various social programs and had wholly transformed the neighborhood near her church.
Reems’s reach into her community does not stop with her housing projects. Rather, in September of 1999 she inaugurated the Ernestine C. Reems Academy of Technology and Art Charter School in Oakland. According to the Academy’s web site, the school promotes “a child-centered, community-learning environment dedicated to developing academic excellence in core subjects, leadership, and technological skills.” The Academy also promotes appreciation for the arts, as well as community service. In particular, the academy, according to its web site, focuses on “raising academic achievement of all students, developing business and community partnerships, increasing parent and community involvement in school activities...and providing opportunities for students to serve through community activities.” The population of both staff and students at the school is diverse, reflecting the diverse population of Oakland itself, and the student body already exceeds 350.
As Reems postulated during her interview with CBB, “public schools will fade out during the 21st century and charter and private schools will rise to the fore unless public schools make drastic changes.” By actively engaging parents in the education of their children, Reems believes that her school will be successful, so successful, in fact, that she is already searching for more space to build a high school.
While certainly fulfilled by preaching from the pulpit, Reems makes it abundantly clear that the joy of her life is in ministering to the youth, and particularly to young women. Reems realizes that this population is afflicted with problems stemming from low self-esteem. The younger girls in particular, Reems told CBB, have such low self-esteem that they do not like themselves. They do not like he way they look or the mistakes that they have made in their lives. Reems understands that, as she said in her interview with CBB, “senior women” must reach out to the younger generations, “take off their facade, and be real with them,” because they share the same experiences.
Reems told CBB that in October of 2000 she brought 21 young women ages 21-31 to her home for brunch. She sat on the floor with them, answered their questions about sex, parenting, abortion, spirituality, and finances, and prayed with them. These women were all struggling with some of life’s most difficult issues: children out of wedlock, abortion, boyfriends who used drugs or were imprisoned. Through prayer and inspiration, through the re-telling of her own miseries and pain as well as her triumphs, Reems told CBB, “God used me to minister to them to help their self-esteem, self-awareness, spirituality, and how to be a mother to their children. You make mistakes in life but you have to understand who you are and pick yourself up.”
Reems’s spirit is contagious, and she has devoted her life to blessing any who will listen to her message. “I don’t need affirmative action,” she told CBB. “I affirm myself everyday.” It is this message—a message reminding her listeners of what they have and can accomplish, of what they have contributed—that continues to draw people to her.
Counting Everything as Joy!
Through the Storm.
Hunger News & Hope, Spring 2000.
Additional information was obtained from a personal interview with CBB, from the personal papers of Bishop Reems, and on-line at the Center of Hope Community Church web site,http://www2.cohcc.org/cohcc, the Ernestine C. Reems Academy of Technology and Arts web site,http://www.schoolfutures.org/schreems.html, and the E.C. Reems International Women’s Ministries-Queen’s/NY Chapter web site, http://www.angelfire.com/ny3/ecrwim/.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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