Meet the 100-year-old Austell woman who still preaches and teaches

Emma Rowland teaching Sunday School at Word of Faith in Austell. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark.
Emma Rowland teaching Sunday School at Word of Faith in Austell. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark.

Credit: Courtesy of the Rowland family

Credit: Courtesy of the Rowland family

Note: Emma Rowland is celebrating her 102nd birthday this weekend. On Oct. 7, 2018 she will be surrounded by friends and family at a restaurant in Mableton.

Original (published Oct. 21, 2016):

Emma Rowland is ready for church. Even right now.

At least she was at 7 p.m. on a Friday sitting in her Austell house.

It'd been a whirlwind week, and she'd been asked to sit down and reflect on her first week at 100 years old.

She and her family had just gotten time to pick up the petals from the 100 flowers delivered to her home of 57 years.

Between her mother dying on her young, moving to Atlanta as a single black mother from south Georgia and becoming a union president around the Civil Rights Movement, she's had one heck of a century.

When the matriarch isn't caring for her 14 grandchildren or 13 great-grandchildren or two great-great-grandchildren, she preaches as an associate minister at Word of Faith on Riverside Parkway in Austell.

Rev. Emma Rowland with Bishop Dale Bronner when she was honored with 100 flowers at Word of Faith church in Austell where she preaches and teaches. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark.
Rev. Emma Rowland with Bishop Dale Bronner when she was honored with 100 flowers at Word of Faith church in Austell where she preaches and teaches. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark.

She's been there since the church started in 1991.

"You get to know a lot of people," she said.

That makes sense because 20,000 people attend Word of Faith, which has an app.

"All of us should aspire to be as lively and active at 100 years old as she is," said Executive Pastor Christopher Boyd.

She was ordained by the church's Bishop Dale C. Bronner in 2003.

Emma Rowland posing with certificate she'd just revived when ordained as a minister by Austell's Bishop Dale Bronner. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark.
Emma Rowland posing with certificate she'd just revived when ordained as a minister by Austell's Bishop Dale Bronner. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark.

Rowland leads services once a month and teaches a Sunday school class called "Women’s Daily Walk" every week.

"It is such an inspiration to so many people," he said. "If you live right, if you care for people, she’s a testimony of what can happen in a person’s life."

Rowland is there for the younger generations in her family and at church because that's what her grandmother did for her.

Rowland was six years old when her mother died. On her deathbed, Rowland's mother told her to go live with her grandmother near the Alabama Georgia line in Florence. That was 1922.

In rural south Georgia, there were two teachers for 600 students. She'd read the Bible by oil lamp. The family grew what they needed to eat and ordered the rest out of catalogs from Sears and Walter Fields.

Listed as "Teenie" in her father's Bible — which might as well have been her birth certificate — Rowland was the seventh of nine children. Now, she's the only one left.

In the winter, her father and brothers picked strawberries and okra in Plant City, Florida.

That's where she moved after getting married at 17. But that didn't last long.

"This country boy moved to Florida and couldn’t handle all that … He forgot he was a husband," she said.

And as she said in an interview with NPR partner StoryCorps last year: "The one time that he did hit me, I boiled water and threatened to scald him, and he was ready to go to sleep, so he never tried that again."

Unwilling to deal with infidelity and abuse, Rowland took her three children and moved back to south Georgia.

She interrupted herself trying to remember what year that was: "There was a war going back in those days."

It was 1943.

Back home, a friend of a friend enticed her to move to Atlanta.

Rowland was excited to move to the big city.

"I just wanted to see Sears," she said.

She did. And she was disappointed. So she went to Rich's department store instead.

The newly divorced, 27-year-old farmer's daughter moved to Atlanta and worked as a maid.

She talked about the out and out racism she faced during that time.

She said she could cook dinner, shampoo hair, wash Venetian blinds, "but I had to come through the back door."

"If they saw you walking downtown, they wouldn’t pay you any attention," Rowland said.

She'd put her coat inside the iconic green Rich's bag and walk around like she'd just been shopping.

"I had a big mind," she said. "I didn’t have big money."

Rev. Emma Rowland with her daughter Vera in 1960. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Clark Pope.
Rev. Emma Rowland with her daughter Vera in 1960. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Clark Pope.

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Rowland family

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Rowland family

Eventually, she got a job making pencils and cigarette lighters at Scripto. While on strike at the plant in 1956, she took a part-time job at a diner that caused her to take a different bus. A Chevrolet factory worker gave up his seat for her, so she sat down to sign Valentine's Day cards to her Sunday School students.

He quipped about how many friends she had and they struck up a conversation. Rowland said she made sure the man understood right then how important religion was to her with "a Bible hanging out my purse and a cross around my neck."

They started dating, but dating a guy from the big city was different to the country girl.

Austell Rev. Emma Rowland with her late husband George Parker. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Clark Pope.
Austell Rev. Emma Rowland with her late husband George Parker. Photo courtesy of Rowland's granddaughter Cheryl Clark Pope.

Credit: Courtesy of the Rowland family

Credit: Courtesy of the Rowland family

"I get acquainted with a male, the next thing he wanted to talk about was sex. No hanky-panky around here," she said. "He really wanted me, so he had to abide by my rules."

Apparently he did. They were married 31 years until he died in the house a few feet from where she told the story.

After 35 years at the factory, a stint as union president and a broken right finger that got caught in a machine, she retired. That was 38 years ago. She's been retired longer than her career lasted.

Rowland continued doing maid work on-and-off until 1989. When you ask her why she stopped, she'll say it's because of her knees.

She drove until 1994 when her car got flooded and she lost her nerve to drive.

But she doesn't need to drive. Everyone comes to her now.

She sat on the couch of her Austell home that Friday night flanked by three generations of women from the family she built. Her great-granddaughter brought pepperoni pizza and took away stories she had never heard before.

Rev. Emma Rowland sits among (left to right) her granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark, great grand-daughter Calina Clark and great grand-daughter Christian Clark and daughter Vera L. Pope.
Rev. Emma Rowland sits among (left to right) her granddaughter Cheryl Pope Clark, great grand-daughter Calina Clark and great grand-daughter Christian Clark and daughter Vera L. Pope.

Credit: Courtesy of the family

Credit: Courtesy of the family

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