“When you can’t do anything else, you can pray.”
Pastor Shirley Ann Caesar Williams, professionally known as Shirley Caesar, said this near the end of our first interview. And it was only one of her suggestions. She spoke calmly. But the statement held the weight that her voice holds on chart-topping songs like “He’s Working It Out for You” and “You Can Make It.”
Caesar’s voice has resonated for more than six decades, across more than 40 albums. Her voice can speak to the heart. And her words can allow a look into the mind of this 12-time Grammy-winning gospel music singer, songwriter, recording artist, author and pastor whose career has spanned from the Jim Crow South of her childhood to our current times.
But let’s rewind a bit. When I first spoke with Caesar, she had recently celebrated her 82nd birthday on Oct. 13. Though she has not been able to tour due to the pandemic — “my singing is a big part of my life; I live by it” — she has released a new song about police brutality called “Take Your Knee Off My Neck.” (You can listen on YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify.)
When we first talked, Election Day was looming and there were many unknowns. But during our chat, Caesar remained calm. Thankful. And encouraging as she reminded us that prayer has power. She has a powerful legacy, after all. Born in North Carolina, part of a large family, Caesar began singing at age 10. After the death of her father, who had sung in a gospel quartet, the young Caesar began to tour and recorded her first song as a teen. She went on to college and then pursued a life of singing and ministry.
Known as the “First Lady of Gospel Music,” she continues to encourage others via her work, including through her music, a social media presence and a Sunday broadcast. She also continues to serve as pastor of Mt. Calvary Word of Faith Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, where her husband is co-pastor and bishop. (She’s been pastor for more than 20 years.)
As we looked toward the holiday season and the end of this eventful year, and Caesar was poised to accept a Salute THEM Award from Café Mocha Radio on Nov. 27 (presented by AARP and Toyota), the pastor shared thoughts on gratitude and more. This interview is lightly edited for length and clarity.
What are you grateful for now?
Oh, little girl, I’m glad to be alive. That’s number one. I’m glad to be alive. Number two, I’m glad to be saved and alive. I’m just grateful to the Lord for everything that he’s done for me.
How do you stay grateful and believing that good things will still come?
The Bible said, “Have faith in God.” Then goes on to say: For verily, I say unto you that whosoever shall say to this mountain, be thou removed, be thou cast into the sea, shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe those things that you’re asking for will come to pass. The Bible says you can have them. I walk by faith, I live by faith. [COVID-19 is] not easy for a lot of people. […] But in spite of all of that, I’m yet holding on.
Speaking of that, does your life influence your songs? My cousin mentioned “Remember Mama” to me, but you sing about all sorts of things.
I can just sit back and look at everything that’s going on and come up with the song for it. My mother was the greatest lady that’s ever touched my life. And so when my mom passed away, everything that I could really remember about her, we tried to put it on tape and put it out there. [Also] I can just sit back and just see what’s going on in our country, and I can record and sing a song about that. […] [For example] for eight minutes and 40-some seconds, a policeman had his knee on the neck of George Floyd. I had come to a point that I could not take it anymore, so that’s how we came up with the song “Take Your Knee Off My Neck.”
Thank you for sharing this. Do you ever feel pressure related to being “The First Lady of Gospel Music”?
Yes, I do feel a lot of pressure. My pressure comes when, if I haven’t had enough sleep and then I have to do a whole lot of interviews and I’ve got to run here and there and back.
Do you have time to just rest?
Well, rest is my middle name. I believe that a lot of this God has ordered in order for pastors like me, singers like me, evangelists like me could rest. And so I’ve slowed down a whole lot, honey. But birthdays and all of that will also cause you to slow down.
We literally cannot do the things we used to do. Should we feel grateful for this chance, in a way?
I am, but my heart goes out to those that we’ve lost, which are hundreds and thousands. I praise God there’s far more living than dying, but I believe that we could minimize it and bring it down if everybody would listen and stop being around a whole lot of people. [And] just tell yourself: “Whatever I have to do, I can do it. I can do it and I will.”
That’s important. As we close, what words would you share, even in general, to help us through these uncertain times?
Thank you so much, because the coronavirus is not the only virus that we have. All of the hatred and all of that stuff that’s going on, that’s a virus too. I want to say to those of you trying to make your way through this, when your way seems dark and dreary: Go ahead. And [when] your burdens make you weary: Go ahead.
How can we encourage ourselves when things seem dark? I pray, for instance.
Prayer works. It does. When you can’t do anything else, you can pray. You can always pray. And just know that in spite of all of this, that everything comes to an end. Nothing lasts forever. No coronavirus, no Ebola, no cancer. And let me tell you, it seems like forever. But everything comes to an end. And this, too, shall pass.