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January 4, 2013

'Tiny dynamo' feisty and full of faith

ANDERSON, Ind. — Gina Kirkland is described by a member of her church as a “tiny dynamo” and “full of life.”

The New Horizons United Methodist Church campus pastor never expected to hear those words applied to her when she was wheel-chair-bound suffering from severe multiple sclerosis. She’d been laid off as a critical care nurse and was working as a teacher’s aide in Atlanta after several career changes.

Kirkland was visiting family in Anderson when she attended a youth church rally. Two separate people approached her; they revealed something she’d shared only with God.

“I was asked if I would accept what God had been calling me to do,” Kirkland, 56, said. “I said yes, and when I did that and accepted God’s power in my life, I got out of my wheelchair and was able to walk.”

She immediately answered the call to become a pastor.

“I was divinely healed,” she said of that day in 1996. “I returned to Atlanta and the neurologist found no evidence of my MS on MRIs. That’s why I’m so energetic and enthusiastic. I’ve gone through a lot. I know that God carried me through a lot. To be chosen by God to lead, to be a pastor, a shepherd, to care for God’s people and congregations, is pretty special. I do it the best I can for God and God’s people.”

Her MS diagnosis came in 1993 after she woke up paralyzed. Extensive physical therapy and medical intervention eventually allowed her to  move and control her upper body but  she was still unable to control her lower body or put weight on her legs.

While from New York, she grew up in Anderson and graduated from Anderson High in 1975. Kirkland received an associate’s degree from Ball State and then received a licensed practical nursing certification from the Muncie School of Practical Nursing in 1980. Decades later, Kirkland finished her bachelors in human services and addictions counseling from Sojourner Douglas College in Baltimore. She is completing the last two classes to obtain her masters of divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

Kirkland went through the ordination process with the African Methodist Episcopal Church but began the ordination process with the United Methodist Church in 2000 as she felt a calling to do so.

Heart of the matter

Nancy Tatum, a member of New Horizons for 12 years, described Kirkland as “one of the most phenomenal people you’ve ever met” and credits the pastor with helping revitalize the church.

“We are about healing, not judging, because we are here to heal the soul,” Tatum said. “We wouldn’t be thinking that way if Pastor Gina hadn’t been saying, ‘This is what the Bible is saying to us.’ She has been tremendously instrumental to us. People there really love her and stand beside her.”

New Horizons’ lead pastor is the Rev. John Hackney, who fulfills that similar role at Crossroads United Methodist Church. The two  congregations are cooperative parishes sharing resources and, at times, programming “in order to make disciples of Jesus Christ and a transformation of Anderson, Madison County and the world,” Kirkland said.

She is a spiritual educator and helps run the church on a daily basis. Hackney typically delivers sermons but Kirkland has her own delivery style.

“She gets right to the heart of the matter,” Tatum said. “I leave feeling God has talked to me through something she said.”

Family has always been an important part of Kirkland’s life. She met her husband, Reginald Kirkland, in 1999 through a message board for therapeutic foster parents, something she did for nearly 20 years fostering 39 children.

She has two biological children — Cory Clemmons, 34, of Noblesville, and Danny Joe Clemmons, 32, of Florida and step-children Mark Kirkland Sr., 34, and Marquay Toney, 33, both of Maryland. She also adopted three children — Ashley Johnson, 20, of Georgia, Dexter Johnson, 22, of Georgia, and Randi Kirkland, 19, of Muncie. She has four grandchildren with a fifth on the way and is raising her 2-year-old granddaughter.

“Growing up in a dysfunctional family I realized how important it is for children to feel safe, loved, needed and wanted,” Kirkland said pointing out that her father struggled with substance abuse issues and was abusive to several members of the family. “The legacy we leave when we can instill the right teachings within our children is priceless.”

Reginald Kirkland is a retired hospital administrator and the two live in Anderson.

Find Abbey Doyle on Facebook and @heraldbulletin on Twitter, or call 640-4805.

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