Reporting, writing and photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
Pastor Deniela T. Williams, 56, has almost died nine times.
At three, Deniela was hit by a car on Arlington Street. When she was nine, she was standing in line at summer camp fighting off a boy who was pulling her hair when he pushed her into the water. She had to be resuscitated. In middle school, she was raped. Between 1978 and 1989, starting when she was just 15 years old, she would become involved with older, financially stable but abusive men. One of them, her son’s father, kidnapped her at gunpoint and held her hostage with her two babies for almost three days. She had broken ribs, a punctured lung, a concussion, brain damage and bruises.
“It’s just by the grace of God that I’m alive,” she says.
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Deniela, who is the pastor at New Millennium Baptist Church, grew up in East Akron, across from Robinson School before the expressway came through.
“I was supposed to be part of statistics, even in my own household. I had three siblings ahead of me that never graduated. There was no expectation for us to graduate. My mom didn’t graduate. She was struggling to keep food on the table and trying to hustle,” Deniela says. “It’s a mindset. Whatever you grow up in, that’s going to be reproduced in you.”
But Deniela wouldn’t accept that.
Pastor Dee, as she is often called, was not raised in the church. She began her life as a devout Christian at 32 after her half-sister invited her.
“I really wasn’t interested in it, but when I heard the story of Jesus — about how they abused him and all the things they did to him, and then he wound up getting back up, even after they killed him — I was like, ‘that is me! And he got up, I can get up,’” she says.
Over the next 23 years, Deniela would become a church administrator, the first female deacon, an associate minister, and finally a pastor, dedicating herself to using her harrowing life struggles to create systemic change. She is a lifetime-certified Bridges Out of Poverty Instructor and a macro-practitioner in social work, which she explains that instead of dealing with people, one deals with systems.
“You’ll know when you’re in your purpose because it will just flow,” she says. “I’m not ashamed of who I am. I’m not ashamed of what I went through. I’m using all of the bad that I went through to do good.”
Deniela describes her mother as a beautiful, benevolent woman who was traumatized by poverty. While attending Goodyear Junior High, she gravitated toward the lives her middle-class friends were leading, and she wanted the same for her own family.
“My dad had died when I was 12. When he was living, we didn’t do too bad. We weren’t middle-class, per se, but we always had food, we always had enough. But when he died, it really left us impoverished. There were times we didn’t have food, there were times we weren’t supervised, there were times where people were taking advantage of us. And I was just like, ‘This is not going to be my life,’” she says.
In high school, several of Deniela’s sisters became pregnant and the family shared one home. Out of exhaustion and frustration, Deniela says her mom threatened that if anyone else got pregnant, they would be on their own. Deniela, who refers to herself as a tomboy back then, didn’t care much about sex, but took her mother’s threat as a suggestion for a way out.
At 16, Deniela became pregnant with her first child, a boy. Her mother didn’t end up kicking her out, but Deniela ran away. “My girlfriend would hide me. It was a white family. Here I am with my Black self sitting at the table with them. They had a four-course meal, I was wondering, ‘like why couldn’t we have that?’”
Even when her pregnancy became complicated, Deniela continued her education by being homeschooled, where she would spend half her days. The other half would be spent working at IBM in Akron.
During her pregnancy, Deniela met an abusive man who paid for her apartment. Then she almost lost her life to him. He was held accountable for his actions, and Deniela went back home to her mother’s, her baby in tow, until she was able to find her own apartment again. She was only 17 and had to convince a landlord to let her rent from them.
“They gave me a chance, and I never turned back after that,” she says.
Deniela would go on to work at Goodyear and realized that her earning potential could increase if she went to college. There, however, she struggled. She couldn’t pass the math classes and ended up switching degrees three times. Finally, a professor listened to her plea that something wasn’t right. Dee was sent to a neurologist. Her brain injury was physically impacting her ability to understand math. For her to receive all three of her degrees, all she had to do was take logistics, which was a different type of problem solving, and she passed.
“When I walked across the stage I had social work, criminal justice, and community development. I never felt so tired in my life,” she says.
After college, Deniela moved to Atlanta for a stint. In her early 20s, she returned to Akron, both because of a custody hearing for her son and because the construction of I-76 had left her mother and siblings homeless. She found an apartment and moved her mother in with her. It was during these years Deniela finally received closure.
“She said, ‘you wanted to sit down at the table and we didn’t even have a table. You were asking me to produce stuff that I didn’t have the means to produce,’” Deniela recounts.
Dee says she didn’t realize she was putting her mother in that position. But she also wanted to feel like her life and education mattered to her mother.
“She said, ‘And how did you think I was going to do that when I didn’t even graduate? You were very smart. You didn’t need me to do that,’” Deniela says.
After seven years together, Dee’s mother died of breast cancer in 1995.
Today, Deniela’s pastoral philosophy can be traced to her experiences and her sense of self. “I like diversity. And I like people. I respect people. I try so hard not to group people together, because to me it takes away from the whole experience,” she says.
“I’m being moved by the spirit of a living God who doesn’t see race, he doesn’t see gender, he doesn’t see all of these various man-made issues that we have allowed to divide us. He is one. So I try to find commonalities in all people and I try to honor them,” she adds.
At the New Millennium Baptist Church, Deniela says all people are welcome, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender or race.
“We are supposed to love the hell out of people. I mean that. Keep loving on them, and loving on them, and loving on them,” she says.
As a pastor, Deniela is quick to assess what a member needs, and while she’s empathetic, her approach is more direct than the traditional tact of counseling acknowledges.
“I will have already figured out what you need to do and you may not be ready for it,” she says of counseling. “People don’t want to move. They want to live there.”
Though she has had to work in a counseling role due to COVID-19, Deniela feels she is most impactful having conversations with people in power to allocate resources to those who need it most. “I think that I’m more effective with the systems. Because if the systems change, people will automatically change,” she says.
Deniela believes that when people operate at their strengths, then they strengthen others, and so families and communities will be better.
New Millennium Baptist Church closed their doors to the public on March 29, reopened on June 27 and closed again on Nov. 22. Despite having to change course in the wake of a pandemic, Deniela has not been deterred. She continues to give passionate sermons Wednesdays and Sundays on Facebook Live.
“I didn’t go through all that just to shut the church down and go hide from coronavirus. It’s real, it’s serious, but we gotta understand the times that we live in. Wear a mask, social distance, take care of yourself, don’t take any unnecessary risk if you don’t have to, but do make a difference,” she says.
Prior to COVID-19, Deniela also worked full-time for Ilene Shapiro as Public Relations Administrator of Job and Family Services. As the pandemic months have continued, her role there changed to Emergency Management Assistant. Then, in December, she was laid off after 22 years of service with Summit County.
True to her nature, though, Deniela plans to continue to advocate for social, racial and economic justice.
“Life has been rough. But God has been good all the way through,” she adds.
Ilenia Pezzaniti is a freelance multimedia storyteller and artist living in Highland Square. Find her work at www.ileniapezzaniti.com.