‘She moves you with her words and touches you with her heart’ — Utah pastor at historic black church retires after a grueling but gratifying tenure

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune A placard announcing the afternoon call to prayer rests just inside the entrance to the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Aug. 14, 2018. The Rev Nurjhan Govan of the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church is retiring on Aug. 26, 2018.

The Rev. Nurjhan Blanch Govan, the longest-serving pastor at Salt Lake City’s historic Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, is retiring. Sort of.

Govan is stepping down at age 75, as is required by the AME denomination, and no longer will be receiving a salary.

The truth is, though, the powerhouse preacher hasn’t taken a salary for some seven years — half of her 14-year tenure — and, until the regional AME bishop appoints a new Trinity minister, she still will be preaching and teaching for the tiny church every week as its “interim pastor.”

On Sunday, the congregation is honoring her with a “pastor’s appreciation service,” recognizing the quiet dynamo as a “person of boundless love and deep compassion.”

Govan stuck so long with the black congregation at 239 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. (600 South) — bucking the typical one- to two-year appointment — because she was determined to “see our little church thrive.”

Pastor turnover was costing Trinity continuity, she said in an interview this month, and thwarting efforts to build up the congregation.

So Govan stayed and stayed, doing what she could to attract more worshippers, to hire a musician for services and to find money to restore the century-old building (hoping for $3 million, she got only $150,000 from donors).

It’s been exhausting, she said, compromising her health and draining her energy. But the most discouraging development of all?

AME higher-ups gave Trinity no break on the annual “assessment” of funds it required the 60-member Utah church to hand over to the central pot.

“We just couldn’t get cooperation on that,” Govan said with a sigh, while cooling herself on a sweltering morning with the cardboard fan bearing the image of President Barack Obama that is found in every pew. “I hoped my skills would allow me to develop plans and ideas for raising money. I didn’t think I would be in a continuous struggle with church elders.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Nurjhan Govan, the longest-serving pastor Salt Lake City's historic Trinity AME Church has ever had, is retiring after 14 years. She is pictured Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018.

Lucinda Sampson and her husband, Robert, have been Trinity members since 1976 and have seen a number of pastors come and go.

Govan is a favorite, said 71-year-old Lucinda Sampson, a retired teacher at Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City.

“The years I’ve known her have been good years,” she said. “I love her prayers, her teaching, her commitment, her sincerity-ness. I just love her.”

Spiritual sojourn

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune The Rev. Nurjhan Govan of the Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church announced she is retiring on Aug. 26, 2018.

Govan was appointed in 2004 but commuted for months from Missouri until she finally took up residence in the Beehive State in 2005.

Her Rocky Mountain home was far from what Govan knew growing up in Harlem, where she and two brothers lived with their paternal grandmother, Blanche Washington, aka “Nana.” Nana made sure the children attended every possible religious activity at the United Holy Church of America.

The Holiness movement traces its roots to John Wesley and the Methodists but with more emotional spirituality. It was also strict — no drinking, smoking or dancing, for example.

Young Nurjhan felt boxed in by all the rules, she said. She wanted to go partying with her older brothers.

Some years later, after her family moved to Hartford, Conn., she went to movies and dances with her brothers but still felt something was missing.

“I began to take an inventory of my life,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2005. “Something said to me, ‘Why don’t you try Jesus?’ ”

A couple of weeks later, at Nana’s storefront church, Govan saw in her mind a movie screen. Everything she thought she wanted appeared before her one at a time. She weighed each one and let it go.

In that moment, she recalled, she was born again. And never looked back.

The path to ministry

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune The Rev. Nurjhan Govan speaks during a pastor appreciation service at Trinity African Methodist Episcopal Church, Sunday, April 17, 2016.

Govan initially became involved in the United Holy Church, the denomination of her birth. After high school, she moved to Boston and began attending Bethel Pentecostal United Holy Church. There, she preached her first sermon and became a licensed missionary. A year later, she advanced to evangelist. About six years after that, she began studying English at Boston University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and then entered the university’s School of Theology.

When it came time to be ordained to the ministry, however, Govan discovered that in the United Holy Church of America, ordination was different for women than men.

“I had a consciousness about rights and liberties,” she explained. “I never had a sense of inequality with my brothers.”

Nor could she forget her grandmother's spiritual power.

For the first time, Govan considered leaving the church that had shaped and sanctified her. On the advice of her dean, she considered the United Methodist Church but chose the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where she has been an advocate for women in the ministry.

She brought this same passion for preaching to Utah.

Turning outward

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Rev. Nurjhan Govan, the longest-serving pastor Salt Lake City's historic Trinity AME Church has ever had, is retiring after 14 years. She is pictured at the church on Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018.

Govan has never married but considers her singleness a “luxury,” offering her the chance to devote her life to academic pursuits, to her call, to the rigors of parish needs and to loved ones in her extended family.

Govan’s mom moved in with the AME pastor in the Avenues until the mother’s death. Their mostly Mormon neighbors were kind to them, Govan recalled, and made them “feel welcome.”

Lee Johnson, chairman of Trinity’s board of trustees, had stepped away from religion for a few years after arriving in Utah. Then, one Sunday in 2009, he went to Trinity and heard Govan preach.

“I liked what I heard,” Johnson said. “She moves you with her words and touches you with her heart.”

Now, the small congregation wants to do something for her — collect $6,000 from members and the larger community to help her get around.

“We still don’t have anything to pay her,” Johnson said. “At least we could show we really care about her with a nice comfortable car.”

Govan is not moving but will stay in her Murray apartment, with a menagerie of 10 Yorkies. She hopes eventually to work as a hospital chaplain or in a position to address the needs of “sex-trafficked women.”

She’s a “wonderful person and a socialite and so many people like her,” Johnson said. “... Whenever you invite her to an event, you are gonna have a good time — she’s gonna tell you some good stories about all the people she’s met.”

She might even recite her favorite biblical verse, from the Book of Psalms: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season.”

Govan, too, will remain planted, in Utah, even as she enters a new season of her life.

Niki Chan Wylie | Special to The Tribune The Rev. Nurjhan Govan