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Editor's Note: This is part of a series on YWCA Academy of Women award winners.
When Cheryl Kirk-Duggan got a job offer from Shaw University, she asked God for a sign and got one - literally.
Ahead, by the side of an interstate in rural Tennessee: "Shaw," in blue letters on a white background.
It was a sign with no other purpose, not an advertisement, not a road or business marker. For Kirk-Duggan, it was an answer - right on time, as usual.
"I make no decisions without prayer," she said. "Life is laughing and dancing with God."
Kirk-Duggan is a singer, author, ordained minister and marathon runner, but it's for her role as religion professor at Shaw that she received the YWCA's 2011 Academy of Women Award for education this month. Her strong soprano rang to the tall ceilings of the Governor's Mansion on Oct. 4 as she sang her thanks to the assembled crowd.
Kirk-Duggan sings and prays her way through life. That's something she learned along the way, in her journey from Carnegie Hall to the preacher's pulpit: faith, family and music are her guideposts.
In her own words: "My life is about unspeakable joy."
While she was growing up in Lake Charles, La., Kirk-Duggan's father was the first black sheriff's deputy in the state since Reconstruction. Schools were still segregated, but Kirk-Duggan's parents shielded her from much of the ugly racism common across the South at that time.
A "born performer," she gave her first solo voice performance at age 4. Her younger sister, Dedurie Kirk, says music and faith have always been the two dominating guides of Kirk-Duggan's life. She was always active, always sure of herself, always pitching in where needed.
"She doesn't ask permission to be who she is," Kirk said. "She sees a need, and she'll fill it."
After graduating from the University of Southwestern Louisiana with a double major in voice and piano, Kirk-Duggan decided to continue her studies on a graduate level at the University of Texas at Austin. From there, it was a jet to New York City to pursue a singing career. She made her Carnegie Hall debut in 1981. Her hard work was paying off.
In the midst of that success, Kirk-Duggan received her first call to the ministry while jogging in a Hudson River park around 1980. She describes it as a tremendous sense of God's presence and a call to action through service. She was not interested.
"My response was, 'God, are you calling me into the ministry? No,' " Kirk-Duggan said. "I said, 'If this is you, you'll have to do this again.'"
Sure enough, the call came again four years later, after a conversation with her pastor. This time, Kirk-Duggan was newly married to her husband, Michael, and living in Texas.
"I was chewing sugarless gum at the time, and I remember my mouth dropped open so wide, I was worried I was going to get gum on my wool skirt," Kirk-Duggan said.
She prayed about it and talked to her husband. Then she picked up the phone book, called around to the local seminaries and was officially a pastor-in-training one week later.
After graduation, her career grew fast. She taught religious studies at Meredith College for three years, then took over as director of the Center for Women and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkley, Calif. There was always church involvement along the way, and there was always music.
"She's not afraid to give, because there's no fear of shortage," her sister said. "She doesn't change, just her audience gets broader."
Kirk-Duggan accepted the position as professor of religion at Shaw in 2004. In addition to her work in the classroom, she's written more than 20 nonfiction books. Much of Kirk-Duggan's professional writing and teaching addresses issues of violence, race, women and religion - any areas where people are systematically or culturally oppressed, she said.
"We live in a country that is very patriarchal still, where racism is alive and well, so I have to speak for justice," Kirk-Duggan said.
Stacey Floyd-Thomas, her friend and mentee for 17 years, calls Kirk-Duggan "a prophet for our times."
"She's able to create a new landscape for seeing a way forward, where there might not otherwise appear to be a way," Floyd-Thomas said. "It's important for us to carve out new opportunities to construct, and her work has done that. She is giving us hope in the middle of what might seem to be a dismal situation."
Kirk-Duggan's husband of 28 years, Michael Kirk-Duggan, died earlier this month; she credits him as a driving force and steadying hand throughout her career, always supportive of her work.
And Kirk-Duggan always has plenty of work to do. In addition to her professional life, at 60, she also writes poetry, quilts and is an avid practitioner of hot yoga.