All Things Together for Good, A Full Life for West End Pastor

Minister Debra Gray at Love Grove AME Zion Church in Seven Lakes. Ted Fitzgerald/The Pilot

Part of a continuing series about women in ministry serving West End.

By Maggie Beamguard

Insider Editor

When it comes to time management, the Rev. Debra Gray has a few tricks. 

Not only is she the pastor of Love Grove A.M.E. Zion Church in West End, she also runs and teaches at the private Heritage Creative Arts School and serves on the Southern Pines Town Council, all while pursuing a doctorate in ministry from Duke Divinity School. Oh yes, and she is also on call as a mother and grandmother. 

When asked how she juggles it all, Gray first responds with an easy, warm laugh. She writes down a lot of things and tries to keep things, like her car keys, in one spot.

“Everything goes on my phone and I put several alerts for every activity. It’s never one alert, it’s five alerts,” she said.

Reminders are important, but her real secret is her faith.

“The main reminder is that God is in every moment. I cleave to him. I hunger for God. I talk to him incessantly all day long.” 

By looking for God in all circumstances, Gray says she gains a grace-filled perspective regarding her extensive list of to-dos, meetings and assignments. 

Gray grew up in New York City. She attended parochial schools and found herself drawn to religious life at a young age. She recalls volunteering to collect canned goods in fourth grade outside her school. Not realizing she could sing, she put together an impromptu jingle which included the words “don’t be greedy, give to the needy.” 

In high school, Gray told her Mother Superior, the head nun, that she thought she would like to join the order and become a nun. That was the highest order for women to be in ministry in the Catholic church.

The Mother Superior, in her great wisdom, told Gray, “Well, you are very young. Now, let’s wait a year.”

Gray chuckles with her characteristic laugh, admitting: “I went boy crazy that year.”

While she had an interest in theater and the performing arts, her mother encouraged her to pursue a degree that would guarantee her a job. Gray attended Long Island University and obtained a degree in English education. And she has continued a long teaching career. 

But the call to ministry pursued her through life, changing experiences and two worship services where she heard the clear message, “You are called to be God’s evangelist.” 

She married the man of her dreams and love of her life, Tobey Walter Gray. They created a blended family of nine. The couple shared a calling to ministry, but Gray said her husband was the real evangelist. “He was a big man with a tender and loving heart,” Gray says. “He would pick people up on the side of the road to help them. He was just faithful. He believed that ministry really meant service.”

As her life settled down, she found herself praying to God in gratitude: “Lord, what can I give you, you have given me everything.”

And she describes a vision that reminds her of Gulliver’s Travels. “What I saw in the vision was a woman, a giant-sized woman, sitting on the ground. In front of her was a ditch and tiny people like Lilliputians falling into this ditch,” Gray said.

“As they fell into this ditch, this woman was trying to pull them out, but they would slip through her fingers and she was crying. More than anything, I felt the emotion of this mother that was trying to save them.”

She knew she was called to help rescue God’s people. 

Like Abraham and Sarah, Gray and Tobey made their way to a distant land — Kentucky — with big plans for Gray to attend Asbury Seminary. But as the saying goes, “if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”

Gray’s seminary plans would be deferred, but she and Tobey would have a fruitful ministry there together all the same, starting their own church, Jehovah-Jireh, meaning, “The Lord who sees and the Lord who provides.”

After 15 years, the couple moved to North Carolina in 2014, settling first in Pilot Mountain before moving to Southern Pines in 2016. But tragedy struck shortly after they moved. Gray lost her best friend and loving partner when Tobey died.

Heartbroken, she pursued their vision for a non-denominational church here, City on the Hill. Before Tobey died, the couple forged a relationship with the Rev. Dr. Paul Murphy and his wife, Sharon. Murphy is the pastor of Trinity A.M.E. Zion Church, which hosted Gray’s worshiping community before she decided to become a member of Trinity.

After participating in A.M.E conference studies, Gray was ordained as a deacon and appointed to serve Jordan Chapel A.M.E. Zion. The Murphys encouraged Gray to pursue that divinity degree at Duke Divinity School.

“Duke was on another planet,” Gray said, “but Doctor Murphy is a graduate and recommended me to the admissions department. I could not believe I was being admitted.”

Gray received her Master of Divinity degree in 2023 and is currently in the doctorate cohort as a hybrid student with others from across the United States.

“It’s wonderful. They’re just phenomenal people — a mixed array,” she said “We share together. We love each other and support each other in the journey.”

It’s work she says, but it’s God’s work in her life. “I’m enjoying learning and discovering new things.”

Now an ordained elder, Gray is serving her second year in an appointment as pastor of Love Grove A.M.E Zion. Their focus together is in building community through worship. Gray describes leading worship as creating a place set apart from time and space where the congregation can be in a place where only the Lord resides and the people hear God’s word together.  

 In the tradition of Bell Hooks, Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr, Gray’s call to ministry emerges from the lived experience of the beloved community — a radical vision of God’s hospitality, compassion, justice, peace and loving kindness.

She participated in an interfaith group trip to Washington D.C. in 2019 led by four local church leaders from the A.M.E. Zion and Presbyterian Church U.S.A. traditions. The name of the trip described its purpose “Faith and Race, Building Bridges of Understanding Among Neighbors.”

Nearly 40 people traveled together from 10 congregations to visit key locations in the nation’s capital and explore sometimes difficult conversations about race and the meaning of community. 

This experience inspired her to service within the larger community.

“This was my first endeavor in this community as far as being part of the ecumenical community in Moore county.” 

Through this experience and the relationships she formed with other community leaders, Gray was inspired to run for the Southern Pines Town Council in 2023. “It’s definitely a pleasure serving in this community,” Gray said.

Gray believes her husband would be beaming with pride in her achievements.

“He was the type that the accomplishments of the people he loved were his accomplishments,” she said. “When the kids graduated from high school, he kept a little souvenir pocket size diploma in his wallet.

“If he was alive today to see all of this, he’d be trying to sit with me in class and he’d be walking around with a hat that says, ‘My wife is a Town Council Member.’ He would be so excited.” 

The loss she has known and the grief she has endured, including the deaths of her husband and mother, have shaped her ministry.

“It feeds the compassion that I feel for every person who walks through the door,” she said. “Because I know that every person that walks through the door, whether their struggles are visible or whether they’re internal, is dealing with something. And my heart goes out to them.” 

Creating a space for welcome and worship is the ministry God has given Gray. It’s the way she can help rescue those whom God loves.

“I’m doing the ministry God wants me to do and it’s all because of the losses that I’ve experienced and the times when I didn’t have it all together and the clouds were low.”

Though skies may be gray, she is not. Gray is filled with hope and excitement. 

One particular passage from Romans, Chapter 8 serves as a guiding principle for Gray, who is familiar with loss and with difficult circumstances: “We know that all things work together for good.”

For her, it means that God is able to take even the worst moments of life and transform them.

The calling to ministry has not been a straight trajectory for Gray. But looking back, she sees the red thread of God’s Spirit weaving through her life and leading her to this time and this place. 

Contact Maggie Beamguard at