So much can be said about love. The beloved 1 Corinthians verses, such as “Love is patient, love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4–8a), are in many a wedding ceremony. But it’s when life gets hard that we draw on God’s love, who we love, and who loves us. Dr. Melvin E. Banks, the founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has 25 biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover tough love, love and sorrow, love and relationships, beloved hymns, unconditional love, peace and love, and loving Jesus.
Leroy Barber, Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh
In his book, Red, Yellow, Brown, Black, White—Who’s More Precious in God’s Sight: A Call for Diversity in Christian Missions and Ministry, Leroy Barber exposes the virtual absence of people of color in the mission field that threatens to compromise relationships with the people those organizations claim to serve. For more than twenty-five years Barber has led ministries serving the ones God loves: most recently as the Executive Director of Mission Year, a year-long urban ministry program focused on Christian service and discipleship, and now as the Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, an international organization that works among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. Barber, who is a trusted voice across a breadth of cultures, spoke with UrbanFaith contributor Margot Starbuck about his book, his ministry, and the challenges of sometimes being the only person of color in mission-based ministry.
What from your experience in ministry caused you to write this book?
I guess, on a personal level, I am tired of being the only person of color in many of my ministry circles: Christian colleges where I speak a lot and teach a lot, also, conferences, and a lot of evangelical circles where folks are doing missions, there are few people of color around.
Selfishly that might be some of the motivation for the book.
I was going to ask about the challenges that you see among your colleagues who are men and women of color leading missional ministries, but now I’m wondering: Are they there leading?
The answer is yes, they are there, but not in mass numbers. The ones in leadership experience what I have for the last twenty-five years. It can be an experience of feeling like you’re the only one and that you’re expected to speak for people of color, to represent the perspective of people of color or your race. I am finding now that a number of churches are hiring a person of color on their staff because they think they “should.” And that person of color finds himself pretty lonely and always kind of speaking on the issue of diversity and race alone.
Today and for the last several decades, there has been an appeal, to many white evangelical college students, about living and working in an urban context. What is the risk of an all-white staff working in a more diverse urban area? How does it impact the ministry?
You are going to have more resources given to the ministry when staff is part of the white community. No matter how young the population of whites is, they are going to have some resources that automatically puts them in a position of power in many places, especially in struggling communities that don’t have resources. They’re able to host a kid’s club or after school program or a dance or whatever. But people want that for their kids.
A black friend of mine in a predominantly white campus ministry doesn’t have the same kinds of natural access to donors who have a vision for campus ministry as some of her white counterparts. What is your experience as a person of color relating to donors and fundraising?
I would say there are two aspects to that.
For starters, you don’t have a network of people with the resources to help you feed your family and pay your bills. So it can be extra stressful for that person of color. You’re invited to come do the ministry but you’re worried about your family eating and the money that needs to come in. That’s an extra tax. The burden of fundraising affects the person in ministry with fewer resources: it impacts how they’re thinking creatively about the ministry and the people around them—because they’re constantly having to worry about their funding. It takes away from their work.
The second part of wanting for resources is that it, unfortunately, makes people doubt their call. Should I be here? Should I be doing this? Because they lack resources. Financial lack serves to deny people’s call.
Are you describing the person on the ground who is running the kid’s club or are you describing the person at the top of the organizing or both?
Both. I am describing lived reality. A lot of times my creativity is stifled as a leader because I’m concerned about financial burdens as a person of color. But it’s the person on the ground as well. I have gone months without paychecks and that is also a reality for a lot of people on the ground. They do it and do it for literally nothing.
Is it hard to recruit younger people of color to work in ministries where you have to do this kind of fundraising?
Yes. It is hard to recruit because of the fundraising. A lot of times these organizations and communities are not culturally friendly enough. It is hard to find funding and one of the reasons is because of not understanding the different cultures among people.
I assume you mean historically white organizations. You are saying the organizations aren’t culturally friendly?
Right, they are not understanding. I was a missionary for a very long time in a predominantly white-culture organization: in its worship, and in the books they were reading, and the language that was used, and things like that. A person of color has to decipher some of those cultural practices.
Do you see any movement toward people of color leading organizations that are already serving primarily people of color?
Yes. I think in the last several years there has been an acknowledgment that we need to be more diverse, especially racially, and people are interested in hiring culturally diverse leaders. I do see organizations taking steps to hire people of color, that’s a first step. The challenge then is adapting an organization culturally and changing a system of funding. Leaders of color can lead as leaders of color and not leading as persons of color who are trying to conform to white culture. I’ll explain.
I am a person of color. I come into leadership, but I am expected to lead it the way it is and not bring in my cultural perspective or understanding into the mix. That is a whole different conversation. We need to be asking what does it truly mean to have a multiethnic and multicultural organization.
So how do you help people in the institution get there?
That is the big question.
A first step is hiring and making sure you at least have a diverse staff, but achieving authentic multiculturalism within your organization means an openness on the part of your leaders to learn. Quite frankly, it is difficult for established leaders to consider changing when they see that the organization is currently “successful.” They ask, “Why would we change this for diversity’s sake? Why would we change just so that we can have other people in the mix? Things are going so well.” That is a real challenge for people to get their heads around. They think, “It is going (well) why would we attempt something that feels like it could threaten the success that we already have?”
And so what is the motivation to implement change?
You have to go back to what God has to say about it. The only reason people are willing to entertain change is when they become convinced that this is closer to the kingdom and closer to God’s heart.
Few people have heard of Conetoe, North Carolina (pop. 287). Fewer know how to pronounce it correctly (kuh-NEE-tuh). In Conetoe, however, we can learn much from a pastor and congregation that decided to combine faith and farming to save bodies, minds, and souls. Rev. Richard Joyner, one of thirteen siblings born into a sharecropping family, experienced a moral epiphany when he officiated more than 30 funerals of congregants under 32 years of age in one year. So many of his members died needless, health-related deaths. Joyner lamented, “It just started to feel unconscionable that you would see someone 100 pounds overweight on Sunday and not say anything about it. Then they’d die of a heart attack.” No longer could he ignore the plight of his church members dying because of poor health choices and poor health options.
Conetoe is situated in Edgecombe County, North Carolina. Edgecombe has the highest rate of diabetes of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Conetoe was a food desert. Fresh, affordable produce was hard to come by. Church and community members suffered from high unemployment, obesity, low education, poverty and poor health. Joyner knew that farming could help the people’s health by providing physical exercise and fresh, affordable produce. Joyner had the agricultural know-how, but memories from his sharecropping past stood as a mental barrier he had to overcome.
Farming reminded him of working to benefit the man—farm owners who routinely underpaid and mistreated their workers. Farming reminded him of an endless cycle of poverty, with no personal benefit. Nevertheless, the dismal condition of his members convinced Joyner to overcome his personal concerns. Joyner chose to extend his ministry beyond the pulpit in 2005 by starting the Community Garden and Family Life Center, a summer program to grow nutritious food and get children physically active.
More than ten years later, the two-acre garden has grown to fifteen farm plots around Edgecombe County. Youth work the fields. Elders mentor the youth in farming and academics. The produce from the farm generates income used for school supplies and scholarships to further the youths’ education. Faith and farming are transforming this rural South Carolina community.
Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a lay person named Will Allen was showing young people how to do urban farming. Allen, also the son of a sharecropper, returned to farming after a successful career in professional basketball and corporate sales and marketing. While living in Belgium, Allen learned intensive farming methods used to increase yields on small plots. Years later, Allen applied that knowledge to create Growing Power, Inc., a non-profit center for urban agriculture training and building community food security systems.
Before creating Growing Power, Inc., Allen was content to simply farm his three-acre plot located on Milwaukee’s north side and provide nutritious food for people living nearby. Things changed, however, when young people in the neighborhood began asking him questions. They sought his advice on growing produce in their gardens. The youths’ eagerness to learn inspired Allen to mentor them. Eventually, Allen created Youth Corps, a year-round youth development program that teaches community food system development and maintenance.
Through his innovative methods of using composting, vermicomposting (using worms to fertilize compost), and aquaponics (growing fish and food plants in a closed system), Allen’s urban farming organization provides intergenerational education, nutrition, and fellowship particularly for low-income and immigrant peoples in the United States and various countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, and Haiti. His three-acre urban farm alone, located six blocks from Milwaukee’s largest public housing complex, feeds 10,000 people.
In an interview, Allen remarked, “I feel that farming is my calling. I think I was meant to do this. To be a farmer you have to have tremendous faith and trust that something good is going to come.”
Joyner and Allen represent a groundswell of clergy and laypersons who are rediscovering the importance of responding to one’s call to work. Work as a calling compels us to discern how our work is our Christian vocation. Faith and work, the two should be mutual partners. Faith should inform work; work should be an extension of faith. Our expression of Christianity should be seen in all we say and do; yet, how often in church do we talk about faith and work? This essay was taken from our 2016 Adult Vacation Bible School, Getting Work Right. Do you need a job? Are you dissatisfied with a job? Do you know how your job fits into God’s eternal plan and purpose? Take our free career self-inventory at gettingworkright.com to start the journey toward getting work right!
Allen:With everything going on our country, a lot of churches are experiencing low attendance in general, and millennials, in particular, being absent in their churches. And a lot of people are wondering why you think that might be? Why is it we aren’t seeing our generation in church as much, or as much as people might desire, and what are some ways that we might think about meeting that chronic crisis, right now, in black church communities. That low attendance of millennials and how might we invite, or engage, millennials with that reality?
Brianna: So, I could tell you from my research that three things black millennials are concerned with the church: Family dynamics, outreach, and social justice. And if you think about churches, there are a lot of churches that don’t include those, right? Family dynamics means not just classes, right, but actually to see what it means to have a healthy family as millennials because many of the people in our generation didn’t get to see it. And so I’m not surprised that you have Reggie and Bree, who have an influx of millennials because they actually get to watch it in action, right? They get to believe in something that they may have never seen.
Brianna: Another thing is outreach. If you remember, maybe a couple decades ago, everyone was building fellowship halls, right? And gyms. And they were promising that the kids were gonna come from impoverished neighborhoods and have a place to play, and they were gonna do homework, and then if you think it through, that really never happened, and fellowship halls and gyms and all those things that we’ve paid big money to build, were actually not being used. And so it was almost like your grandmother’s furniture when you put the plastic on it, right? And nobody can really go in there, but it just looks good? And so it was that kind of situation, but by the time it was time to go back and use it, it had already dry rot. And that’s what’s happening a lot of times with the buildings that were built a couple decades ago, and so millennials are not gonna continue to put money into an edifice, you know, that no one’s gonna be able to use.
Brianna: So when I asked in my research, “What’s a cause worth giving?” The answer was, “A cause that gave.” And so outreach was really important and black millennials are not seeing that you’re willing to go outside the walls of your church, and you’re willing to not treat people like a notch on your belt, then that doesn’t look like outreach or something you wanna participate in, or sow into.
Brianna: And then justice. I know the Methodist church came out with this article that said millennials didn’t like politics mixing in their pulpit. That’s white millennials, that’s not black millennials, and so it was very important for black millennials to know that justice was gonna be important in the church. Because we can’t divorce real life, so we went through this point where everybody was like, “You gotta wake up, you’re not equal,” you know, that’s what our parents were telling us, insert Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, they were like, “oh let’s go burn the whole country down,” right? So they went from telling us to wake up, to slow down, take a nap, and we’re like what do we do? ‘Cause we wanna burn everything down, you know, because now we get it, and so really just finding that middle ground, what does it mean? I mean, we have different gifts that can benefit the movement in ways that we didn’t have before, like technology, right? So when you see something that says, “Not your grandmother’s movement,” on the one hand it can look disrespectful, right? Because we know that there’s so much to build upon. It’s not your grandmother’s movement, ’cause we have so much technology! But it is your grandmother’s movement because we wouldn’t have a movement without them.
Brianna: So, social justice, family dynamics, and outreach are important. The things that were not as important are the things that we’re majoring in most times in church.
Gabby: I wanted to echo something that Brianna mentioned about white millennials and not black millennials, and I dealt with this and actually before Brianna and I had a friendship, I knew her research because I was being asked to provide data to my congregation about millennials. And so I did what I was asked, but all of the resources given and that I could find were about white, middle America millennials, which are not the same thing as African Americans between the ages of 21 to 35, and even the years that we give for millennials, some start at 1980, some start later. But, what I will say is it’s really important contextually if you are serving black and brown people, to find black and brown research. And it might be somebody who hasn’t finished their doctorate yet but they’re doing the work. It might be Brianna Parker, it might be Josh, it might be some of us, but you’ve gotta find people who know your context, and obviously, that is one of the biggest reasons why millennials are stopping coming inside of the doors of these churches, it’s because we’re doing … I was gonna say in blackface, but I’m … You know.
Brianna: No, that’s true.
Gabby: We are black ministers, but we’re using white tools. And I just graduated from Yale Divinity, so I get that we get our tools from where we get them from, but we’ve got to contextualize them for our people. And what you’re seeing is a more educated group of folks … And I’m not saying educated by degrees, I’m saying by Google, by social experience, by what we have processed, you’re seeing millennials who are like, “I may not know what you should be teaching me or preaching to me, but I do know this doesn’t feel like my context.” And so you’re not gonna keep people in the church by trying to make them assimilate into a way of thinking that is not their own. You’ve gotta do the work that matches the context that we minister in.
Is tech in church harmful or helpful?
Allen:Is the technology, whether that’s social media … the information age with our ability to search and research anything at a moment’s notice, is that helpful or hurtful? What are some ways we can think about that?
Gabby: I think technology is helpful, let me just start there. I think it’s very, very helpful but I think it goes back to us as the Black Church having to ask ourselves, are we offering something that people need to actually physically be here to access? Or, are we just creating these spaces where whether you’re here or not, you feel the same way?
I liken it to … my background is in music … so, I liken it to around 2007, 2008, when the music industry was going crazy because people were no longer buying CDs and people were starting to stream. The same conversation happened, which was how are record labels going to survive? How are artists going to survive? If they’re not buying the music, people must no longer want to invest in music. But what was shifting was people didn’t want to pay for that content. What sustained the music industry was touring. So, at the same time, when folks were streaming and not buying music, ticket sales to concerts and experiences were through the roof.
I liken that to the church. We have to create a space where, yeah, I can stream it, but I want to be there. I want to catch the energy. I want to have the conversations afterward. I want to have that community. What we’re finding is a lot of times in these megachurch spaces we’re losing that. Where people come and they go and so what’s the difference between sitting here or sitting in my bed? If there’s something else … if there’s something human and if I’m seeing … if I’m communicated with …if I can have a touchpoint that’s different in the same way that touring sustained the music industry. People will watch a concert, but that will prompt them to buy tickets and be there themselves. I think we have to figure out, as the church, what can we offer that makes people want to connect with us directly in addition to just hearing and receiving The Word digitally?
What Do Millennials Need From the Generations Before Us?
Allen: What is it that Millennials need from the generations before us right now in this moment, as they’re thinking about how to engage us in a church context; as believers inside and outside the church? What might we need from the generations that have come before us?
Reginald: Conversation and dialogue. Non-judgmental dialogue. We need your ears. Many of us don’t have positions right now, but you have ’em. So, listen to people when they talk to you. Not to respond, but to hear them. Active listening, my wife taught me. I had to learn that the hard way. Active listening. Listen to people. Dialogue. Don’t debate. We in this together. Listen to people dialogue. Have conversations, and you’ll be surprised at all God may reveal to you through somebody who may be younger; but yet, there’s no age limit on wisdom.
Gabby: I used to tell our members, “When you talk to a millennial, don’t look at them as your child. Look at them as what you were like when you were that age”. Because, we have a problem where each generation keeps infantilizing us, and we’re not children. So, you might have a child who’s 32, but I’m not your child. So, think about when you were 32, and how grown you were; and have a conversation with me from there. And so, I think that there’s a mindset thing happening where it doesn’t matter what my age looks like. Engage me for what I’m bringing to the table, not for your assumptions about who I am.
Brianna: No one has ever put a limit or any restrictions on me in certain areas; but leadership has been one, right? So, you have to get old enough to lead, but you don’t have to get old enough to give. At the point that I can invest in your ministry financially, I should be able to invest, and have a seat at the table, and have a voice in the room. And so, I think if there’s one thing you can do, it’s give millennials both voice and value. That’s gonna be important because we don’t just want to believe that you want us there like a notch on your belt, ’cause that’s tacky. We wanna believe that you want us to be there to be a legitimate part of the conversation. That when we speak, that we have just as much opportunity to see whatever we say activated as someone who’s older than us.
And I think often times millennials are not taken seriously, because we still say things like, “Well, you know the elders are the ones with the money.” Well, that’s not true, and I know you don’t believe somebody on a fixed income is making more than people who are going out and working every day. You don’t believe that. But what we do, is we exploit our elders, because we know that they give in a way that is sacrificial, and a way that millennials don’t; ’cause we haven’t bought into the black church, or any church like that. And so, don’t exploit seniors, and don’t minimize what millennials have to give.