Leroy Barber, President of Mission Year and director of The Voices Project (Photo Credit: MissionYear.org)
Urban Faith: Leroy, thanks for your time. Let’s start from the beginning. What is the Voices Project?
Leroy Barber: We’re a group of African-American leaders coming together to have a conversation around issues that affect the African-American community as well as to be a voice to other communities.
[Our goal] is to better represent the African-American community, who its leaders are as it relates to justice issues, as it relates to Christianity, and society in general. We want to help bring a broad spectrum of African-American voices back into the public square.
We are pulling folks from business world, social activists, politicians, musicians – every arena that affects culture. We are convening a conversation and getting the word out through writing and speaking projects. [We’re] trying to extend the rich history of constructive African-American engagement with culture.
Why now? What makes the Voices Project critical for this particular historical moment?
Politically, folks may be more apt to listen. We have an African-American – or someone who is biracial – as president and we know that poverty is deepening within African-American communities. We offer a voice to those who are living beneath the poverty line and suffering from ills of injustice. Instead of being silent we want to offer a platform for voices to emerge from [that] injustice.
Our community is suffering from not having a diversity of voices speaking to and from the African-American community. In the past, we have had athletes speak on our behalf, but now that role is diminishing. We need more than just athletes, more than rappers.
How often do we hear African-Americans who are involved in politics, business, and social action – all these arenas – speaking about and into everyday life in our community?
Also, the role traditionally played by publications like an Ebony or Jet is not quite the same in our community.
That’s a fascinating point. In light of the changing dynamics that you mention, how is the Voices Project positioning itself to speak to African-American folks today?
We’re highlighting diversity within our movement. We’re not calling everyone to be the same thing. We have older pastors and younger pastors. Entertainers and musicians. We’re trying to reconnect across generations – linking the old guard of the church with the young guard.
The Church has historically been the major social and spiritual voice within our community, but now that is changing. We definitely appreciate and value its role. I mean, I’m a Christian. So I value the church. At the same time, diversity for us is not just about the church but about cultural vocations of politicians, artists, musicians, business leaders, and so on.
Understood. It sounds like you’re talking about two different kinds of diversity?
That’s right. We’re about being intentionally intergenerational and diversity in the sense of engaging individuals across various vocations and from different sectors.
How long has the Voices Project been in existence?
We are moving into our third year. We meet twice a year. Our group has been growing over the past few years. Different individuals come in at different times. We’re at about forty individuals now who are leaders within their fields. In the near future, we’re looking at convening a larger gathering.
We chose to meet in New York City and Orlando.. New York City is the center of culture – fashion, news outlets, arts, entertainment. All of this is centered in New York, so that this voice can get out there.
Then, there’s Orlando. Disney is the place of inspiration. It’s a place where you dream big, you don’t hinder your dreams, [you] work hard, and anything can come true. Orlando [in the context of the Voices gathering] is shaped around questions like: what is God doing in your organization? What are you envisioning? What are you seeing?
In New York City, we focus on getting the word out. We ask, “how do you apply the dream that we discussed in Orlando”?
We’ve covered a lot of ground about the Voices Project. Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself?
I’ve been working in cross-cultural spaces for the last 25 years. Growing up, I attended a predominantly white high school. The question for me was: “How do I survive this place? How can I be heard within this space and find myself?” That question has been important for me. You know, I come across so many black folks who know what they’re doing – I mean, they’re doing phenomenal stuff – but no one hears their story. They’re doing mentoring, youth development, and education, but somehow there uniqueness still isn’t coming through.
My sense is that you [everyone] have a story. You have a gift and let’s here about your gift as you give it to the world. We get filtered stories all the time. I want to hear directly from the folks who are being affected [by issues of concern].
We’re in a world where young black youth are saying – I see it in my work – “I don’t want to get married because that’s for white folks. I don’t want to read because that’s for white people”. Our people – especially our [African-American] youth – are not hearing the powerful stories of Maya Angelou, and other folks that can make a difference.
You raise a great point about filtering stories through the voices of other individuals. With the rediscovery of Scripture’s justice themes taking place within Evangelicalism, I’m noticing a lot of filtering taking place. If you think this filtering is in fact taking place, how does the Voices Project avoid reinforcing that trend and instead push back against the filtering dynamic?
We address that by reaching out to those who understand and work in different cultures. They have competency in different cultural contexts. They know how to give a hard message with a degree of respect and grace. And they have done it in different circles. I used to think I was the only way doing that type of stuff. But then I discovered that there’s a whole community of black leaders who know how to lead all kinds of people. They know how to all the stuff – how to trainings and seminars on race; they maneuver the black church with honor and walk through those doors. They have the gift to do it. I have no doubt about that.
Thanks. As you know, we’re quickly approaching February, which of course is Black History. What’s the significance of Black History Month for African-Americans and our broader society today?
I have two angles for that. We’ve lost heart around this celebration. We have older leaders who really embrace it, but it hasn’t really been accepted cross-culturally across generations and sectors. I’m disappointed by that. I’d like to see it revived – some of our artists, poets, and writers, bringing black history back to the forefront.
The second thing – and this comes to the Voices Project – is about the dynamic of bringing in an Anglo person to connect with and educate Anglo communities on black history month. I understand that an Anglo person can speak these issues and yes, it’s important for everyone, but why not invite, but why not an African-American voice to speak to white audiences about the significance of black history? It’s an important opportunity to leverage.
So, let’s recapture and regain the magic of black history month. That would mean bringing a diverse group of African-American church leaders along. We’re talking about history of faith, music, literature, arts – all of that stuff pulled together. For some reason, these things have gotten splintered, but it’s important to bring it together again.
During February, I bring a musician and artist with me [as I preach and speak]. When I preach, some is [also] doing Negro spirituals and giving the history of those [songs]. At same time, artists are painting. Those three things working together are powerful man. The creativity of what we do as African-Americans is powerful and we need to embrace it.
Great. As we conversing, I’m hearing a theme of spirituality connecting with a broad concern for justice. It reminds me a bit of Sojourners and I know that you are involved with their Emerging Voices project. Tell me, where did you discover the connection between spiritual renewal and social justice?
I grew up hearing the Gospel and the social Gospel. These were two tracks and two different lines…with the Gospel being the main track. I think our call as spiritual people is for restoration is linked with justice in God’s economy. That call to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. In Isaiah, we hear about the fast that God chooses, to loose the bonds of injustice. It’s about setting the captives free [holistically]. Spiritual restoration is linked with social justice.
The Emerging Voices are living one message. You can’t have one without the other. When the children of Israel come out of Egypt, we see clearly that their spiritual renewal and freedom are linked together.
My voice within those voices [and in the Voices Project] is to prevent those two things from clashing but to bring them together.
Wonderful. Any final words of wisdom?
I’m hoping we’ll begin to make an impact around affecting folks’ lives. We don’t need a whole lot of fanfare. We need folks who understand how to have a big voice without being the center of attention. As I can do that more as a leader, I can help out and have an impact on my community.
We’re about big voices that speak out against injustice without being the center of attention. It’s a team effort. We’re a village and we want to keep that at the center of attention.
That’s a great line: “Big voices speaking out against injustice without being the center of attention”. Leroy, it’s been a pleasure. God’s blessings upon your work. Thank you.
SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.
Future leaders: take notice.
Has the Black church lowered its expectations regarding its pastors? According to Rev. Eric Redmond, the Eddie Long scandal provides us with an opportunity to reevaluate what’s required of our church leaders and to reclaim a biblical standard.
The allegations against Bishop Eddie Long are horrifying and disgraceful, but not necessarily shocking. For, unfortunately, many well-known Christian leaders of large ministries have made the choice of stepping outside of their marriages into sexual immorality. Even more unfortunate is that we, as African Americans, often excuse our morally failing leaders as people who are mere men or victims of white conspiracies. But sinners are not victims; they are fallen people who make choices.
Yesterday, in front of his Atlanta congregation, Bishop Long finally addressed the accusations that were leveled against him. He was right in saying the case should not be tried in the media, and it is not my intention to imply the man’s guilt in this space. Until proven otherwise, he deserves the presumption of innocence.
For pastors like myself, however, the allegations against Long should cause us all to pause and seek the Lord for more mercy and grace upon our own souls: “Lord, lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” But this sad episode also provides an opportunity for all believers to consider what we should expect of our Christian ministers in terms of character and morality, and what to do when pastors make choices that disqualify them for leadership.
What We Should Expect
First, churches should expect their pastors to be men who walk in holiness before God. All of us are called to be holy, for our God is holy (1 Pet. 1:16). But pastors are called to live at a higher standard of Christian behavior than that of the general believer. When the qualifications for pastors (elders) are given in Scripture, the pastor is expected to be a man who meets the full composite of the qualifications (1 Tim. 3:1-8; Tit. 1:5-9). Many of these qualifications concern the pastor’s personal holiness: “self-controlled,” “not a drunkard,” “not a lover of money,” “upright,” and “holy.” These qualifications should characterize the pastor throughout his tenure as a pastor, not simply during his candidate period at a church. This is the only way in which he can remain above the reproach of his people.
Second, churches should expect their pastors to be men who model Christ. Again, all of us are called to follow Christ and our Lord’s walk before God the Father. In a more significant way, pastors must set an example of Christ for others to follow. At all times we must be able to say to our people, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1, ESV). We are to “set an example to the believers … in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12).
Fighting for Survival: On Sunday, Bishop Eddie Long finally addressed the allegations leveled against him by four accusers. The unfolding saga illustrates the importance of pastors being “above reproach” in both their ministries and personal lives. (Image from New Life Missionary Baptist Church)
Believers are commanded to consider how their leaders live and imitate them (Heb. 13:7). If our people cannot see an example of Christ in us — including keeping our bodies pure from immorality — they cannot follow Christ by following us. To put it differently, our stead as pastors is no greater than our ability to say, “You can please Christ; just follow me and I will show you how to do it.” We have no credibility or meaningful role in evangelizing sinners if our message only is “God can change and keep you, but he cannot do the same for me.”
Third, churches should expect their pastors to be men who keep their marriage vows faithfully. Pastors must be “[husbands] of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; 1:6). The man of God must be one who keeps his marriage vows. This means that he should not be a man of remarriage, adultery, pornography-watching or addiction, or bisexual and/or down-low relationships, for each of these items stands in opposition to fidelity in marriage to one woman. This is an issue where lesser understandings and disobedience to this Scripture are harmful to our churches, and of which we, as African Americans in particular, need to raise our standards, for at least two reasons:
- The African American family needs to hear and see modeled the message of the gospel and its significance for the family so that our families and community might be rescued from destruction. The social indicators of African Americans, including high divorce rates, high percentage of children growing up in single-parent homes, and high numbers of single, marriageable-age women — some of whom are now blaming the Black Church for the problem of their singleness — all point toward the need for the strengthening of the African American marriage and family. Couple this with the large numbers of African Americans who are members of churches, and you will see that there is an opportunity for the church to lead the way in repairing the ruins of the African American community. The repair work starts with the church being a place in which marriage is held in high honor. Typically this happens in places where a pastor holds his own marriage is high honor.
- The gospel story itself is most readily portrayed and explained by the mystery of marriage. The gospel is the story of Christ giving his blood in death and rising from the dead in power in order to beautify the bride the he will wed in her final salvation (Eph. 5:25-32; Rev. 21:1-4). The gospel we proclaim to the world inherently says, “Do you want to see what salvation is like? It is like a perfect marriage between the Perfect Man and the perfect woman in perfect marital bliss forever and ever! Come get what you have always wanted in life!” We, the believers, are that bride that Christ is beautifying. We are the ones who should be able to say, “Christ will make your life like a great marriage; just look at my marriage” (or “my purity as a single believer,” cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-38; 2 Cor. 11:2-4).
Pastors should be the leaders in their congregation in preaching and living out the gospel — the story of the Perfect and Eternal Marriage. Otherwise, how can his people trust his word on marriage? When he says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” will he have any credibility? Can his members trust that his counsel on marriage will work for them if God’s power did not work for him? Instead of questioning their pastors, congregations should be able to trust their pastors as men who fear the Lord in all areas, including in their bedrooms (cf. Heb. 13:4).
When the Pastor Falls
Many of you might be rightfully wondering at this point, If a pastor fails in his marriage, what should happen next? There are no easy answers to this. Simply put, having not met the qualities of a pastor, that man is biblically obligated to step down from his role as leader of his congregation immediately. If he does not step down, his congregation should ask him to step down. This may seem harsh, but consider the alternative message you are sending to his wife, children, and the watching world that is in need of redemption. The wife and children are, in effect, being told that the church is not there to hold the head of their household accountable to the gospel. Thus, he can live two lives before them and God’s people and there is nothing his family can expect the church to do.
Moreover, we tell the world that our gospel is a sham and powerless. We appear to be people who say, “Well, you do not really have to live like a Christian in order to be one, or be a member of the church. We’ll prove it to you: just look at our pastor!” This is shameful, but it also is what we do when we allow immoral men to remain in their pulpits, and it is commonly accepted in the African American church. We must remember that, unlike King David or President Clinton, a pastor cannot divorce his work from his life, for his work is a message that must be modeled in order to be proclaimed with credibility and the power of the Spirit of God.
Let me be clear that requiring an immoral man to step down from his position as pastor is not a question of the man’s gifts or of his internal calling (which is subjective). It is a matter of his qualifications — his external calling, which are objective and verifiable for every man, regardless of his spiritual and natural gifts. Such a man may be gifted as a teacher and preacher. However, this does not mean he needs a pulpit. Instead, he needs repentance, marital counseling, brotherly accountability, a pattern of faithfulness in his marriage, and to make amends with the congregation that he has harmed. His gifts may be used to do outreach in the community or to teach a Bible study. But, at that point, he is not qualified to lead a congregation.
The fall of a pastor is a serious matter for the church as we seek to glorify God in all things. It must mean the end of a pastor’s tenure as his church’s pastor. Thankfully, because of the blood and resurrection of Christ, it does not mean the end of his salvation. For his fall is only a fall from his qualification for the pulpit. It is not a fall from the grace and mercy that secures our salvation in Christ.
There’s no shortage of talk these days about a “new Black Church” led by a dynamic movement of anointed, intelligent, and innovative up-and-comers. At the same time, many contemporary scholars are debating the question of whether there’s such a thing as a “Black Church” in the first place. Though often portrayed as a singular, monolithic entity, the constituent congregations of the “Black Church” often share little more in common than the Christ they preach and the skin color of their members.