As told to Lori L. Tharps
At its core, ministry is about service, and I’ve always been in some form of ministry, even before I was ordained. Prior to becoming a pastor, I had a 20-year career as a nurse and health care professional. I created and managed a program that brought a mobile unit of services to people who were largely uninsured and unlikely to make doctor’s appointments. This, to me, was ministry.
In 2009, when I arrived at Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant, Mo., where I currently serve as pastor, it was a big building with only a few members. Most of those men and women came in from wealthier neighborhoods, but we are located in a community with a lot of economic and health challenges. Still, it was easy for church members who only visit this part of town for Sunday worship to become desensitized to the surroundings. So one of the first sermon series I preached was called “The Doors to the Church Are Open,” because by definition, we are a part of this neighborhood and we should strive to be its church.
That series established our trajectory to become a church of the community. And that’s what we are today. All our programs are for area residents, regardless of whether they are nonmembers of the church. We offer GED classes. We have a robotics team and an extensive girls mentoring program. We’ve incubated businesses for people who couldn’t get loans from traditional lenders, and we built a computer lab, used mostly by senior citizens.
We have also become known as the church that provides funerals for people without a church home—and that’s how I found myself in Ferguson.
A young woman who had once attended a funeral I performed called me after Michael Brown was killed. Like Michael, the woman lived in the Canfield Green apartment complex, and she knew the 18-year-old as “Mike-Mike.” She said, “You have never met me … but we need you out here.” It was because I’m known as the pastor who serves the community that I was called to respond to that young man’s death. That’s why I can’t separate ministry from activism; I think ministry done well is always activism.
The way I see it, the call of Christ is to serve and address the needs and concerns of those who are marginalized and to work diligently toward the betterment of society. But there is a delicate balance to be performed by those of us who lead majority-African-American congregations. We have the dual responsibility of taking care of our members’ natural and spiritual states of being. That balance should be based on Jesus’ examples. Christ taught spiritual lessons without ignoring the real-life situations people were facing. It’s difficult to preach to people to trust in the Lord without our actions and concerns for what’s bothering them at the moment. And right now, there are some very real problems in our community that must be addressed.
I believe the most pressing issue is the divide between the “haves” and “have nots.” We are obliged to find a way to bridge the gap between those who moved up and those who didn’t, and also to remind ourselves that we are responsible for one another. Right behind classism are our sexism and anti-LGBT attitudes, which are global issues, and particularly dangerous for African-Americans. Our education system is in the toilet, and people want to launch protest about who is sleeping with whom.
The Black church has to find a way to provide a place of healing and comfort for all God’s children. People say the church is supposed to be like a hospital for the sick, but people don’t want to go to the hospital unless they’re dying. So the church has to be more like long-term residential care. We need to learn to take care of each other. That, my friends, is activism.
We are obliged to find a way to bridge the gap between those who moved up and those who didn’t, and remind ourselves that we are responsible for one another.