“And we quickly learned being out every day and meeting and seeing the same people, relationships got established and in establishing those relationships people living on the streets were not who we thought they were and as they became friends, as they became people we saw every day, their life stories became real. It was no longer those people over there, hey this is James, this is my friend, this guy I know, and I see him just about every day and we sit and talk over a sandwich, and the dignity of those people who we met with, and did life with, literally on the streets, became a high value in our lives.” – Leroy Barber
This episode is part 1 of an extensive conversation with guest, Dr. Rev. Leroy Barber, adjunct professor in Community Development Practice at Multnomah University, co-founder of the Voices Project and Director of Innovation for an Engaged Church for the Greater Northwest Area of the United Methodist Church. Dr. Barber and host Dr. Greg Burch discuss lessons learned in the struggle for justice in community development spheres and the evolution of his own perspectives and background, covering his early years in ministry, the influence of mentors in his life and ministry engagement in the age of Covid.
Greg Burch: Hello, and welcome to the development and justice podcast from the studios at Multnomah University in the beautiful city of Portland Oregon. My name is Dr Greg Burch and I have the honor of hosting this unique podcast where we engage in faith based discussions with thought leaders and practitioners, who are wrestling with the complexities of ministry and Christian action in the areas of holistic mission justice, development and peace building. My role here at Multnomah is directing the graduate program in global development and justice, you can find out more about our program by visiting us at Multnomah.edu/magdj, that’s what we call it around here. Just a quick disclaimer: the views and opinions expressed on this podcast do not necessarily represent our host institution Multnomah University. Thank you Multnomah for inviting us into the studios today. So Okay, I have invited Dr Reverend Leroy Barber to join us on the show today. Welcome Leroy Dr. Barber, it’s great to have you on the podcast.
Leroy Barber: Good to be here
Greg Burch: Hey it’s so good to have these conversations with you. I might add that you are the first guest I get to interview so thanks for joining me, thanks for taking the risk and joining me in this conversation
Leroy Barber: You are welcome.
Greg Burch: Let me, let me briefly introduce you to Dr. Leroy Barber many of you know, Dr Barber some of you have had him as your Professor here at Multnomah and certainly in other places, but I’ve had the honor of working with Dr. Barber for the past seven years as part of our program here at multnomah or he has taught a course in Community development practice in fact he’s teaching finishing up one even this week. He has also been a frequent speaker on issues of justice and provided key support for a number of students who have interned with him and Donna, his wife over the years. Dr. Barber began his Community development work in Philadelphia in starting a ministry with his wife Donna called Restoration Ministries back in 1989 where they focused on working and providing care for homeless families and children. Leroy was licensed and ordained at Mount Zion Baptist church where he served as a youth director, with his wife Donna, and also served as associate Minister of evangelism there. Other critical organizations he’s worked with include FCS urban ministries in Atlanta, I believe you worked with Bob Lupton there, is that correct?
Leroy Barber: yep.
Greg Burch: Working with the Atlanta youth project, where he founded Atlanta youth academies. Leroy is currently director of Innovation for an Engaged Church serving with the greater Northwest area of United Methodist Church. He is also co-founder of the voices project and has served on the boards of the simple way Missio Alliance, the evangelical environmental network and is the former board Chair of the Christian community development association. Leroy currently lives here in Portland Oregon, has been married to Donna for the past 35 years together they have six children, I might also point out that he has a number of books, you might want to Google those and find those for yourself. Okay, I absolutely know you have been and are involved in so much more you know, but I would take up the whole podcast if I was to continue on but I really want to hear from you right that’s why I’ve invited you today so thanks for being here.
Leroy Braber: my pleasure thanks for having me.
Greg Burch: Hey I wonder if we can start off with you sharing a little bit about your background and how you got involved in ministry and Community development work.
Leroy Barber: I grew up in Philadelphia and grew up in a Baptist church there also been in church most of my life so you’ve you know youth choir youth development all those kind of things doing at mount Zion. I was ordained and licensed to preach there, also an ordained deacon there. My wife was, you know, director of the youth choir there, director of the Youth, you know what we call the Youth Council, I guess, then okay so we have a pretty strong kind of church background. We got married early at 20 and and then somewhere I think a couple years in actually our daughter was two years old, we felt a call to live out what we believe was our faith in our Community in our neighborhood in our city which was Philadelphia at the time right, and so We dove in, we started a nonprofit on our own and started working with the houseless population in Philadelphia and taken out meals and hanging out on the streets pretty much every night with our two year old daughter in tow.
Greg Burch: I can picture the scene right there right,
Leroy Barber: yes, yes, and a couple friends, you know, a couple you know, a couple other couples who we still know today and we’re with us and yeah we just kind of went at it, we didn’t know much about what we’re doing but we went at it.
Greg Burch: What lessons have you learned, since those early years of serving with the Restoration Ministries?
Leroy Barber: I think the big lesson came early on and a big lesson was that we, as people who thought we were bringing you know the Gospel per se and we were going to help these people and save them, and you know our number one donation at the time, were tracts right, literally we had hundreds and hundreds of people donating tracts.
Greg Burch: I get it, yep
Leroy Barber: And We quickly learned being out every day and meeting and seeing the same people relationships got established and in establishing those relationships people living on the streets were not who we thought they were and as they became friends as they became people we saw every day their life stories became real right, it was no longer those people over there was hey this is James, this is my friend this guy I know, and I see him just about every day and we sit we talk over a sandwich, and the dignity of the of those people who we met with an did life with literally on the streets became a high value in our lives. And we learned that really early and now like you know that’s the basis of Community development right now but I learned it at 22 through relational connections with people on the streets.
Greg Burch: Man, I, you know it took me a little bit longer to learn that lesson in our own work and in Venezuela and other places and thank God, you know that you learned that lesson early on. So many folks don’t learn that lesson and often times we view ministry as a transaction versus that relationship I think those tracts that you were you were given in those early days, you know and forgive me for those of you who love those tracts, but you know those tracks oftentimes create these transactions for ministry, but be able to take in and acknowledge the importance of the relationship and the incarnation of Christ demonstrates that relationship right, so I wonder if you can share some other ideas or lessons that you’ve learned over the years that have really shaped you into the leader, that you are today, or maybe a series of lessons that have have had a significant impact on you?
Leroy Barber: So so yeah I mean I shared a very early lesson around dignity, lessons of not knowing right things that we were we felt we were called into. And you know we learned lessons about children and children on the streets and how shelters worked and how poor poor folks were treated right on lessons, they just piled up and those early years and we took those forward with us, my wife and I, and you know how you apply dignity and the value of going into a place we moved to Atlanta, you know and the value of dignity and listening you’re moving into someone else’s neighborhood at that point when you’re new and what does listening look like what does not not having a plan for the neighborhood but figuring out who leaders are and how you how you connect with those leaders you being a leader right it doesn’t take away your leadership to listen it actually helps you do a better job, and so we just pick those things up and You know our early days in Atlanta my wife is an educator and it’s been a children’s advocate and most of her life. And, she began to really challenge the systems around what parents had to like what role they should play in the development of a school. We started a school in Atlanta. and parents were very much a part of what the curriculum was and what time should after school happen and how we did field trips and my wife Is a huge advocate for parents having a voice in their children’s education, no matter what their educational level and what their economic level is we learned that early and we you know we carry that with us for all, all of this time and again we started this at a time we didn’t know at the you know I’ve been board chair of Community Development Association Christian CCD. But I didn’t know what CCDA was when we started. We came into CCDA and it was interesting, and you know, it was interesting because this came up later when I was board chair, but the way I entered CCDA is I heard John Perkins calling me into the movement as a leader. What do I bring to this place as a person of color, as someone who grew up in an urban context, what do I bring and what can I learn to sharpen my leadership, were actually some of our anglo folks, white folks, joined it right from a different vein he joined it to you know help the poor or to relocate or any of these other things, and actually some of those things rubbed up against one another down the line it’s kind of interesting, but that was that was important, I grew up in a black Baptist church that I learned Robert’s rules of order when I was 10 I already knew how to run a meeting when I by the time I got to that place right so so so some some interesting things, lessons have emerged from my early years.
Greg Burch: Man what I hear you saying in some ways and correct me if I’m wrong, but ministry is not it’s not necessarily top down right? I mean so oftentimes folks go into the context of ministry, with all the answers with knowing the need somehow through assumptions or whatever, and we fail to do the listening, the recognizing the resources that are already available in the community, recognizing where we failed to recognize where God is at work in the community and we just go in with our assumptions right and it’s like I think what I hear you saying is that ministry is really kind of a bottoms up or perhaps a it begins with recognizing what God has already doing in the communities.
Leroy Barber: and oh absolutely absolutely, you know and now I’ve written a book about this right, but you know, then was a different story, but the idea of you’re coming in, and you know what’s better for people in their own neighborhoods and community and there’s something inherently wrong with that and. You know, are a lot of our missions and a lot of our services is built around that yeah and so, but it’s faulty yeah it’s got some real real problems.
Greg Burch: yeah I completely agree, you know you mentioned John Perkins; one of the first books I read in seminary at Fuller was John Perkins book Beyond Charity, I was deeply impacted I had already spent a couple years working with young people on the streets of Venezuela, when I read that book and I just kind of said, Lord Jesus forgive me right for I have sinned I said I had committed those sins of making assumptions and failing to really allow the youth themselves to speak into my life and to listen to them and to listen to God and what he was already doing in those communities. Instead, we went in thinking that we knew what they needed and how wrong we were.
Leroy Barber: yes yeah absolutely right.
Greg Burch: Hey so you know what about mentors or other people in your life that you point to as people who have formed you into the leader you are today.
Leroy Barber: Oh man, so my wife and I both share a common mentor from when we were in Philadelphia, who we went to Bible study every Friday night with, his name is Greg Johnson, Reverend Greg Johnson, and they were about I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t have this little less who locked into this Bible study with this, who then was a trustee he wasn’t even a minister or anything, now he’s a pastor but he just made the scriptures come alive, and that was my formation, giving us as young people permission to question the scriptures to ask questions to go deeper not just go by what he was reading, but what do you think all of that, I got as a teenager it was like he was he was and is absolutely amazing so that was probably the first person. Obviously you know, I have a mother and I was an absolute prayer person right, in fact, I had to get up at like five o’clock in the morning every morning for prayer and reading of a song, so just let that sink in a high schooler at five AM right?
Greg Burch: Okay, unfortunately I can’t comprehend it, but yeah.
Leroy Barber: So but we’ve had some others, and when we started this ministry on the streets and we found our way towards a school in our neighborhood where we met probably two mentors that took the foundation of what we had and just open open door on up for us Betty and Sam Ririggins. I mean hands down I had never been on a plane and neither had Donna, and they put us on our first plane to Mexico City to go listen to some some mission folks down there who they thought, these are the ones you want to listen to and we, Donna, and our three little kids on a plane and Mexico City never been on one before never, never traveled that far before and they exposed us to it and they just kept doing it my first seminary class was literally like this. Betty, “Get in the car, we got to go somewhere.” She was my boss at the time okay, so we get in and we drive to what is now Palmer, was Eastern Seminary and she says okay sit and sit and listen and I sat, and one of her classes and it ignited it ignited to hear, I mean it was scary a part of hear people breaking down the Bible like that, like whoa wait, you can do that and but it was something that drew me and that was my first that was it my first seminary class was she like just getting in a car and going where she told me to go. So my first church plant was with her like two black women planting a church in Southwest Philadelphia, that was a first touch point right so just just incredible people all along the path and numerous more when we moved to Atlanta, you know. You know, Christian community development got introduced to us the year before we moved to Atlanta, and then, when we moved to Atlanta Bob Lupton was you know informational for CCDA and Bob was a unique person who understands institution, who understands Community Development and who understands church life. And, but somehow doesn’t like institutions that much, although he knows how to move in it and just gave us the freedom to explore. We did all kinds of things and part of that was because Bob didn’t try to direct it he just opened up space to create with the organization FCS urban ministry, Donna and I moved to Atlanta, we put our heads down and we spent the next 16 years of our life in the Community deep in community, and did all kinds of incredible things right so yeah.
Greg Burch: Well, it sounds like you’ve been blessed with some great mentors in life and I would encourage our students to find those mentors because those are the people that really deeply impact us and shape us and warm us and I’m grateful for those mentors you’ve had in your life that have shaped you because we’re blessed to know you and then to follow your leadership and many, many spheres, so shout out to those mentors
Leroy Barber: yeah absolutely.
Greg Burch: You and your wife Donna are co founders of the Voices Project and we’ve had students serve with you all as interns and at your conferences, I wonder if you can share a bit more about the voices project, why you started it and what’s going on these days?
Leroy Barber: yeah, so the voices project is Donna and I’s heart like it at this point in our lives it’s become the thing for us and it started just because we waited and we felt we were 20 years in and we’re like are we doing this right like we can’t we can’t raise enough money like seemingly like we’re hitting all these walls and ceilings around all these and when we were in we were in a white evangelical world, then at that time, and I’m, we just had a lot of questions and we gathered a few friends and we met literally we met in Orlando one week five or six of us and Voices was formed out of those questions of how the leaders of at that time, how a lot of black people move through some of this stuff and Voices was created to answer a lot of those questions and now it’s a growing space for leaders of color to simply bring their leadership capacities, their unassimilated leadership capacities to the table and we create a table for them to do it and we promote them.
Greg Burch: Okay right, and I know I recently saw that you’re launching the new Voices school for Liberation and Transformation. And I wonder how that plays into forming leaders of color in these spheres?
Leroy Barber: yeah so somewhere along the line or you know I got my hands on some Cone and some Gutierrez and you know, Yes, you know so I stumbled onto those folks and Denise Williams right and started going, oh my gosh.
Greg Burch: Like where were these guys in Seminary, right?
Leroy Barber: And uh and that stuff began to take the raw material within me and free form it around how how I see scripture and what the liberating spirit of Jesus looks like what the liberating practice of Jesus looks like and how Jesus is, how Jesus manifests within me as a person marginalized, personal of color, and the school will focus on that and invite people to see Jesus in a liberative space and those leaders we think can transform the world.
Greg Burch: right on thanks for sharing about that a little bit about the Voices project as well, and you can find information on the Voices project at?
Leroy Barber: Voices/project.org and you can get all the information you need.
Greg Burch: And you can find out more information on the Voices school for liberation and transformation there as well. Leroy you’ve been at this work for a long time.
Leroy Barber: Right yes couple years yeah just a couple.
Greg Burch: I wonder if you have any tips for students and others wanting to know how to get started in the fields of Community development work in justice. What do you suggest, for them, as they are kind of just beginning, maybe that’s graduate students or maybe that’s undergrad students, but what tips do you have for them?
Leroy Barber: I mean, we mentioned mentorship right, and I think that’s a critical thing right I wish at 20 years old, I had someone to speak into me like this right, and someone that I can I could go after, right, and I would say that’s that’s my advice to younger people, that person you want to mentor you? Go like write them, call them email and text them right and sit and don’t leave it on them to mentor you right you call them and say hey would you mentor me I’ll send you these five questions I have and could I have 30 minutes? I mentor a ton of people that way so to me that’s how we do it and I recommend a young person, if you want to know some of this get a mentor and know what you want from that mentor and go after that. The second thing is there are really good organizations out there, we’ve mentioned CCDA, we’ve mentioned the Voices project, we mentioned like those places are, have informational for me and critical for me, and I think a number of leaders of color around the country are beginning to see that work as some they need to they need to plug into so, yeah those would be those would be two that I recommend find out about them see who’s, look at who you want to like connect these two CCDA, Voices project, go on air who’s on their boards who’s on there, like the Voices school, who are our community of scholars, choose one and email them, see if you can get on their calendars you know, even if you get on every once in a while it’s worth it.
Greg Burch: that’s great, and I know that there’s local chapters of CCDA as well, so you can get involved in different CCDA communities in different parts of the United States, and perhaps even the world too.
Leroy Barber: absolutely oh yeah
Greg Burch: So um you know we’re in 2021 and we have been facing a number of challenging issues in our society, here in the United States, which we’ll get into in a second part of this podcast but in thinking of terms of the needs that are here, in the United States right now we’re we’re you know in this global pandemic, there has been joblessness is at an all time high, so I’m going to ask you a question about local efforts here in the United States versus international community development efforts and what do you think Christians here in the United States should be putting their efforts into should we be looking at our local communities, or do you think we should be continued to look at international communities or what’s our role.
Leroy Barber: You know um I spent some time working globally, and I think the world is shrinking in some respects right, that economies are blended now right people move around the world, I mean we’re in Covid now, but people move around the world differently and because of that, I think it’s a combination of those things, but one of the things I think that folks can do locally is get involved in your local context where you live right where you send your kids to school, where you shop, where you like who’s there and what’s the economy and who, who has privilege in it and who doesn’t right. One of the places that has become a real go to for me is a school principals. Local school principals probably have the best lay of the land of communities.They the families are engaging those schools everyday principles are engaging parents principles are engaging the school system they got to look out like they’re involved in, free lunch programs that are federal like they have a whole lot right there it’s another principle if you don’t know where to go, go to your local school. Go to a local school in your city where there’s underserved populations and ask the principal what you can do, or how you can get involved or what they need.
Greg Burch: yeah that’s super helpful and I remember last year, you were involved with grocery cards and getting grocery cards into the hands of people who needed them at you know right when Covid the pandemic began in march 2020. And it deeply impacted me watching you and watching the efforts of raising funds for grocery cards so that people would have access to food and I was questioning at that time, the role of the Church, both here in the United States and internationally and meeting the needs in our communities and I think it was just a beautiful example what you were up to in the Voices project was up to and ministering to people and you were doing that, primarily through schools, and so a number of students in our program here at Multnomah got involved and joined those efforts and, but it’s left me with this question of what is our role as Christians in our own communities and in the time of a global pandemic and, wrestling with, as well as you know, our responsibility as a global community to be addressing needs around the world as well, so I’ve been wrestling with those a little bit, and I remember reading a book several years ago, the author of the book is on missions and that the author said there’s nothing magical that happens when you put on the seat belt on that airplane right. He says, and I think is David Stills he says “it must start in your own local community who you are in doing ministry and living out the Gospel living up the incarnation begins where you’re at,” And some of our listeners might be interested in international development work working in different global context but I’m reminded that it really begins, we begin being shaped by what we do now um and so I’ve appreciated your work over the years. Hey Leroy I am so grateful to have had this chance to talk with you today thanks for joining us
Leroy Barber: thanks for having me
Greg Burch: This is part one, we will have a part two later on, I’m looking at a number of other issues, but thank you for joining us, and a big shout out to Multnomah University for access to the recording studio in a platform to dialogue on the tensions and areas of convergence, when it comes to thinking generally about development, justice and peace building. Thank you very much.