Leroy Barber has dedicated more than 25 years to eradicating poverty, confronting homelessness, restoring local neighborhoods, healing racism, and living what Dr. King called “the beloved community.” Leroy starts projects that shape society; in 1989, burdened by the plight of Philadelphia’s homeless, he and his wife Donna founded Restoration Ministries, to serve homeless families and children living on the streets. In 1997, he joined FCS Urban Ministries, working with Atlanta Youth Project to serve as the founding Executive Director of Atlanta Youth Academies, a private elementary school providing quality Christian education for low-income families in the inner city. Leroy is currently the Global Executive Director of Word Made Flesh, an international organization that works among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. Rev. Barber is on the boards of The Simple Way, Evangelical Environmental Network and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). His new book, Red, Brown, Yellow, Black and White: Who’s More Precious In God’s Sight?, will be published this fall.
The Word Made Flesh vision statement says “we focus our energy to make Jesus known among the poor while reconciling the church with the poor.” Can you unpack that for us and share what that looks like in the lives of the people you serve?
It really looks very different in various places around the world, but the common thread is being a presence of hope in difficult situations without agenda. Many of our communities started by being present with people, for example, sitting in train stations, spending time with children on cold nights as they tried to stay warm, visiting brothels and offering prayer and a place to talk, or teaching children in red light districts. Making Jesus known meaning being present as followers of Jesus.
RT: How do you define evangelism? Is it spiritual, social or both?
It’s quite the loaded term for most people either for good or bad. Many see it as the proclamation of the gospel; some see it as a social endeavor. I like to think of it more holistically. A combination of things physical, emotional, social and spiritual that all point to the goodness and power of Jesus being present with us. I like to think God cares about all these things.
RT: How does the Word Made Flesh vision align with addressing systems of oppression that perpetuate poverty and a permanent underclass?
It’s my conviction that to know God is to care for the poor and represent freedom to the oppressed. We see ourselves called as a vocation to walk with people into freedom. We learn from our friends and neighbors as much as we “address” systems. I am careful not to be the great hope as opposed to being in the struggle. Jesus, King of all, sides with us as we challenge oppressive systems.
RT: I found this description of your forthcoming book: “After more than two decades in urban missions, Leroy Barber discovered a disturbing trend: the virtual absence of people of color in the mission field has created a widening racial disconnect, to the point that Christian ministries can no longer relate to the people they claim to serve.” Can you give us a glimpse into how you address this disturbing trend Red, Brown, Yellow, Black and White: Who’s More Precious In God’s Sight?
I think we have to name it first. The time has come that we address head on the racism that exists. I, like many other leaders of color, feel the sting each day. We suffer in silos and have for a long time. I am not the first but hope to be one of the last to let this silent pain continue. This book is naming the monster and offering some first steps towards freedom.
Is it realistic for to believe that this trend can be changed? More importantly, do you believe that those who control power and access want it to change, or will it require more prophetic voices like yours to speak truth to power?
I think it is well known that power doesn’t give up anything without resistance. We are mounting the resistance–or, I should say, continuing the resistance. Yes we need more people to speak, but unfortunately speaking out has a cost and many have paid that cost. Within our time, I would like the church to end racism within its walls and ministry.
RT: What inspired you to write Red, Brown, Yellow, Black and White: Who’s More Precious In God’s Sight? Was there and experience that led to it, conversation or observation of what’s happening in the church and with fundraising?
The pain of people of color. My own pain. I see great leaders judged because they don’t know many people with money or come from networks of privilege. This is not acceptable.
RT: Who did you have in mind when you were writing this book. In other words, who does the narrative serve?
I would like it to inspire the many leaders of color who hit glass ceilings in their missions work, I would like it to inspire natives American, Latino, black, and Asian leaders who are called but not supported. I would like it to make known the white advocates who suffer each day. I would like it to be on college campuses and in seminaries to spur creativity in tackling this systematic injustice. Isn’t it funny that many of the missions and ministry organizations standing against injustice perpetuate it within their own organizations?
RT: What’s the most important thing that you hope the reader takes away from the book?
A new or renewed sense of kinship and equality for leaders of color. I think we can be incredible together.
RT: What type(s) of action would you like to see people take after reading the book?
Take time to examine self and create space for the other in your life. Increased relationships and giving to leaders of color.
RT: What’s next for you after the book tour? Any new project you can give us a heads up on?
I live in Oregon now, the least diverse state in the US. We’re working on a few projects to help churches and organizations diversify. The hope is that the answer of “we wish we could find a leader of color” will no longer be an excuse.