ELKHART, Indiana (Mennonite Mission Network) – Not many Anabaptist theologians take Mordecai yelling outside the king's gate and his acts of civil disobedience as an example of following Jesus. However, when Leroy Barber spoke to leaders of African-American churches, and staff at the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, Indiana, on Feb. 23, he described these actions as being at the heart of Jesus' good news.
"Peace-making can stir up a whole lot of trouble," Barber said, as he described the Bible's message as "the story of oppressed people, written by the oppressed."
Too often we do theology from the top down, studying the words of comfortable White men who lived a long time ago in Europe, as if they knew more about God than people who live at the bottom of the social hierarchy, Barber said. Yet, most of God's chosen leaders were from the oppressed community. They had a very different perspective of who God is than empire-builders do.
"Diversity is a biblical imperative, not a political issue, or a human resource issue," Barber said, as he described John's vision in Revelation 7. "John looks out and sees every tribe, tongue and nation. For him to see that, there needed to be visual identifiers, like skin color. I am still going to be a Black man in heaven."
Barber, who has engaged in mission work for more than two decades, has a long history of collaboration with Mennonite Mission Network and other denominations on the DOOR program for youth leadership training in Atlanta, and other short-term mission experiences in cities throughout the United States. Last August, Mission Network strengthened its partnership with Barber's The Voices Project to walk alongside African-American church leaders and to encourage Mennonite churches to be more pro-active in promoting racial justice in their communities.
Barber and his wife, Donna, started The Voices Project eight years ago to strengthen African-American church leaders in their ministries, with a focus on helping them negotiate communication barriers with predominantly White organizational structures.
In most Mennonite mission structures, the ability to raise support funds is the criteria by which leadership is determined. If prospective mission workers do not come from financially affluent communities, they don't have much of chance of being accepted by an agency. This makes it seem like God only calls White people into mission, Barber said.
Barber warned African-American church leaders to not give up their way of doing theology "from below" in response to the White church's unhealthy calls for racial harmony. Unity without confrontation of injustice perpetuates oppression and affirms White supremacy.
Rather, Barber called for Christians to take up the tradition of resistance to empire-building, like the three boys who stood in a fiery furnace did, like Daniel in the lions' den did, and, most importantly, like Jesus did, when as a homeless refugee, he was tortured and executed without a lawyer or a fair trial.
Barber didn't just preach this faithful resistance to injustice, but left Indiana to go directly to trial in Washington, D.C., for protesting against the death penalty. Read about the pain and insights Barber had during his arrest and prison confinement.
After his hearing, Barber reported that the judge gave him a deferred agreement that includes 32 hours of community service, and not being arrested during the four-month interval before he needs to appear in court this summer. If he complies with these conditions, the charges against him will be dropped.
Tyrone Taylor, assistant pastor at New Foundation United in Christ Mennonite Fellowship, said that Barber put words to the emotions that many leaders of color have.
"It was like therapy for those of us who are engaged in the hard work of breaking down walls of hostility and fear," Taylor said. "Rev. Barber's teaching gave me courage and helps me be more steadfast in my ministry."
Fellowship was a highlight for Cora Brown, who co-pastors Church Without Walls in Elkhart with her husband, Jonathan. She especially enjoyed how Barber led an introduction exercise that helped her to better know the others in the room.
"We should have gatherings like this more often," Brown said. "I appreciate how the Mennonite offices build a sense of community with local congregations through these kinds of events."
Ann Jacobs, a Mission Network church relations associate and leader of the team that works to undue racism in the Mennonite offices in Elkhart, organized the event. Jacobs said she was pleased with Barber's presentations and the deepened relationships between office personnel and the nine African-American church leaders who participated in the event.
"Rev. Barber affirmed the ministries [the pastors] carry out in their communities. He encouraged them to continue in their vision for peace and social justice," Jacobs said. "These kinds of gatherings help connect office personnel with our local pastors and encourage all of us."
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." Dr. Barber is the co-founder and director of The Voices Project, college pastor at Kilns College, and sits on the boards of many Christian organizations. He is also a prolific author; see his books at The Voices Project website.