Pastors reflect on Black History Month, role in community

David Burke


As Black History Month draws to a close, we asked pastors of three of the Great Plains Conference’s largely African-American churches to talk about how their church celebrated throughout February, and what directions they see for the future.
Participating in separate interviews were:

  • The Rev. Robert Johnson, in his second year at Saint Mark United Methodist Church, Wichita;
  • The Rev. Cynthia Smart, in her ninth year as pastor of Mason Memorial UMC in Kansas City, Kansas; and
  • The Rev. Kevass Harding, who will mark his 20th anniversary as pastor of Dellrose UMC in Wichita in July.
Their responses have been slightly edited, but are in their own words:

What’s being done in your church to celebrate Black History Month?

The Rev. Robert Johnson, Saint Mark UMC, Wichita, Kansas
Johnson: What we’ve done is have “Black History Moments,” where we talk in our worship service to recognize black history, either with a video or special presentation. I’ve also built black history into our sermon series called “Rethinking God,” about issues that have impacted black Americans.

Smart: What we did – and we’re going to continue – is each Sunday having a person or member talk about either someone in their family or someone they admired in their contribution to black history. One of our member’s dad was part of the legal team for Brown vs. the Board of Education in Topeka. We also have three brothers who attend here, and their dad was one of the Buffalo Soldiers (African-American cavalry units active from the American-Indian Wars through World War II). The sons are carrying on the legacy … It was very enlightening, especially since the folks they were sharing about were their own family members.

Harding: I did pieces on Black History Month in our sermon series called “Rebranding Love.” My spin for that was I had done Black History Month, and I discovered black history should be year-round, not just a month. I focused on how do we, in our black culture, in our black churches, in our community, in our world, how do we rebrand this love into this whole agape love? … This whole Black History Month goes beyond the month. Even in the story of “Black Panther” … they go to the United Nations and say “We are here to share with the world,” which is the same as sharing this love that the world needs. I’m sharing that the church has this gift of love that has to go beyond our four walls, beyond our neighborhood, beyond our blackness, beyond our month, and extend it to all people.

What new programs are your church undertaking?

Johnson: Number one, we’ve relaunched ministry at our main campus, from children and youth to adults and seniors – just revisioning for a new era of ministry. That process is going very well. For our youth, we had a guest speaker this weekend (former R. Kelly drummer-turned-Houston youth pastor Ray Bady) … who’s doing a tremendous youth ministry with 600-700 youth every weekend … He helped us cast a vision for what youth ministry could be.

At our Southeast Campus, we’ve gone from doing Sundays just once a week to basically a 24/7 ministry. Their pastor is Ronda Kingwood, and we’ve moved part of our staff there.

We’ve gone into the prison for 18 years, but now what we’re focusing on is helping people assimilate when they come out of prison. We’ve associated with a ministry called Working Men of Christ, which takes former prisoners and gives them a place to stay until they get their feet on the ground. Saint Mark is going to take one of those houses, called the House of Paul, where five men are living and we have a member of our church who will be the pastor, quote-unquote, the overseer of that house … They also (help) women, and we hope to have a lady to be pastor of one of those houses.
The Rev. Cynthia Smart, Mason Memorial UMC in Kansas City, Kansas
Our Southeast Campus continues to have its laundromat ministry, where we help people out. And for Easter we’re doing an outdoor service on Saturday and on the Main Campus we’re going to many places like nursing homes where people can’t get out for Easter.

  Smart: We have a new program called Ballin’ for Jesus, and it’s a basketball program that’s been going on for about six years for middle school and high school youth in our community. They come every Friday night and play basketball and there’s also a lesson that goes along with that, a devotion about Jesus with life skills. Our United Methodist Men have really taken leadership of that. We average 20-30 kids every Friday night.

Harding: Right now we are starting our new 501 (c) 3 nonprofit called HOPE CDC. Its vision is to help invest in people to help them buy their first homes. It’s for low- to moderate-income families who are striving to be homeowners. We’re using Jeremiah 29:11 as our foundation … We’re helping other people excel. Our vision is to reach down and not out to help up and not a handout into ownership. When we make stronger families, we make stronger churches, we help make stronger neighborhoods, we make stronger communities. Our schools are stronger because of this ability. We had to separate this to make ourselves a nonprofit, but the board consists of one-third people from the community, one-third from the church and one-third from the surrounding community. We meet once a month, and we hope to have our first house in late spring/early summer. One of our first families will be from Dellrose. It’s not just building a house, it’s building a family.

What’s the biggest challenge in being an African-American United Methodist Church in 2018?

The Rev. Kevass Harding, Dellrose UMC in Wichita, Kansas
Johnson: The African-American church has to evolve into something that’s different. We have to be churches that are able to embrace people of all ages and all cultures. That means, to some degree, what people experience when they come to us can’t be just a “black church experience.” In our music, our preaching style is going to have to evolve so we’re more accepting of a wider variety of people. Churches that are trying to maintain as being a “black church” or a “white church” are declining already, and I believe the decline will continue until we share the Kingdom and the love of Christ with whoever comes through our doors.

Smart: Growth. Relating to a younger generation is one of the more challenging things. We haven’t been able to break through in that area. We have one 20-year-old, and we average about 35 (people) in Sunday worship, so 80 to 90 percent of our congregants are over 50.

Harding: I think it’s everyone’s challenge, but our challenge is that our numbers in attendance is strong, but our target is millennials and young adults, single parents, or families that are married with low- to moderate-income. We’re not getting the big bankers. We’re striving to get them to understand giving and contributing to the ministry. For me personally, it’s that we’re in an old building with new members. We have been wholly creative to keep maintenance down. We’re not allowing the maintenance of a building to hinder the ministry of the people.

What do you see your church doing in the future?

Johnson: Our vision for 2018 is to have two healthy, fully functioning campuses. Each campus will have its own youth ministry, children’s ministry, young adult ministry. We’re also visioning to have a presence on the (Wichita State University) campus there … We’re going to enlarge our staff for a new era of ministry. We’re trying to have the staff match the needs of the community … We’re also talking about a sports club that will participate in AAU sports. This guy wants to connect it with Saint Mark, and we’re considering starting a 501 (c) 3. Instead of waiting for us, this is our way to go to them.

Smart: Connecting and collaborating with other churches and other organizations that are invested in our community. I’m looking more of a holistic approach – spiritual, emotional and physical – because there’s a lot of challenges in our community and we cannot do it by ourselves. We have to be intentional about seeking out partners that we can work with and make a difference.

Harding: Continue to do more ministry. Our biggest striving is outreach ministry.

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