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My pilgrimage home

Amantha L. Barbee discovers that the step outside oneself is often where God is revealed.

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

What in the world even is a pilgrimage?

Is it a travel plan? Is it a planned or unplanned journey? Is it a biblical concept? A quest?

When I think of a pilgrimage, I think of a metamorphic experience forward, a sojourn. What happens during a metamorphosis? Massive change!

I cannot help but think of abolitionist Sojourner Truth. She was born Isabella Baumfree and changed her name after she converted to Christianity. She said she chose the name Sojourner Truth because she, Sojourner, “was to travel up and down the land showing people their sins and being a sign to them, and Truth because she was to declare the truth unto the people.” Is that not what God calls us to do when we are ordained to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I believe so. We don’t always understand the assignment, but we depend on our faith.

Moving up and down the land requires tremendous faith in God. But trusting in the power of the Holy Spirit is often daunting. Truth had to leave the safety of her home to do what God called her to do. She never knew what obstacles she’d face. At times, she felt as if her very life was in danger, but she worked on several projects until God allowed her the vision to see and accept another mission. Truth had an incredible connection with the holy, and she only went home when it was her time. Based on the record-breaking number of people at her funeral, more than a thousand, I’d say hers was a prodigal-son type of celebratory welcome.

Biblically, a pilgrimage means stepping outside oneself to encounter God. That step outside is very often where God is revealed. Many seminaries offer the opportunity to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This pilgrimage provides a chance to experience a new place, a new time, a new reality away from what the students think they know to be a religious experience. The students come back changed. They come back with a deeper understanding of who they are in our Christocentric and very small world. They come back to what they knew — but they come back with more compassion, more knowledge, greater spirituality and the ability to see God’s vision more clearly.

God gifts all of us in unique and powerful ways. If we are not using those gifts to the best of our ability, we need to surrender to being stretched to serve.

My pilgrimage away from and back to Charlotte, North Carolina, was no different. I was born and raised in Charlotte. I am a product of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and completed my undergraduate studies at North Carolina universities. I have visited 46 of the 50 states and have traveled abroad. But always my life lens was firmly focused on Charlotte. I lived in other cities in North Carolina and even lived in Philadelphia in my youth — but I always came back home largely unchanged. Indeed, my purpose was always to get home, because that’s what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. It was comfortable. I knew everybody. Everybody knew me. My mother was there, and I was a mama’s girl. My friends were there. Life was just easier at home. Life was more comfortable at home.

When God calls someone into ministry, the call is one of obedience, surrender and sacrifice. Not much is comfortable or easy about those three things. I was once told that whenever my stole, bestowed on me at ordination, becomes lighter, then it is time to reassess, listen and go deeper with God. It may be time for another assignment. It may even mean taking the stole off.

Knowing what ministry means to me, I took that advice very seriously. God gifts all of us in unique and powerful ways. If we are not using those gifts to the best of our ability, we need to surrender to being stretched to serve.

I was in such a position when I started praying to God to use me more fully. But I didn’t think that God would call me away from Charlotte. I thought God would just offer me more opportunities in Charlotte. Being called away from Charlotte was not on my radar, but I trusted God for direction, and God answered me. The Holy Spirit moved me in a very profound way, out of the blue, and made everything possible for me to move to Atlanta, Georgia. I have always been fed in multiethnic spaces, even as a child. My parents made multiculturalism part of our nurturing. It has been a critical element of my ministry since the beginning.

Being called away from Charlotte was not on my radar, but I trusted God for direction, and God answered me. The Holy Spirit moved me in a very profound way …

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) certainly does not have many multiethnic congregations, though. As a 91%-White denomination, the PC(USA) has minimal incentive or support for multiethnic congregations. Lots of programs are in place, but very few in our congregations know they exist or understand how to access them. Most of my work and education on multiculturalism happened outside the church.

This ethnic homogeneity continues to be a challenge for the entire denomination and for individual churches. The world outside the church is speaking languages entirely different from the church. To become relevant and relational, the church must learn to speak others’ languages and live into the diversity in which God created us.

What happens on a pilgrimage when someone doesn’t speak the same language? Either the stranger learns the language, expecting to assimilate, or a translator is hired — or all parties meet in the middle with the expectancy of change. When a stranger is invited in the Bible, we are told that hospitality is the order of the day. The question for the PC(USA) is, has and always will be: What does hospitality look like? What are the responsibilities of the leadership, the teaching and ruling elders and the congregants?

I remain honored that I was chosen to pastor one of the few multiethnic churches in the denomination. I knew the call would be challenging. The former pastor had served for 34 years and lived in the community. The church had a complicated history with Black leadership. The church also had a history of being unconventional, which was a good thing.

But immediately at the end of the honeymoon phase of my pastorship, COVID-19 plagued the world, the church and individuals. My church was in no way prepared for what we needed to do immediately to continue ministry. Our website had not been updated in years. Our online worship services were by Zoom only, which provided minimal opportunities for participation. We were still handling finances by hand, on paper. We had no office manager. The staff, including musicians, were not tech savvy at all. To top it all off, our area had the worst vaccination rates in the country, and we could not meet in person in the sanctuary. The congregation was highly vaccinated, but we were an anomaly. So we had to close the building for a very long time.

What we soon learned was that we were not special in our challenges. We were the norm. In discussion with other pastors, I learned that many churches in our denomination were experiencing this shock. But during this time the reason became clear why I had been called to this congregation. I was called for such a time as this.

As a second career pastor, I had answered the call to ministry with many skills and experiences. A seminarian in their 20s simply cannot and would not bring the work experience of a pastor with more than 10 years of corporate experience. I never understood why God had allowed me to see and learn what I did before being called to ministry. My job skills were not one-dimensional and never followed a pattern. I had learned audiovisual skills as a radio/TV station intern at the age of 18. I learned orchestration in undergraduate school and served as a staff writer and arranger at a megachurch. I learned budget and finance in corporate America by running a department budget of $5 million plus a staff. I learned the inner workings of nonprofit management as a program director for a transitional women’s center. I later learned web design during my first pastoral call in a small congregation.

I never thought about these things when I was doing them. I just did what had to be done and followed my curiosity. So to lead my church’s shift from an old-school community to a somewhat modern church, I had to use every bit of my knowledge and experience, and then some. I learned that obedience, surrender and sacrifice were necessary and completely exhausting. This pilgrimage was not about getting back home. It was about growing in God.

Change is difficult for anyone and everyone. We tend to desire only gradual change.

Change is difficult for anyone and everyone. We tend to desire only gradual change. My congregation was already feeling growing pains. More people had joined the church during my ministerial honeymoon phase, before COVID, than the church had seen in years. The congregation was learning about me, their new and very different pastor, and vice versa. Then life happened, COVID happened, and gradual change went out the window.

As difficult as the transition was, the former pastor affirmed our work during a drive-by birthday celebration, saying, “I am glad that you are there and not me. I wouldn’t know what to do. I wouldn’t even know where to start.” To be honest, that infuriated me. But part of growing is dealing with myriad emotions. As time went on and COVID eased, I learned gratitude on a higher level. I was grateful for the challenges COVID had offered me, the congregation and the church. The downtime provided by COVID allowed time and space to put systems in place as a foundation for the future of that church. I feel very positive about the innovations I led during my time there. I also feel positive about my growth as a pastor and a person during those challenges.

One of the most important things that a pilgrim must know is when to continue the journey. I refer to Sojourner Truth again. She never moved without guidance from the Holy Spirit, even when she herself wasn’t sure. Surrendering means never being sure, because we are operating from faith.

Just as the Spirit guided me to shepherd that congregation through COVID, the Spirit let me know that the time had come to continue to the next assignment. I had a list of things I wanted in a new call, but also knew I had to listen to what God was calling me to do. As soon as the Spirit shared with me that it was time to move on, my phone, my email and my private social media channels exploded with opportunities, invitations and offers, both inside and outside the church. I was perplexed by the volume. I did not seek anything. I knew God was giving me the opportunity to discern with God, not alone.

The first viable offer came from Charlotte — yes, home. That offer arrived a year before I said yes to my current call. The offer was good. The salary and benefits were good. I knew the congregation. I knew the former pastor well. The position was outside of the PC(USA) with a sister denomination, which would have been an easy transition. I had to pray, listen and submit. It would have been easy. It would have been comfortable.

By Jonah Withers/unsplash

But I discerned that the Holy Spirit was still working with me yet again to ensure that I would not return home unchanged. So I told the Charlotte congregation “no.” I still had work to do. This happened multiple times in multiple states.

I concluded that I would have more creative freedom to serve God outside the church. I knew the spiritual gifts that God offered me, and the church often felt like a stumbling block to imaginative ministry. I had no desire to serve a congregation that desired change yet was unwilling to do what was required for it to change. This common refrain resounds within the denomination.

So I experienced the joy of educating Christians willing to go deeper by joining the faculty of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary and working with individual churches through my company, Walking Boldly. I didn’t need a congregation to produce an income. I simply needed to put my full attention on my own business and say “yes” to more clients, who in turn called often.

I was committed. I was going to jump out on faith and leave congregational ministry. I begin to prepare for my exit. A few months later, I was scheduled to travel to Germany for the World Council of Churches Assembly, and I planned to resign before I departed.

The moment I came to that conclusion, I received an email with a ministry information form (MIF) from Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church in Charlotte — yes, home, again, but I had learned to ignore that pull. But this time, something in that MIF read and felt differently. I was a Black female pastor, and I saw a congregation of historically typical White Presbyterians who basked in its privilege and who knew it. I also saw a congregation bold enough to name its issues, get outside help, confront its history and face forward with the expectancy of internal, upsetting, difficult and life-giving and sustaining change. Quail Hollow’s MIF called for co-pastors, and I was curious why. The congregation had the finances to support a double payroll, but not the membership.

I have been met with open and loving hearts. Honesty, transparency and hope are the order of the day. 

When I inquired, I heard a story of hope, expectancy, change and commitment. A colleague and I entered the process together. After the first three interviews, my colleague decided that the call was not for him. So I contacted another colleague, who entered the process at the fourth interview. During a series of conversations, however, my colleague and I decided that a co-pastorate was not something that interested either of us. We also felt it was not in the best interest of this particular church — but who were we to dictate Quail Hollow’s discernment? We shared our discernment conclusions with the church at the very meeting where it had planned to make us an offer. The committee was a bit taken aback, but in the spirit of its entire process, the group listened and went back to their session with our report for further discernment.

So I returned to making final preparations for Germany and resigned as I originally planned. I had made up my mind, and I was sticking with the plan. When I was asked where I was going, the only answer I could offer was Germany for two weeks. I was convinced that my plan was what God wanted.

But within a few days (even though no church makes decisions in a few days), the chairperson of the Quail Hollow congregation’s pastoral nominating committee (PNC) called me and shared that the PNC wanted to talk to me alone to discuss ways for me to move forward as the senior pastor instead of a co-pastor. These conversations took place. Days before I left for Germany, I received and accepted the call to become a Black female pastor to this all-White PC(USA) congregation in one of the most affluent areas of Charlotte.

This was not home. This was not comfortable. This was not easy. This was the Holy Spirit moving in ways that I didn’t expect or understand. But now I do know, with all certainty, that God had everything to do with my coming to Quail Hollow Presbyterian Church.

As a condition of hire, I asked the PNC to conduct antiracism training for the entire congregation before I got there. I expected to receive pushback — and if I had, I would have told Quail Hollow to find another pastor. But the congregation met my requirements with the help of the Presbytery of Charlotte. The presbytery is phenomenal and made this transition easier for all involved.

I have been met with open and loving hearts. Honesty, transparency and hope are the order of the day. My call to Quail Hollow is a big deal not just because I am a Black female. It is a big deal because I was born and raised in west Charlotte. West Charlotte and south Charlotte have been constantly divided since before I was born. Quail Hollow itself has a reputation for being very conservative. The congregation knows how liberal I am, knows about my very public fight for justice and knows my immigrant girlfriend. They know my family history in west Charlotte and what, historically, that history meant and still means for the city of Charlotte.

Quail Hollow has been honest about its fears, as have I. Together we have made a commitment to Christ and to being disciples. To do that, we must get out of our own way, lay aside our historical weights, own the part we have played in our society’s deterioration and ask for forgiveness, grope for it if we must. As God is my witness, I have pilgrimaged home.

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