Poverty is Not a Project: An Interview with Leroy Barber

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Leroy Barber is 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 Mission Year and the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA). He is the author of New Neighbor: An Invitation to Join Beloved Community, and Everyday Missions: How Ordinary People Can Change the World and was also chosen as a contributor to Tending to Eden, and the groundbreaking book UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters.  His third book, Red, Yellow, Black and White: Who’s More Precious In His Sight?, will be published soon.  Leroy is married to Donna and together they have five children.

KW: Tell us about your new role as Executive Director with Word Made Flesh (WMF)? What is the mission and vision and what are the most rewarding and challenging aspects?

LB: WMF is a Global community called to live and serve among the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. I believe everyone is valuable and should be celebrated, as God’s creation. The problem is that there are billions of vulnerable people in our world who don’t get treated with dignity and respect. My role is to be a voice for those whose voices are not always heard. That’s done in many ways, speaking, writing, being a good neighbor, advocating, raising funds, and proclaiming the love of Jesus. The role is busy and complex but worth it in so many ways.

KW: How would you define poverty and in what ways is it broader than just an economic distinction?

LB: I have a hard time with defining poverty because in one sense it can be seen as economic. There are so many people that lack basic things like food, water, and decent clothing. On the other hand, some people who lack these things are rich in relationships, family, and faith. Poverty is a bit deceptive in this way. We live in a world where because a person doesn’t have money they are assumed to be less. We have a flawed sense of things when we give people platform only because they have money. Having money doesn’t qualify you to lead or teach.

KW: How does the call and response traditions in the African American church and the deep tradition of music relate to an understanding and theology of the human condition and suffering?

LB: These traditions always invite participation. It was brought from Africa and continues to be a wonderful part of AA tradition. To me it invites celebration and gives voice to pain. I am not a musician, but Gospel, jazz, the blues, R&B, and hip hop are all ways for people whose voices are limited to creatively speak and to celebrate. For hundreds of years, I believe it has helped a race of people to contextualize their theology, lament, and to create space and access into culture.

KW: What is the American church missing in their conversations of and response to poverty in America?

LB: That’s easy, relationships. We don’t know each other because of hundreds of years of segregation. We are not neighbors and therefore poverty consistently keeps its grip. If you don’t know a so-called ”poor” person your responsibility will only go so far.

KW: Why do you think some Americans still struggle to grasp the importance of diversity in our culture and churches?

LB: Unfortunately so much of this is based in race, and we still have a pretty big race problem in America. We are a country filled with enormous, radicalized institutions of which, I believe, the church is one.

KW: What advice would you give to young men and women wanting to involve themselves in justice work or ministry to the poor or marginalized?

LB: This is not project based it is about people and relationships and relationships take time. If you are not willing to put in the time and sacrifice you may be disappointed at some point.

People have stories, names, and families, you should get to know those before doing some “work.”

Everywhere I go there seems to be some issue around race. It is more prevalent in some places but it seems to be there. Don’t ignore these. Listen, learn and lament.

This is Gods work. The moment you think you are bigger than the work, is the beginning of trouble. Many have fallen because they get bigger than any person should be. Don’t become a sad story.

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