By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
Rev. Alice Baber-Banks is preparing to deliver the last sermon she’ll give at the church she co-founded, but for her, it’s not so much an ending as it is a new chapter in an already fruitful journey.
The OBSERVER sat down with the area pastor and former nurse leader as she looks to hand over responsibility of the North area-church, Christian Fellowship Ministry, to someone else. With the last time at the local pulpit looming July 3, Rev. Baber-Banks reflected on her past, being a woman called to serve and what lays ahead in “retirement.”
Rev. Baber-Banks was born in rural Mississippi and later came to Sacramento after living in Tennessee.
She was raised by her grandmother and didn’t learn until she was 60 years old that the woman she thought to be her sister was actually her mother. Born of a sexual assault, Rev. Baber-Banks said her grandfather/father treated her poorly because seeing her was proof that his young daughter had been raped. She first married at age 16 when an adult suitor promised he’d pay for her education. Her grandfather/father was murdered, she believes by a Mississippi sheriff, and dumped on the family’s back porch.
Life hasn’t been the proverbial crystal stair, but faith has been a constant, she said.
“I have been with the Lord even as a little bitty child,” Rev. Baber-Banks shared.
“I was raised in a very religious household. My mother was what they call a hard-shell Baptist and don’t ask me what that is, but it’s where you wash your feet every time you go there.”
Hard-shell Baptists are described as being especially strict.
“We went to church every Sunday, but they didn’t have the same church every Sunday. You might go to a Baptist church on the first Sunday, then the next Sunday you might go to a Methodist church, because they didn’t have church at every church every Sunday,” Rev. Baber-Banks said.
Her grandmother led a singing group she called the Red, White and Blue Club that Rev. Baber-Banks joined at age 5 or 6.
“I have been singing at church for as long as I can remember,” she said.
She recalls singing gospel classics like “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross,” and “The Bible Tells Me So.” It was another favorite of hers that recently helped her make the decision to make a change in her life and pastoral career.
“I was on my way to church one Sunday,” Rev. Baber-Banks shared. “The spirit spoke to me and said, ‘It’s time. Better days are coming.’ There was a song that I loved to sing and that’s what it says, ‘better days are coming.’ When I got to church, I told the assistant pastor, I said,’ Rev. Lewis, you know what? I’m going to give you the responsibility on the first Sunday of July.’”
True to her word, Rev. Baber-Banks will preach her last sermon the morning of July 3 and, later that same day, formally pass church leadership to Rev. Robert W. Lewis Jr., who is around 40 years her junior.
“I just feel that he is going to do what God wants him to do. He seems to be that kind of person,” she said.
She was particularly impressed by his plans to regrow the church and bring young people back.
“I loved his answer that he gave me when I sent out the invitation to the ministers who were interested in becoming pastor. I cried. He cried and the congregation cried,” Rev. Baber-Banks shared. “He just put it down, almost like it was. When we started, we had a youth choir, we had Bible study, we had new membership classes, we had sewing classes, we had cooking classes. I had another teacher that did tutoring. We had two students who graduated with honors, who couldn’t read before she took them. It was going good, but (the young people) have grown up and gone. Many of them did not stay in the church.”
In The Beginning
Rev. Baber-Banks co-founded Christian Fellowship Ministry with Rev. Deborah Burney in 2000. She had been attending another local church, but the pastor blocked her from leading there, not wanting her to “be over men.”
“He would have me to preach for him all the time,” she said. “He said he would ordain me and then he changed his mind. I’d studied theology for years and he told me that I was qualified as a preacher, but he could not ordain me because – and the word he used was ‘usurp,’ because that’s the word in the Bible. He asked my (second) husband, ‘You don’t want your wife to be over you, do you? And my husband said, ‘My wife is already over me.’”
Rev. Baber-Banks eventually was ordained by another male pastor. To this day, however, she still comes across men who question her leadership. Other local Black female pastors have shared similar experiences of being placed at churches, where they’re not supported and eventually essentially are run off by entrenched members.
“I’m always greeted with everybody, but there are a few pastors in Sacramento who still don’t believe in women pastoring,” Rev. Baber-Banks said.
“When they come to me with that, I have scripture to give them,” she said. “I say, ‘Well the first message was given to Mary Magdalene and she was a woman. There’s another scripture in the Bible coming out of Galatians that says, ‘There is no male, not female in Christ.’ God doesn’t care whether you’re female or male. He wants your heart. He wants you to love Him.”
Antiquated views haven’t stopped her from what she was “called” to do. While she said she doesn’t need validation other than God’s, she can easily pull out “receipts” showing how respected veteran male pastors have acknowledged her preaching prowess.
Rev. Baber-Banks also admits to ruffling feathers with the local Baptist establishment in the past, speaking at events and churches it doesn’t feel to be appropriate, including the Church of Scientology and a local Unification Church. Some, she said, argued she shouldn’t be there.
“Someone said, ‘They don’t believe in Jesus.’ I said, ‘That’s why you go.’ You go where He is not believed,” Rev. Baber-Banks said. “I can go anywhere because I know who I am. If you don’t want me to talk about Jesus, don’t invite me.”
Locally, Rev. Baber-Banks is frequently asked to offer invocations and benedictions for community events. She recently prayed at the beginning of the Greater Sacramento NAACP’s Rally To End Black Hate outside the Capitol, calling for an end to the fear that has gripped the nation in the wake of race-based violence.
A retired nurse leader, Rev. Baber-Banks has received numerous accolades throughout her time in Sacramento, including the local NAACP’s Community Service Award, a Harriet Tubman Trailblazer Award from the Birthing Project USA and both the California Black Chamber of Commerce and The OBSERVER have recognized her as a community legend.
Les Simmons, pastor of South Sacramento Christian Center, said her record speaks for itself.
“She mentioned that there are 10 or 12 different boards and commissions that she has to resign from, at 91. So you can’t make the case that women can’t serve in high-power positions within the church. That case can never be made,” Simmons said.
“You can look at her life, you can look at her legacy, and the example that she walks in, and it’s commendable and second to none.”
Simmons’ mother, Dr. Deborah Simmons, has been an integral part of South Sacramento Christian Center’s leadership team, as has his wife, Katrina.
“In my faith tradition, in my church, we come from a long legacy of women as female pastors, leaders, founders, that the role of lifting them up has been active for decades,” he said. “I’ve seen women in leadership and continue to promote women in leadership.”
Pastor Simmons said he has been blessed to work closely with the elder pastor over the last seven years through their involvement with the steering committee for the Black Child Legacy Campaign, an effort to address the disproportionate Black child death rates in Sacramento County. Rev. Baber-Banks said he’d been on her radar for some time.
“I call him a little Martin Luther King,” she said. “That’s what the spirit gave me in his name, when he went to St. Louis,” she said of Simmons going to Missouri for the protests in the wake of a White police officer shooting to death unarmed Black teen Mike Brown.
“I was a little bit scared for him, because I knew what happened to my dad and my dad wasn’t even protesting, he just wouldn’t take crap off anybody.”
“She’s someone I admire and look up to as a leader in this community,” Simmons said. “Her leadership, her influence, her class. It’s just really powerful. We want to congratulate her on successfully serving her community and this entire region, and dealing with such a legacy of commitment to advocacy, justice and equality and fighting for kids, especially at her age.”
Simmons said Rev. Baber-Banks further demonstrated her commitment to the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When the pandemic hit, the thought was she would close her church down entirely, especially because of the older population of folks she serves, but she actually not only created a safe space for her (congregation) to enter into, but turned her sanctuary into a workshop to sew and put together masks,” he said. “She was one of the first ones, one of the first organizations to really put free masks out there for the community, when access to PPE was nowhere to be found.”
Seeing that willingness to stand up and help, Simmons and others in turn raised funds to help smaller churches like hers survive the pandemic and the impact of continued closures. The money, Rev. Baber-Banks said, helped her pay off the church building in December.
With the building secure and the parishioners in good hands, Rev. Baber-Banks is ready to leave. She has gotten her affairs in order – but not in the final sense. At 91, she still walks 20 minutes every day.
“I’m doing fine. I drive my own car. I do everything,” she said. “Nothing is wrong with me.”
Relocating to Idaho means she can be closer to her grown children and their families as she continues to age. She already owns a house on a golf course there and is starting a new branch of Christian Fellowship Ministry.
“I told them I will not move to Boise without a church. So they found me a church,” she shared. “I’ve already signed a contract. I’ve already got the board of directors.”
Rev. Baber-Banks is leaving, confident that she’s putting Christian Fellowship Ministry in good hands. Those who remain will have to do the rest.
They’ve already got their instructions, she said.
“That’s why I’m not saying anything about passing anything but responsibility. Because I can’t teach them,” Rev. Baber-Banks said. “They have to rely on God.
“People say, ‘I’m giving you this’ and ‘I’m giving you that.’ No. I’m going to give you a book called the Bible. You’ve got to study it.”