Pains of our Pastors Seeking personal healing while helping to heal the masses
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as one of the world’s most iconic social justice leaders. His nonviolent approach to activism prompted extensive media coverage during the height of the civil rights movement, and his leadership ushered in a transformative age of racial reconciliation after nearly 100 years of post-slavery oppression and racial segregation.
Though his legacy of humanitarianism will live on forever, King’s desire to serve humanity outweighed a multitude of challenges and controversies that threatened his faith, reputation, and social progress, from his humble beginnings in ministry all the way up to the assassination that ended his life.
Before he was killed, King was denounced as an extremist, arrested for civic disobedience, shunned by friends and supporters for speaking out against the war and even surveilled by his own government. His role as a political activist was cemented in his religious upbringing. The church played a monumental role in the Civil Rights era, functioning as an institutional nucleus for Black mobilization and offering respite and meeting places for activists as they fought against social and political atrocities. Yet, with a rapidly changing social landscape, the relationship between the church and the Black community has changed.
The Black church is at a crossroads as modern social, philosophical, and technological advancements have created a more secular generation that seems to be moving away from organized religion in favor of alternative spiritual practices.
Spiritual leaders in the Metro-Denver area are working to keep young people engaged in the church while trying to find innovative solutions for Colorado’s rapidly evolving social, cultural, and technological landscape, adding another layer of complication to the already burgeoning challenges of social leadership in a spiritually trying time. To commemorate King’s life and contributions to society, Denver Urban Spectrum is highlighting some of Denver’s most respected spiritual leaders who provide hope and healing to those in need. Like King, they have overcome tribulations in their personal lives while upholding pillars of faith for a community that has been traumatized by police brutality, economic inequity, and spiritual warfare. With a steadfast commitment to saving souls, they are working to maximize their impact in the communities where they live, work, worship, and lead.
Pastor Reverend Eugene Downing Jr.,
New Hope Baptist Church
For Reverend Eugene Downing Jr., the desire to serve the community stems from his childhood and extends throughout the entirety of his 24-year career as a spiritual leader. Raised by a teacher and a social worker, he entered the workforce with the idea that a job should involve humanitarian service, a concept that lies at the foundation of his ministry.
Downing was called to ministry during his junior year in college. While working as an intern at a mental health facility during the summer, he realized that his purpose involved spiritual leadership. Many of the patients he encountered simply had no anchor for life’s turbulent storms. “With every story, there was a traumatic event and things spiraled out of control; they didn’t have anything to hold on to,” he recalls. “I didn’t know if psychology could fix that, even with medication.”
Feeling spiritually convicted, Downing reached out to a mentor who told him that he might be called to ministry. After receiving confirmation through prayer, Downing enrolled at the Virginia Union School of Theology in Richmond, Virginia, now known as the Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology. By the end of the first semester, he knew he was in the right place.
Downing’s experiences at seminary shaped his understanding of Christian ministry. Samuel Dewitt Proctor, best known for his friendship with Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was heavily involved in social activism. By exploring the historical and social realities of liberation theology, Downing’s education positioned him for a career in social activism and engagement.
After seminary, Downing remained at First Baptist Church of South Richmond for seven years before accepting a pastorate position at the Sixth Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, PA, where he served for 11 years. He experienced the first major hardships of his career in Pittsburgh. “I thought that as long as the work I was doing was for God, no matter how busy or tired I was, it would work out. One day, it didn’t work out.” Downing learned to prioritize his family and to create boundaries that made him available to his congregation without getting overwhelmed by the immense needs.
In 2012, Downing relocated to Denver and assumed the position of pastor at New Hope Baptist Church. He realized that people of color were being pushed out of the community by the prohibitive cost of living, and subsequently redefined the church’s role in the changing community. “Instead of being the center of the community, the church has assumed an advocacy role. We are socially engaged, dealing with grassroots issues and helping the people who are most vulnerable,” he says.
Downing tries to engage young people in the operation of the church but has found that they are often unable to commit copious amounts of time to the customary meetings. To keep them engaged, he invites youth to lead ministry groups, mentoring projects, and special events.
Downing leads his congregation with the belief that God loves us in our authentic selves, and he creates an environment that welcomes and serves all of God’s people. Under his leadership, New Hope Baptist Church has expanded its ministry, working in partnership with local service agencies and opening the building for afterschool programming and community meetings. In 2019, the church will launch a mentorship-based rites of passage program, in addition to hosting a summer STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) program for students in grades 9 through 11.
For years, community leaders have used New Hope as a site for community dialogue. Downing is continuing the legacy of engagement, opening the doors of the church to various social agencies and working with the city’s gang reduction initiative as a member of the Safe Haven network to help keep the community safe. Additionally, Downing opens its basketball gym to members of the community two times per week. “The conversations that evolve on the court are really encouraging,” Downing says, “They dispel the myths that Black men don’t communicate. There is a transfer of values across generations, we just have to create the environment and encourage it.”
Downing is an expressive speaker with a progressive vision for New Hope Baptist Church. He trusts the vision that God has given him and works diligently to help the church attain financial independence and succeed in its mission of embodying Christ’s love in the community.
Reverend Dr. James Ellis Fouther Jr.,
United Church of Montbello
In December 2018, Reverend Dr. James E. Fouther Jr. celebrated 25 years of service as an ordained minister, and 15 years of leadership at the United Church of Montbello. Throughout the course of his ministry, he has worked to expand the love of God to members of his community, providing help to those in need, and finding ways to engage young people in the church.
The United Church of Montbello was founded during a turbulent time in American history, opening its doors for the first time in 1968. For 50 years, it has served as a pillar of faith and support within the culturally diverse community, operating ministries that extend to every area of need; but recent socio-economic changes have created challenges for many of the city’s residents, prompting Fouther to employ social activism in the course of his ministry.
Fouther began his professional career with aspirations of working as a service professional. The Chicago native attended Illinois Wesleyan University, where he studied sociology,but eventually he answered the call to ministry that he’d received as early as his teenage years. He obtained a master’s degree in divinity from Chicago Theological Seminary and a doctorate degree in ministry and pastoral theology from Eden Theological Seminary.
After nine years of ministry in Sarasota, Florida, Fouther
relocated to Denver, Colorado, with his wife, Angelle, and their two daughters. He immediately got to work, using the example of fellow Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as a premise for how he would approach spiritual leadership in a changing climate. Upon arriving at the United Church of Montbello, Fouther was embraced by a thriving community; however, a few years into his ministry, he noticed the landscape of the city changing.
In 2014, Montbello was ranked as one of Denver’s most dangerous neighborhoods, a statistic that inaccurately represented the community and significantly limited its growth. The city suffered another devastating blow when its only high school closed its doors, ending a 33-year legacy of athletic and academic dominance.
Recognizing hunger as one of the most pressing needs among families in the community, Fouther strengthened the church’s food ministry, partnering with Denver Urban Gardens and Children’s Farms of America to install two community gardens on its property. He also established the Montbello Cooperative Ministries Food Bank and partnered with the Food Bank of the Rockies to maximize food assistance services.
Fouther takes a biblical approach to community outreach and social activism. He is passionate about expanding God’s love to people from all walks of life and strives to restore the relationship between young people and the church, finding ways to refresh the message to impact their generation more effectively.
Throughout his life and career, Fouther experienced several hardships that impacted his role as a spiritual leader. His father died tragically when he was nine years old, forcing him to enter the workforce at an early age. Remembering early examples of his father’s involvement with the civil rights moment, Fouther says, “My ministry is a reflection of the deep commitment he had to social justice.”
Fouther is interested in forging connections between outreach organizations and religious institutions. He has worked with state leaders to create a dialogue surrounding the changing political culture and he is looking forward to 2019, with plans to expand services established through collaborative partnerships with organizations such as the Montbello Organizing Committee, and various social agencies. In January 2019, Fouther will assume his new role as chairman of the board for Habitat for Humanity Metro Denver.
As the city of Montbello is transformed by social, economic, and political changes, Fouther is dedicated to meeting the changing needs of the community through his ministry. Inspired by the leadership and philosophy of Dr. King, he says, “I’m working to help our community show more signs of resilience; to not feel threatened by the winds of change, but to ride those winds of change and adapt.”
Pastor Reverend Madlyn Tombs,
New Life Christian Center
After 33 years of leadership, Reverend Madlyn Tombs is stepping down from her role as the senior pastor of New Life Christian Center in Montbello. Known throughout the Denver community as a trailblazer, Tombs is leaving behind a legacy of faithful service as she enters the next chapter of her life.
Tombs played a significant role in the integration of New Life, formerly First Christian Assembly of God, breaking down racial barriers and paving the way for women to serve in a leadership capacity. She was the first Black woman to occupy the pulpit of her church, and the first Black woman to hold a position of leadership within the central district of the Assemblies of God, a historically white denomination of American Pentecostals.
As a pioneer in the faith community, Tombs has experienced racism and sexism along her spiritual journey. She is no stranger to racial inequity, having participated in student protests at the University of Kansas during the civil rights movement and holding several integrative roles throughout the course of her professional career. Still, she was surprised by the racism, sexism, and ageism that she experienced along her journey. “I wanted to believe that the body of Christ was different. It was not,” she says. Ignoring criticism about her leadership, Tombs remained committed to fulfilling God’s purpose for her life.
Tombs studied social work at the University of Kansas, enrolling in elective theology courses at the university’s seminary to find ways to weather the storms that were cropping up in her adult life. After college, Tombs moved to California, where she got married and later divorced. Looking to start over after the end of her marriage, Tombs moved to Denver, where she obtained a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Denver. During her graduate studies, Tombs enrolled in theology courses at the Iliff Theological Seminary and joined the nondenominational congregation of Calvary Temple. “Church became important after my divorce,” she says, “The word of God helped me feel healed and whole.” Tombs began to see life differently; she felt herself becoming more forgiving and more compassionate when God began to speak to her about leadership.
Tombs approached leadership as a missionary, starting home cell ministries throughout the city until receiving her first pastorate at New Life. She prioritized education, operating an affordable daycare, running one of the city’s first and largest early childhood education programs, and opening a school that served children in grades K through 9 for nearly 30 years. Now, after many of Montbello’s original residents have been displaced, New Life has branched out to expand its impact, opening six locations throughout the Metro-Denver area, as well as parent-affiliated churches in senior living communities.
New Life thrived under Tombs’ leadership, but at the height of her career, a tragic event shook the congregation and the community. Tombs’ daughter was convicted of first-degree murder in the killing of a close family friend and given a mandatory life sentence. Tombs was devastated, but she maintained faith in God and leaned on the support of her friends, family, and community to get her through the dark time. “I learned to trust in God and take Him at His word,” she remembers.
With negative dispositions toward organized religion amongst younger generations, Tombs is hopeful that technological advancements will help revive the word of God, increasing access for those who do not attend traditional church services. She believes that technology should be used to spread messages of unity and pride that will eventually bring our community closer together.
Tombs is grateful for her experiences in ministry. She will graduate with a doctorate degree in ministry from Denver Seminary in 2019, and she looks forward to opportunities to share her testimony, saying, “In order for people to know how good God is, we’ve got to let His light shine. Sometimes that involves sharing our hearts and our pain to show how God brings us through.”
Reverend Dr. Felix Gilbert
Restoration Christian Fellowship
When Reverend Dr. Felix Gilbert received a call to preach in 1997, he couldn’t imagine walking away from the financial securities afforded by his successful career in electrical engineering. Unable to deny God’s voice calling out to him, saying, “Leave the world and come follow me,” Gilbert’s obedience resulted in an extraordinary spiritual journey as he set out to actualize his vision. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gilbert is working diligently to serve humanity, and his ministry has impacted the city of Aurora in a major way.
Gilbert prepared himself for success with the support of his wife, Kotane, and their three children. “My philosophy in life and ministry is that the best response to a call is to prepare, and then God gives the assignment.” Gilbert earned a master’s degree in divinity and a doctorate in ministry from Denver Seminary where he holds a faculty position.
Restoration Christian Fellowship was planted in 1999 with 20 members; after 20 years of faithful stewardship, the congregation has grown to more than 700 members and the church has found a home in Aurora where Gilbert plans to create and develop an entire complex of community and church facilities.
With 10 years into his ministry, Gilbert encountered a health crisis that would have taken his life if not for God’s divine intervention. He was diagnosed with Stage IV colon cancer and rushed into emergency surgery. And after countless procedures and an 18-day medically induced coma, the prognosis was bleak. Gilbert’s wife told doctors, “I believe God can do something,” and prayerfully entrusted his life to God’s care. “I thank God every single day, because I shouldn’t be here,” Gilbert says.
The mission of Restoration Christian Ministries is to restore people to Christ by encouraging them to belong to a community group, teaching them to believe in God, and creating opportunities for them to behave like Christ. Gilbert, who believes the church should be holistic, facilitates ministries that target six areas of community life, including where a person lives, learns, works, plays, thrives, and worships.
Along with scripture-based messages, Restoration serves members of the surrounding community with several ministries and collaborative partnerships. “When a person becomes a part of the kingdom of God, I believe the kingdom has the answer to whatever problem they have,” Gilbert says.
Restoration operates several ministries, including a preschool learning center, before and after-school programs, food outreach ministries, and youth programs such as a free basketball camp hosted in conjunction with Aurora’s Police and Fire Departments. Gilbert works closely with community entities to determine areas of need. “It’s not just about the people on the inside,” he says.
With increasingly negative attitudes toward organized religion, Gilbert hopes to see more churches working together to forge culturally relevant connections that can meet the community’s changing needs. Recognizing distrust as one of his greatest challenges, Gilbert incorporates the guidance of a strong board of directors and a mentor team, to which he attributes much of his success as a spiritual leader. “I rely heavily on my faith and on God, but I also believe you have to reach up to get where you need to go.”
Gilbert has great admiration for Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s biblical approach to social justice during the civil rights movement, modeling his ministry on some of the same principles of social activism in response to today’s toxic racial climate. He says, “We’re fighting against sin when it comes to issues of racism and social injustice. You don’t fight hate with hate; you don’t fight it with violence. You show love; love conquers everything.”
Gilbert is leading an initiative to dedicate the first week of Black History Month to the Black theologians and clergy who paved the way for our freedoms during the Civil Rights era and who are currently impacting culture through their ministries. To increase Christian stewardship and prepare spiritual leaders to answer God’s call to ministry, he has established the Blacks in Theology Scholarship Fund, which will create pathways for Black pastors to obtain a theological education.
With a heart for social justice and a vision that serves the entire community, Gilbert is preparing Restoration for a momentous future as a hub for spiritual training, community service, and collaborative success.
Reverend Dr. Timothy E. Tyler
Shorter Community AME Church
Reverend Dr. Timothy E. Tyler knew that he was called to minister to God’s people at the age of nine. Throughout his 35-year career as a spiritual leader, Tyler has worked in areas of social justice and community activism. As the pastor of Shorter Community AME Church, he is working to support his congregation and meet the growing needs of Denver’s community.
Tyler’s upbringing gave him a unique perspective on the connection between ministry and social justice. His mother was the second woman to be elected bishop in the 235-year history of the African Methodist Episcopal church. She and Tyler’s father raised him with a foundation of faithful service, teaching him the importance of entrusting his life to the Lord and providing examples of community involvement upon which he would base his life and ministry.
Born in the racially-oppressive Mississippi Delta, Tyler’s father worked as a mechanic and cement layer. He was born during the Summer of Freedom, a massive voter registration campaign in Mississippi that resulted in the murders of three activists and, with the help of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the eventual passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Tyler’s parents were heavily involved in social activism, working with civil rights leader Medgar Evers until the very night of his assassination. Eight months after his birth, Tyler’s family moved away from the racially segregated south, relocating to Los Angeles, California just ahead of the Watts Rebellion.
Tyler’s early introduction to social activism had a major impact on his role as a spiritual leader. He says, “In today’s climate, I feel like I have a responsibility to be proactive in helping people see that issues of race, inclusion, diversity, and equity are not fringe issues that we deal with aside from religion, but they are core values of who we are as God’s people.”
Tyler obtained a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and journalism from Morris Brown College, then went on to earn a master’s degree in divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, and a doctorate degree in ministry from the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He received his first appointment as a pastor at age 24 and led congregations in several U.S. cities. Having experienced a great deal of cultural diversity throughout his career, Tyler takes a proactive approach when dealing with issues caused by Denver’s changing socio-political climate.
Moving to Denver at the height of the 2008 economic recession, Tyler has experienced vast changes in Denver’s socio-economic landscape. He immediately engaged the church in community outreach, employing various ministries to serve people experiencing homelessness, the sick and shut in, and families affected by the rising costs of housing. Since his arrival, Tyler has learned a hard lesson about changing neighborhoods and gentrification.
Tyler is hopeful that city leaders can find a way to relieve the suffering of Denver’s most vulnerable residents and remains committed to building his ministry around social justice and advocacy. “We’re a church born out of a social justice ethic,” he explains, sharing the story of how donations from drunks and gamblers were used to start the church. “We were born out of the community. We have a responsibility to stay connected to that which we were born from.”
Tyler is looking forward to the Shorter AME’s 2019 programming, including the launch of two social justice programs that will train participants to discuss issues of race and progressive resistance to solve social and political problems within the community. He says, “The church should be actively working to change the community and the world, as well as training people to respond to the hate that is permeating our society.”
Tyler’s success as a spiritual leader is a result of the application of faith throughout his journey and the support of his wife, Nita, and their children during, particularly challenging times. He has learned to remain calm under pressure, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient even at the most turbulent times in his ministry.
Having completed 11 years of leadership at Shorter AME, Tyler remains dedicated to the task of forging relationships between the church and the community and working to protect the civil rights and freedoms of God’s people.
When he made the decision to speak against social injustice, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. set a precedent for the Black church, highlighting the effectiveness of social activism from a biblical perspective. By approaching racial inequity and social injustice from a position of forgiveness and love in hopes of reconciliation, King’s nonviolent methods played a key role in establishing the rights and freedoms we enjoy today.
While economic, social and political changes have changed the relationship between the Black church and the Black community, Denver’s spiritual leaders are using King’s example to reestablish trust, maximize the impact of their ministries, and create lasting change. They are committed to transforming negative perspectives on the church, finding innovative ways to engage a younger generation and strengthening communities with the love of God.