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Presbyterian World Mission’s the Rev. Cheryl Barnes is given the Maria Fearing award

National Black Presbyterian Caucus recognizes mission co-workers for service and signs covenant with PMA

by Scott O’Neill | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Cheryl Barnes

LOUISVILLE  — The Rev. Cheryl Barnes, recently named the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s (PMA) World Mission African Area Coordinator, was honored last week with the Maria Fearing award at the National Black Presbyterian Caucus (NBPC) conference held in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Fearing, who was born into slavery in 1838 and set free after the Civil War, began her missionary career at age 56 when the Presbyterian Church commissioned her to the Congo. She served more than 20 years and established the Pantops Home for the Girls in 1915 in Luebo, Congo. Earning the moniker “mother from far away,” Fearing served more than 20 years as a missionary before returning to Alabama at age 78 to teach school for 20 more years before passing at age 99.

According to the NBPC, the Maria Fearing Award “recognizes individuals who stare insurmountable odds in the face and garner the courage to pursue what seems to be an impossible dream. They maintain a positive outlook when faced with a difficult problem or negative predicament. Motivated by the curiosity to try new things, they aim for the stars. While others declare what they cannot do, they respond by doing it anyway. They overcome major life challenges to achieve their life goals.

“Maria Fearing was an African American Presbyterian Missionary to the Congo, Africa, who embodied the radical work of Jesus Christ. I was humbled and honored to receive the Mary Fearing Award,” said Barnes.

Maria Fearing

“The call that Maria answered to go the Congo was birthed inside of her as a young, enslaved girl. Her obedience to answer the call, in defiance to the barriers of age, gender, poverty and racial prejudice, is a witness and testament to the rich history and importance of having mission co-workers who are from the African diaspora. This award highlights the similarities of Maria Fearing’s work with the girl child, and my partnership with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian to ensure that through education, young girls can reach their God-given potential.”

In addition to Barnes, the NBPC, holding its first in-person conference since Covid, recognized several other mission co-workers for their service, including the Rev. Paula Cooper, the Revs. Shelvis Smith-Mather and Nancy Smith-Mather, José Lamont Jones, the Rev. Ingrid Reneau Walls, Leisa Wagstaff and the Rev. Phyllis Byrd.

Jones presented a video which featured the names and images of Presbyterian mission workers dating back to 1833, including Fearing, up to present day.

“It was an honor being acknowledged by the NBPC. Many Black Presbyterians don’t know about the opportunity to serve as mission co-workers,” said Jones. “The presentation and commissioning shown light on the legacy of our service in international mission and the opportunity for others to join in service and support mission co-workers in the field. Specifically, the black Presbyterian churches in the Charleston area have a rich history of supporting foreign mission which provided an extra opportunity to re-engage their support as part of the total body of Christ.”

A missional relationship agreement, or covenant, was reaffirmed by the NBPC and PMA during the conference. In 2014 the Racial Ethnic & Women’s Ministry, now Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, facilitated conversations between both groups to increase recruitment and improve care and retention of African American mission co-workers and young adult volunteers. The original agreement, signed in 2015, is formally reviewed every four years. The specific areas where the NBPC and PMA’s World Mission agree to covenant for the next four years include:

  • Targeted education and recruitment efforts bringing the African American reality and experiences into the denomination’s mission education efforts to increase the number of African Americans within PC(USA)’s call to mission and justice work as mission co-workers and Young Adult Volunteers (YAV)s
  • Authentic truth and reconciliation, mission education and process-building among PC(USA) congregations to encourage African American mission participation, especially among youth and young adults
  • Strategy development and components for orientation and ongoing care to retain and motivate African American mission personnel, including YAVs.

Tamron Keith, associate director for Presbyterian World Mission, noted that the covenant renewal symbolizes the ongoing commitment of Presbyterian World Mission, the Presbyterian Mission Agency, and NBPC to continue shared work engaging the whole church in the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not just select parts.

“The need for a covenant was borne out of NBPC’s sense that Black Presbyterians were being insufficiently engaged in supporting World Mission’s young adult and global missional efforts. The covenant established a commitment for World Mission and the NBPC to work together to change this trajectory and perception,” said Keith.

“If memory serves me correctly, we only had two Black mission co-workers in service at the time the covenant was established,” Keith said. “Since then, we’ve had four Black mission co-workers in service (with Cheryl Barnes being recently promoted to the position of Africa Area Coordinator), at least two Black long-term volunteers serving global partners in Africa, and a significantly higher percentage of Black young adult volunteers serving past and present through the YAV program as a result of some innovative programming and outreach led by Destini Hodges, Coordinator of the YAV program.”

Immediately after the conference, Barnes began her new role as Africa Area Coordinator. Previously as a mission co-worker serving Malawi, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, Barnes was an education facilitator with the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian General Assembly. She helped develop and implement a project called “Educate Our Girls” which supports the education of young girls who can no longer afford to attend school due to unplanned pregnancies.

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