An Outhouse that Became Bookshelves: Doing Ministry in the “Funk“ of Life

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Linda Kurtz is curating a series we’re affectionately referring to as our NEXT Church book club, which aims to share insights on a variety of texts – and how they have impacted our bloggers’ ministries. Understanding that reading in and beyond one’s field is important to offering good leadership, we offer this series to get your juices flowing on what books you might read next. What are you reading that’s impacting how you think about and/or do ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lisa Janes

What happens when ministry requires you to not only get dirty, but funky? Dirt can be brushed away but funk in its true vernacular saturates everything and lingers in the atmosphere. The word “funk” as a noun can be defined as “a state of paralyzing fear; a depressed state of mind.” As a verb, the word “funk” is defined as “a strong offensive smell.” Doing ministry in the funk of life embraces not only the noun and verb described here but even evokes the other noun that defines “funk” as a music that combines rhythm and blues as well as soul music that is percussive, harmonic, and filled with bass and heavy downbeats.

In Bruce Watson’s book entitled Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America A Democracy, I found a tantalizing tale of sanctuary and sanctity in the midst of savagery. In the midst of the sunflowers and the Delta topsoil was the brutal and arid landscape of segregation which was fertilized by terror perpetrated upon African-Americans in the American South. This terror consisted in the form of lynching, rape, and death threats as black people in the American South attempted to register to vote. Joining in this struggle were thousands of college students of all races who found themselves spending an entire summer as a part of The Freedom Summer Project which consisted of voter registration, the Freedom Schools, and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

In chapter five of the book, entitled “It Is Sure Enough Changing,” the narrative begins: “On his first full day in Mississippi, Fred Wynn tore down an outhouse and turned it into bookshelves.” According to Watson, this outhouse stood behind a two-room shack on a road that divided sections of the black community and these places had names like Jerusalem and Sanctified Quarters. The shack was to become Ruleville’s Freedom School. What makes this image so powerful was twenty volunteers, black and white, male and female, native and foreign-born came together and created a sanctuary of empowerment for black citizens of Mississippi.

When I reflect on my ministry contexts, they – like the book Freedom Summer – center around a cultural, radical, educational, and empowering love-centered ethic. First, I serve as an associate pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church, a church located in the east end of the city of Richmond, Virginia. The senior pastor and founding visionary, the Rev. Dr. Patricia Gould-Champ, was given by God a vision and mission which focuses on three public housing communities: Fairfield, Whitcomb and Creighton Courts. In my second ministry context, I serve as a circulation supervisor at the William Smith Morton Library on the campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary.

In my former ministry context, I am learning how to do intentional authentic ministry in the midst of a radicalized sanctuary space whose external wall is adorned with a “Black Lives Matter” banner. At Faith Community Baptist Church, there is always a call to action to not only transform the Jericho Road as evidenced in Luke 10:25-37, but to remind those who abandon and/or walk away from our oppressed brothers and sisters left on the side of the road their need to be responsible and accountable to our community. Often individuals can center themselves around the sound bites of ministry which involve teaching and preaching. The grunt work like the tearing down of the outhouse to create bookshelves in the intense, oppressive heat of the day causes a disorientation that places us in the center of social justice for the least of these, those whose names and places of habitation are scandalized and stereotyped.

In my latter ministry context I take everything I have learned in the former and introduce it to the latter, creating and developing a sanctuary of holy dialogue and a pedagogy of the funk. This pedagogy will allow us to embrace what my pastor always calls “on the job revelation” that is not often in the books as it relates to our unique ministry context. In the midst of our feelings of inadequacy, we must trust God in the heat and offensive smells of the “isms” that oppress us and learn a new language and a new song.

Now we endure a political system in America along with a societal malaise that reeks of reality TV and narcissistic patriotism that diminishes, demeans, demotes, and demolishes. I think that every American citizen should read Freedom Summer and that it should be a required text in our school systems. I would only advise that when they get to chapter five, they allow the definition of a outhouse to be examined in order to understand that democracies are not made by avoiding that which stinks; they are only created by facing the collective funk of life together as a beloved community and creating something sacred and noble that will benefit all who encounter it.

Lisa R. Janes is an artist, teacher, curriculum developer and minister who serves as an Associate Pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church and Circulation Supervisor at the William Smith Morton Library on the Richmond campus of Union Presbyterian Seminary. She is also currently working on a social media project on Instagram which is a return to her artist and teaching roots. This project entitled “godintheskin” is a blend of music, politics, social history, spirituality, and art. Her goal is also to complete a book based on her experiences on Instagram and how it is shaping her faith journey.