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Reflections of an Urban Ministry Pioneer

3 years ago written by

Donna Saylor’s small-town roots might make her seem like an unlikely person to become one of the Free Methodist Church’s leading practitioners of urban and multicultural ministry.

“I was born in Pekin, Illinois, near Peoria,” said Saylor, who recently retired after decades as an urban missionary, in an interview with LIGHT + LIFE. “I grew up in all-White schools in a very racist town.”

She attended Greenville College (now University) with the plan of becoming a teacher in Illinois, but that career trajectory changed through a 1970 revival that began at a Kentucky college and soon spread to Illinois and other states.

“I was at Greenville during that Asbury revival, and it spilled over into the campus of Greenville and affected all of our lives,” Saylor said. “The Lord had specifically and powerfully and clearly called me to be an inner-city missionary during that time, and I didn’t know what that meant.”

Her calling came even though the phrase “urban ministry” was uncommon in the early 1970s. While writing for Greenville’s student newspaper, she interviewed a visiting Black pastor who encouraged her to follow God’s call to serve across racial lines. She worked in East St. Louis during the summers to gain urban experience.

“I knew I had to make complete changes in my own life,” she said. “I knew I had to repent of my prejudices. I said, ‘God, I know I’m prejudiced. I was raised in an all-White sundown town. I have heard all kinds of racist remarks all my childhood.’”

Saylor became especially comfortable with Black and Hispanic people who seemed to be drawn to her as well.

“I left Greenville [after graduating in 1972] and went directly to work, teach and minister in Newark, New Jersey. I was in an all-Black school and involved with Dwight Gregory in a Free Methodist church plant there at the same time in Passaic,” Saylor said.

She then attended graduate school in Ohio at the University of Akron and earned a master’s degree in education with a focus on working as a reading specialist.

CUE Connections

While a graduate student, she attended the denomination’s first Continental Urban Exchange in 1974 at the International Friendship House in Winona Lake, Indiana, where the denomination had its headquarters at the time.

“Basically the first CUE was just a bunch of people that really cared about the city or were in the city and had experience,” she said. “Bishop [Robert] Andrews had invited me to come because I had proposed to the Mission Board that we consider New York City as a mission field.”

Saylor said the Board of Bishops had “a pretty intense” meeting with CUE participants who delivered the message, “The people of the United States were in the cities, and we needed as a church to be in the cities to minister to the people who were there, and we needed to be more diverse. We needed to have multicultural leadership.”

The first gathering led to Saylor’s decades of involvement with CUE that eventually resulted in the formation of the Free Methodist Urban Fellowship. CUE and FMUF challenged the time period’s evangelical preference of homogeneous ministry in which people were believed to be drawn to churches if the members were similar to them.

“A lot of us felt very passionately and very clearly that this [diversity] is what God wanted and that we were to be together — every kindred, every tribe, every nation praising God and worshipping together,” said Saylor, who added that CUE attracted women in ministry along with racial and ethnic minorities who were not receiving authority and recognition elsewhere. “We had really deep prayer for each other.”

Even though CUE and FMUF are no longer active, their work led to the launch of an African American task force, which became the African Heritage Network, and the Red Latina (Latin Network).

Brooklyn, New York

After finishing graduate school, Saylor moved to New York City’s Brooklyn borough in 1976, the same year CUE was held in the city. She served in Brooklyn in such diverse areas as Christian education, discipleship and prayer ministries. She worked with several pastoral teams as she reached people of different ages by leading a women’s ministry and directing a children’s day camp and tutoring clinics. She became active in the New York City movement of Concerts of Prayer International and oversaw all of the Brooklyn churches’ involvement.

“I would ache with my love for the city. It was just incredible,” Saylor said. “Brooklyn was really my promised land.”

She connected with Brooklyn pastors such as influential author Jim Cymbala, the senior pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, who shared from Jeremiah 29 and emphasized embracing the city and praying for its welfare and prosperity.

Her work with children helped her reach people who would otherwise not have come into contact with Free Methodists.

“A program of mentoring and remediation is always needed, and it is a door opener. I was able to get into homes that nobody else could get into simply because I was a teacher and cared about children,” she said.

Saylor began learning Spanish in seventh grade and also took Spanish classes in college. She received additional instruction at an institute in Costa Rica that trained missionaries headed to Spanish-speaking nations. Instead of going to a foreign mission field, Saylor returned to Brooklyn where her knowledge of Spanish proved useful.

One of the beneficiaries of her multicultural ministry in Brooklyn was Maritza Leonhard.

“I first met Donna when I was a very young child. I attended the Free Methodist Church on 16th Street in Brooklyn,” Leonhard told LIGHT + LIFE. “Some people say that in order for someone to fully thrive in this world all they really need is to be ‘seen’ by someone. I suspect that Donna was that person for a lot of children and their families in our neighborhood. She saw me, she saw my family, and she loved us despite our many flaws. It was through her love for others that I eventually came to know Jesus.”

Leonhard said that Saylor made sure she and her family members were able to attend church events.

“She also made sure we had access to programs that could positively impact our lives —programs like the one that would eventually connect me to my ‘foster family,’ the family that would later become my main support system in this life,” Leonhard said. “She opened doors for me and my family, and then she proceeded to guide us as we walked through those doors.”

Saylor ensured that Leonhard and many other children attended a Christian summer camp in Pennsylvania, and Saylor served as Leonhard’s counselor one year.

“I was very young when I had to take on a parental role to my younger siblings. I had to be an adult when I should have been a child. It was at camp that I felt the most free to be a child,” said Leonhard, who recalled having to do a chore for ignoring Saylor’s warning to stop talking past bedtime. “Not only did I serve my consequence, but she stayed with me while I did. I remember her lovingly telling me why it needed to be done. I remember thinking as a child that although I was being punished, she still loved me, just like Christ loves us despite our sins.”

Leonhard said she and her family members would sometimes wake up and find a bag of clothing and food at their front door, and they knew the bag came from Saylor and other church leaders.

“Our neighborhood had many of the well-known problems that come with living in poverty, but as a child, I wasn’t afraid of my neighborhood. My neighborhood felt safe, and it was because I often saw the church leaders and Donna outside the church building,” Leonhard said. “I think I saw them more outside the church building than inside the church.”

Leonhard later attended Greenville College and became a social worker while keeping Saylor’s “gentle and loving way of doing things in my mind and in my heart. To protect the dignity of others despite any given situation became a priority for me. I learned that from Pastor Donna, and I learned that from the little church on 16th Street,” Leonhard said. “I am so grateful for her. Every aspect of my adult life was positively impacted by her love.”

Health Challenges

Saylor experienced health problems that made it difficult for her to continue her ministry efforts in Brooklyn. A brain tumor caused her to take a ministry furlough in Greenville.

“I was just so crippled and weak from the brain surgery, because I had to learn to walk again. I had to learn my basic calculations again,” Saylor said. “I’d lost my Spanish so I had to relearn that and some English vocabulary.”

She returned to Brooklyn while being reminded of Matthew 10:38–39, “Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

She eventually became the acting senior pastor of the FMC congregation in Brooklyn, but she could not care for her health effectively there and returned to the Midwest in 1995.

“I did too much for too long a time,” she said. “I was just really health-wise failing.”

Midwest Ministry

Saylor, who became an ordained Free Methodist deacon in 1993 and an ordained elder in 1996, did not give up on urban ministry but instead relocated to Indianapolis where she served for 10 years at First Free Methodist Church and another 10 years at Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana de Indianápolis, a Spanish-speaking Free Methodist congregation that meets in the building of West Morris FMC.

After a decade of Spanish language ministry at Comunidad Cristiana, she began serving on Jan. 1, 2016, at John Wesley FMC in Indianapolis where her longtime CUE friends Kenny and Estelle Martin were pastors from 2015 until this summer.

Saylor recently moved from Indianapolis to Greenville, Illinois, where she experienced God’s call to urban ministry 50 years ago. Although she is retired from full-time ministry, she is looking for part-time ministry opportunities in the nearby St. Louis area.

Living a Worthy Life

Since 1976 until her recent retirement, Saylor raised her own financial support. She expressed gratitude for “my wonderful sponsors for their faithful support such as Gilbert and Esther James and the Gowanda [New York] FMC.”

Saylor said a couple of Scripture passages have especially guided her throughout her decades of urban ministry:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God — this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:1–2).

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Ephesians 4:1).

Saylor said she wants to “give God the glory for all He has done. The important events in my life are what God has done.”

Jeff Finley is this magazine’s executive editor. He attended the Continental Urban Exchange in St. Louis as a child. He met Donna Saylor at the 2014 CUE in Lansing, Michigan, and then served with her at John Wesley FMC in Indianapolis.

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[URFM] · Culture · L + L August 2020 · Magazine