Backed into the Grace of God
by Michelle Vecchio-Lyzenga
Mike Barbera (M.Div., 1972) was first drawn to issues of social justice during his undergraduate years at Sterling College in Sterling, Kansas. There, surrounded by the social turbulence that characterized the late ’60s, he was disturbed and convicted by the injustices he saw around him—the Vietnam conflict, racial inequality, and poverty, among other things. Having been raised in the church and steeped in what he called “Christian culture,” Mike determined that he was going to change the world for God in the best way he knew how—as a socially relevant Christian intellectual. “I wanted to make a difference, and since I had a religious super-ego, seminary was my choice for the next step. I was set on a course to change the world, and I figured God would surely want to be my partner.”
Mike entered Princeton Seminary with what he thought was a clear conception of the gospel message and its world-changing implications: “My concept of the main message of Jesus was basically the Social Gospel, which I boiled down to ‘Go help someone in need.’” It was this conception of the gospel that Mike took with him to his first field education placement as a chaplain at Trenton’s State Home for Girls in the fall of 1969. It was not long after beginning his work at the home, however, that Mike realized that his social gospel message was somehow insufficient for the hurting girls under his care. “After being in contact with these girls in great need, I realized I exhausted my message by showing up, and I had nothing really to offer them. What was I to tell them, ‘Follow Jesus, go help someone’?”
This experience at the state home was coupled with several other factors that challenged Mike’s conception of the gospel and of his calling as a Christian. Chief among them was his disenchantment with the peace movement of the time. Like many of his fellow seminarians, Mike participated in the National Vietnam Moratorium march on Washington DC in the fall of 1969, but was disappointed by the extent to which “the atmosphere…seemed about as serious as a college football game.” If the march was too jovial in nature, however, Mike recalled that sentiments around the Seminary often went to the opposite extreme. He recollected hostile conversations around lunch tables between zealous supporters of the movement and their less zealous counterparts, with food even being thrown on one occasion. All in the name of peace.
In addition to his increasing recognition of the “ironic lack of peace in the peace movement,” Mike’s interaction with a Ph.D. student at the Seminary affirmed his own growing sense that something was missing from his service-centered conception of Christianity. Through a long conversation in what was then the seminary café, Mike realized that, despite having been raised in the church, he had never before truly experienced the grace of God. “I had built my life on what I could do for others and for God,” Mike said, but had somehow missed “what God did for me.” For the first time in his life, Mike grasped that he did not have to earn God’s favor but, because of God’s grace, was “free to love and serve.”
This new understanding of the gospel transformed the remainder of Mike’s experience at the Seminary. His strong drive for social justice continued but was approached “from a different perspective.” Above all, Mike had a desire to share with as many as possible that “we don’t have to earn God’s love by what we do, nor can we, but we can freely have God’s love because of what God has done for us.”
Following graduation from Princeton Seminary in 1972, Mike began ministry as the program director for Trinity Christian Community (TCC), a New Orleans para-church, inner-denominational, urban ministry that sought to “meet the needs of people not being met by typical church activities.” Among TCC’s programs was a weeklong summer camp for urban youth. It was during one of the summer camps on the Mississippi Gulf Coast that Mike was arrested in defense of TCC’s African American camp director, who had been recently charged with a felony and was in the care of an attorney. “We got wind of the charge before they sought him,” explained Mike. “They questioned me while they were looking for him and threatened to come back with a warrant for my arrest as an accomplice if I didn't turn the ‘N_____’ over to them.” When Mike refused to cooperate with the law enforcement officers on their return, they arrested him. “We [at TCC] were all like family,” he said. “It was…obvious that it was better for me to be in the hands of a south Mississippi sheriff and the deputies in the Hancock County Jail than for him to be.”
Though he only spent one night in jail—his charges were dropped and those of his co-worker reduced to a misdemeanor two weeks later at the hearing—Mike’s experience in custody had a lasting impact on him. “During my one night as a guest of Hancock County Jail, I shared the message of the gospel with my fellow ‘roommates,’” he explained. Despite his fears that there would be a “cultural gap” due to his middle-class background, Mike’s message was met with a surprisingly positive response. There was a “responsiveness to the message of love and forgiveness in Christ” that he had not anticipated. This experience in that jail moved Mike to pursue prison ministry in addition to his full-time calls. Over the last thirty years he has ministered in jails and prisons in New Orleans, Tennessee, and Mississippi, both through Prison Fellowship and independently. This ministry has been a source of “great joy” for him.
If Mike’s ministry has been filled with times of “great joy,” there has also been great sorrow. Following his ministry with Trinity Christian Community, he served as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Biloxi, Mississippi, and Tucker Street Church in Dyersburg, Tennessee, before finally being called to Church of the Good Shepherd in Pass Christian, Mississippi, where he has been serving for more than twenty-five years. It was there on the Mississippi coast, just across the peninsula from New Orleans, that Church of the Good Shepherd and its surrounding communities were pummeled by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Mike described the devastation Katrina left on the church and surrounding community, explaining that while “New Orleans had more damage due to the breach of the levees and its greater population, the full strength of the storm, the eye, came through south Mississippi.” Homes were destroyed or badly damaged, and the landscape was “permanently altered.” “Our home had damage, as well as everyone’s I knew….About one third of our congregation had to permanently relocate,” he said. The church sanctuary was badly damaged by the hurricane and had to be rebuilt. “We met for a year on the concrete floor with a partial roof and the brick walls mostly gone,” recalled Mike. “I grieved for at least six months for individuals I knew and for the general area. The Book of Lamentations gave words to my emotions,” he said.
Amidst immense grief, however, Mike and his congregation also experienced healing and celebration. “When we got together on Sundays we were so glad to see each other. Our songs of praise were more earnest, our hunger for the word of God more intense because we knew that even though everything we saw could be gone in a day, the things of God last forever.” With the help of volunteers from thirty states and “a wide spectrum of denominations,” Church of the Good Shepherd was able to serve the people in its community and “make the love of Christ known like never before.” Mike calls Hurricane Katrina both a “low point and highlight” in his ministry.
Looking back on a ministry that was a far stretch from what he initially saw himself doing when he first entered Princeton Theological Seminary, Mike Barbera is nevertheless grateful for his experience being “backed into the grace of God in 1969 at PTS.” It was that experience that transformed his understanding of the gospel and shaped the nature of his more than forty years of ministry. He prays the same for today’s seminarians.