“We don’t always see the face of God in everybody’s face,” Rev. Pamela Ngunjiri tells her congregation. “And that’s the problem with racism. Somewhere along the line the humanity of that particular group has been taken away and that has to be restored.”
Ngunjiri (pronounced Go-jiri) was recently hired as the Co-Director for Racial Justice for the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC). She joins the other Co-Director and Healing Minnesota Stories’ founder Jim Bear Jacobs. Together they are leading the Council’s multi-year effort at truth telling, education and reparations with both the African American and Native American communities.
Ngunjiri and Jacobs say the Council’s first truth-telling event will be held in September, details coming soon. Until them, please meet Rev. Ngunjiri.
Ngunjiri has a son and daughter, six grandchildren, and two great grandsons.
She had two stints in seminary, many years apart. As a young mother she attended SMU’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas and got her Masters degree in Theological Studies. At that point, she wasn’t ready for the pulpit. Now she’s finishing her Doctorate of Ministry at Bethel Seminary, writing her dissertation on the entanglement of white supremacy and the Christian Church.
She’s served two churches so far, one in Fort Dodge, Iowa, and for the past two years at St. Mark AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church in Duluth, which has about 60 members.
Last year, Duluth memorialized the 100th anniversary of the lynching of three young African American men: Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. It’s an example of the unintended consequences of reconciliation work when things get rushed, and the pressure organizers can put on African American and Native American organizations without understanding their capacity.
“I would get this flood of emails about all these events to commemorate what happened,” Ngunjiri said. “Everyone wanted us, our church, to be at all of the events. There’s no way in the world that we could do that.”
Being a full-time pastor is challenging; the salary isn’t enough to live on. “I have always been bi-vocational,” Ngunjiri said. “If you are in the African American church, pastors are usually bi-vocational.”
At one point, in addition to her church work, Ngunjiri was working full-time for Hennepin County Child Protection Services and part-time for a women’s chemical dependency program in St. Paul’s Frogtown. She taught parenting and anger management classes and did one-on-one support.
She was initially ordained into the Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church and now serves in the AME Church. Both are black denominations. They both reflect the church’s racist past.
The AME church grew out of the Free African Society (FAS), a mutual aid society established in Philadelphia in 1787. FAS members created the AME church in protest after seeing the blatant discrimination that still existed within the white Methodist Episcopal Church.
The CME Church grew out of the Civil War and Reconstruction. In 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church South separated from the Methodist Church over slavery. The denomination not only approved of slavery but accepted slaves in their midst. “When the Civil War began in 1860, it had more enslaved members than any other religious denomination,” the CME website said.
Forty-one former slaves from Tennessee organized the CME Church in 1870. As Ngunjiri explains, they didn’t leave so much out of protest, but from the “suggestion” of white church leaders that they leave.
Ngunjiri is one of eight sisters, and they all grew up in a military family. That meant moving a lot. Her growing up years included Portland, Nebraska, back to Portland, Kansas City, then Champaign, Ill.
“I was always the new kid; I was always the outsider,” she said. “And we always moved in the middle of the school year. Everybody else knows each other but nobody knows me. So I have always felt this high responsibility to always making sure – if I see somebody who is an outsider – to welcome them in.”
“That informs everything that I do,” she said.
Ngunjiri said living in Kansas City was her experience in an all-black neighborhood. It was the first time she saw the differences in how black folks and white folks were treated.
In ninth grade in Illinois, she lived in middle class mixed black-and-white neighborhood. “I had friends who lived across the street from me but when we went to school they would not speak to me, which I didn’t understand,” she said.
Ngunjiri got married, moved to Texas, and had a family and went to Seminary. To help cover school costs, she got a job working as a case aid, for Dallas County Child Protection. She kept working there after she graduated, in part because the county offered to pay for her Masters of Social Work degree. She worked in child protection for more than 16 years. She moved up the ranks to become an investigator, a supervisor and a trainer.
“I moaned and groaned while I was there, asking God: “Why in the world do you have me here? This surely can’t be part of my calling,” she recalled.
She worked horrendous child protection cases and emergency interventions. “In seeing people at their worst, I was prompted by the spirit to still see their humanity and realize that they are still children of God, and to treat them that way,” she said.
Ngunjiri moved to Minnesota and worked for Bethel University, both in the Diversity Office and as a Social Work Department adjunct professor. (At Bethel, she met both Curtiss DeYoung and Jim Bear Jacobs. DeYoung, now CEO of the Minnesota Council of Churches, was a professor of Reconciliation Studies and Jim Bear had started leading Dakota sacred site tours in the Twin Cities.)
Until she moved to Minnesota, she hadn’t heard the term “reconciliation.” She had one pivotal experience traveling with a Bethel group to South Africa and visiting the Apartheid Museum.
“It blew my mind,” she said. “You walk in and see the pictures and artifacts and you would think you were in a museum in Birmingham, Alabama or Mississippi. I just fell apart.”
That’s when Ngunjiri felt called to do reconciliation work.
Things shifted after George Floyd’s murder.
“I haven’t seen anything the same ever since,” she said. “My conclusion was, the problem is white supremacy. We have to figure that stuff out, uproot it. That shifted everything, away from reconciliation to how did white supremacy impact the Christian Church and how does it still impact the Christian Church and how does that undo the message of the Gospel.”
“That’s what my dissertation is on,” she said.
When the position opened at the Council of Churches to help lead efforts at truth telling, education, and reparations with the Native American and African communities, it seemed like a natural fit.
“The idea of being part of that? I’ve got do to it,” she said. “And why not do it with people you like and enjoy?”