From The Desk Of Pastor Robert Turner
Vernon A.M.E Church
Historic Vernon A.M.E. Church
4 years ago God spoke to me about leaving my sweet home in Alabama. When I agreed to the invitation from Bishop Michael Mitchell, I did not know where I was going, nor how much I would make nor where I would live but I knew God was leading me. The place ended up being Vernon. I did not know what challenges were ahead. I was leaving the only home I had ever known in Alabama to come to a place that I nor anyone in my family had ever been. I came here with my wife and two young sons. Following a trailblazer Vernon’s first female pastor Michelle Moulden and dear friend, I thought for the first time in my young ministry that I would be able to go to a church and “simply” pastor: visit the sick, preach, do weddings and baptisms in a low stress place in Oklahoma called Tulsa. Boy was I wrong! I found a church, a community and cause that changed my life. The church I came to was called Vernon, the community, Greenwood and the cause was the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
Vernon a beautiful historic church with a proud strong congregation but was largely overlooked and her history was not well known. The community of Greenwood was also historic and resilient, The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre while much attention had been given to it in previous years with the lawsuit in the early 2000’s in 2017 the focus on reparatory justice had waned.
Due to urban renewal/removal that removed all the houses near the church, Vernon’s membership had dipped to near below 100 for the first time since the early 1900’s and the historic windows were in dire need of being restored, along with other needed enhancements. We began a building campaign and invited the greater Tulsa community to assist. We helped lead programs aimed to build up the Greenwood community and had some amazing partnerships that yielded fantastic results. We even started a satellite worship spot in Broken Arrow.
For the cause I began going out to city hall by myself on September 12, 2018 armed only with a Bible and bullhorn. Initially there were no crowds nor cameras just my Bible, myself, the good Lord and bewildered and occasionally venomous onlookers. Each week braving the weather, harassment, and attacks, I and later several brave others stood our post. Calling the city to recognize what she did in 1921, repent from it and, repair the damage they had done. Thanks to all those who ever came to join in this prophetic act but a special thanks to my comrades such as Cleo Harris Jr.,@Brian Cordova Sondia Bell, Yann Irlinger, Kristyn Paschal, Fred Freeman and others who braved horrifying circumstances to stand in the gap calling for justice on a regular basis. #Reparationsnow
In October of the same year, I spoke at a community town hall meeting after reading the Washington Post article where Council President Vanessa Hall Harper and community leader Orisabiyi Oyin Williams were courageously talking about the mass graves. Astonished, I attended the meeting at Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church where good brother Rev. Dr. Goss is the pastor. Going to the meeting I truly didn’t want to be the one to raise the question. I thought “I am not from here surely others would are more knowledgeable and would raise this concern.” I shared my concern to others in attendance. I waited and no one else did and when the facilitator Joe JoJo Williams asked for the last question, I raised my hand and what God put on my heart came out. The question I asked to Mayor Gt Bynum was about reparations and the mass graves. He didn’t answer about reparations, but he did about the mass graves. His response made headlines when he boldly committed to do mass graves excavations.
At the time hardly anyone in the media knew my name. I as was referred to simply as “North Tulsa pastor.” Honestly, as a reflect on the last four years, I liked my life better that way. I am honored to be a “North Tulsa” pastor where I live and serve with so many great clergy and friends such as Ray Owens, Sean A Jarrett, Jamaal Dyer, Rodney A Goss, Arlando-and Latoya Jasper, Anthony Scott, Marla Potter-Mayberry Sam Holmes, Leroy Cole, Jamal Ali and so many others. Later I was appointed to serve on the Public Oversight Mass Graves Excavation Committee by the mayor where J Kavin Ross is now our wise chairman following another wise leader Brenda Alford. Later after trying several avenues I found an attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons brave enough to take on the city in our legal fight for reparation.
That following year 2019 Vernon made it on the National Registry of Historic Places. We also started housing the homeless inside the church. My family and I, along with other church members took turns sleeping inside the church as we hosted our unhoused neighbors. Convincing the church to take part in this needed ministry was no easy task, but they were faithful. It was my first big ask of them. It was approved and is now led by our outstanding member Sis. Ain Motte-Martin. Later we were visited by several presidential candidates, Sen. Cory Booker, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke. I personally gave tours to them and thousands of others who visited this historic church not to mention the media, 60 Minutes, CBS News, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, LA Times, Washington Post, VICE News, and several documentaries one done by Russell Westbrook has just been nominated for two Emmy’s. I wrote several opinion editorials. The phrase describing Vernon as the “Grandmother of Greenwood” was born in an article I wrote for the Tulsa Jewish Review.
Then Covid19 hit in 2020, God spoke to me to start a food ministry on March 18, 2020. On the first day it was Bro Freeman in the kitchen and I was at the door handing out food. where on my way home God led me to our first big donor to our food ministry Kajeer Yar & Maggie Hille Yar with Lefty’s on Greenwood. To date we have served over 430,000 meals, we now have a shuttle that allows us to carry food to people especially the elderly in the community. Where we feed everyday in our God provides food ministry. The doors of Vernon are one of the only doors in Tulsa that has opened EVERY day since March 18. We served through snowstorms, tornado warnings, and other difficult times So thankful to the volunteers who are members of Vernon like Fred Freeman Carolyn Davis Waugh, Gerald and Sharmaine Sanders, Kristyn Paschal and so many others. And for churches like All Souls where the pastor is Marlin Lavanhar, who still sends produce to us and Boston Ave where the pastor is David Wiggs who weekly supplies us with volunteers.
Recently we finished roughly a million dollars worth of restoration thanks to kindness of several foundations like Schusterman, GKFF, and Zarrow and grants that I wrote. This restoration completed the stained glass windows, plumbing, prayer room renovation and Prayer Wall for Racial Healing. After this was done we had a dedication on the centennial of the 1921 Race Massacre. Rev. Jesse Jackson was our keynote along with other speakers such as Bishop William Barber, Majority Whip James Clyburn, Sen. Chris Coons, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and Congresswoman Rochester. That following week we had a Centennial Revival where bishop Michael Mitchell, Dr. Jamal Bryant, Pastor Otis Moss III, Pastor Matthew Watley, Elder Toni Belin, Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie preached us to heaven.
Currently thanks to a grant I wrote and the kindness of the Episcopal Diocese of Oklahoma, the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Commission chaired by Sen Kevin Matthews, Kathy L Taylor Lobeck Trust and the Helmerich Trust, Fayetteville Roots and all those donated to our gofundme and others we are in the process of replacing our roof, restoring the masonry, and replacing our fence around the church technology enhancements old microphone and organ repaired, Book of Redemption restored.
When everything is said and done we would have done well over a million dollars’ worth of work. Thanks to God for the benevolence of friends and supporters, we are not in debt for any of the work we are currently doing. Its paid in full. Moreover all the debt of the church is paid off completely! There is another grant for a million currently in the works right now that I just wrote and pray that the church receives it.
Vernon you have been very good to my family and I. We are so very grateful for all your love and support. I am humbled by the awards I have received in the last 4 years such as but not limited to Tulsan of the Year (Tulsa World) Hometown Hero (Modern Woodmen), Nat Turner Award (African Ancestral Society), Community Service Award (Oklahoma Conference of Churches) Circle of Friends (Links) Fellow of the Year (Blackburn Institute) Dan Allen Social Justice Award, Certificate of Recognition (Greater Mt. Olive Baptist Church), Community Service Award (Terence Crutcher Foundation), Trail Blazer Award (Tulsa Public Schools) and the many boards and organizations I was invited to sit on, namely being the founding president of the Historic Greenwood Main Street Program, BEST Advisory Council, Just Tulsa, Terence Crutcher Foundation, Grit for Democracy, North Tulsa Task Force, National Association for Reparations Conference and the North Tulsa Ministers Coalition. The church, community and cause has grown me in more ways than I thought possible. Everything sounds as though all has been well these last 4 years. I can assure you they have not been. There were times when I wanted to throw in the towel and give up on it all, but God! There were other times when I thought I would die right here in Tulsa. I have been the target of both physical and character assassinations and the beneficiary of unlimited grace. Through it all I won’t complain. God has been so good to me.
My hope for Tulsa and especially Greenwood is that we continue to try to help those who are unhoused among us, seek ways to help Tulsans with food insecurity, remove the interstate highway that was bulldozed through Greenwood District, and that all the bodies from the mass graves be excavated and given a proper burial, and that a criminal investigation takes place into the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And for Reparations to be done now! Explore revenue option like a public private partnership fund where money can come from businesses in the Greenwood district, and/or new industries like dispensaries, along with private philanthropy to set up a reparations fund. I am more than willing to help with any of these. I have a petition with nearly 35,000 signatures of people who want us to get this right. I still believe that Tulsa’s best days are ahead.
In closing, it is with a heavy heart that I confirm what most have already heard, that my pastoral course here in Tulsa has finished. God has shown me another place He has for me to go. As with Vernon I did not seek this new opportunity. It found me. There is another church, community and cause to take on. I will take it with much greater appreciation, preparation and wisdom because of my time here in Tulsa. Vernon you were the best, Greenwood you are forever in my heart. The cause of reparations is still my passion I will now be headquartered elsewhere while I fight for it. I am confident the next pastor will take you to even greater heights.
My desire is that in 2121 they will look back on what we did in 2021 and find inspiration as I look back on what our church did in 1921 and find encouragement. It will continue to inspire me wherever I go. But this post is not about where I am going, it is about you, where I have been laboring, crying, serving, praying, preaching these last 4 years. Acknowledging full well that I am not from here, but I will leave plenty of blood sweat and tears all throughout this sacred land. I tried the best I could and when I became exasperated, by God’s grace I tried even harder.
As a pastor I thank you for allowing me to service your soul, marrying, baptizing, eulogizing, communing, and visiting you. Revenue increased by over 100% and membership doubled. Vernon you are a blessing. To my Presiding Elder Ruth M. Branscomb-Holmes Bishop Michael and Supervisor Cordelia Mitchell thank you for all your love and support.
Finally, I want to say thank you, for those who marched with me, thank you to those who prayed for me. Thank you, to those who worshipped with us at Vernon or virtual. To friend and foe alike I am grateful for you all because you both have a played a pivotal role in my life. I will definitely plan to come back to visit and am open for any invitations you may have but please know while I am away you are always in my heart. Everything I did while here was either for Vernon, the community or the cause. It is on me now to depart taking with me the only wonderful blessings I brought to Tulsa my beautiful and loving wife and two incredible, smart sons.
We Love you all!
“The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.” 2 Corinthians 13:14