Three local faith leaders are redefining what it means to be “a church” and how to deliver the word of God. Their stories demonstrate how faith leadership has evolved over the last 15 to 20 years. Even before COVID-19, they have been expanding their ministry beyond the walls of a building and into the world in some form or another.
If there’s a march or protest, chances are high that you’ll see Pastor Kyle Earley in jeans and a hoodie on the front lines. He coined the term, “It’s not a moment. It’s a movement.” But, don’t get it twisted — he will switch it up on you. You’ll also see him in a suit, engaging in critical political conversations, having once served as the political director to former State Sen. Nina Turner, where he worked against voter suppression across the state of Ohio.
Earley grew up in Cleveland, but he moved to Jackson, Michigan, for a brief period. When he returned, between ages 15 and 16, he met his father — a pastor in Akron — for the first time. Because he was getting in so much trouble, he moved there to finish school.
“That [experience] definitely connected me to what was in my bloodline,” Earley says.
It wasn’t until he connected with Rev. Ralph Hugley of Triedstone Baptist Church, who served as the chaplain at the Juvenile Detention Center, that Earley realized what he wanted to do with his life.
“For the first time, I saw someone who cared. The way he ministered to young boys going through the things I went through inspired me,” Earley says.
Initially, Earley worked under the tutelage of Rev. C.J. Matthews, pastor of Mt. Sinai Baptist Church.
“Working with C.J. Matthews helped me realize that working in the community can be an extension of God and Jesus Christ,” Earley says. “When you look at who Jesus was in the Bible, he took his ministry to the community and served the people at the point of need.”
Fast forward 16 years, Earley becomes the pastor of City of God, located at 742 E. 152nd St. in Collinwood, a church he assumed and rebranded after the former pastor retired. The membership has grown from seven to more than 100 in three years, but COVID-19 has forced the church to pause in-person Sunday worship service and amplify its online presence. The main goal of this ministry is to stay connected to the community.
“Our motto is, ‘It’s never just church.’ We want people to come to a safe place and grow their faith,” Earley says.
Today, Earley adds, it’s evident that a pastor can no longer just preach.
“We have to respond,” he says, explaining that the response is the miracle, and it’s how people can understand and see Christ within a challenge.
City of God is working on three initiatives: the Faith Movement, which brings young pastors together to make an impact in their respective communities; pushing the 2020 census and voter registration; and finding ways to support students during COVID-19.
“I’m really concerned about our students,” he says, adding that his daughter struggles to stay focused in a distance learning environment. “I’m encouraging pastors to clean out the churches, open the doors to these students and use the kitchens to feed them.”
He believes this era of COVID-19, spiritually, is a call for people to refocus their attention on God.
“Here in Cleveland, especially, I believe it’s time for us to reorganize and call for unity. It’s the most beautiful time to do that,” Earley says.
Transforming a Community
Pastor Leonard Tanks Jr.’s story is somewhat similar to Earley’s.
Tanks, the founder of Reach City Church, didn’t grow up in the church. The Cleveland native came of age in the Lee-Harvard area and found himself in trouble as a teen. By age 15, he had two felonies. By age 24, he found himself sitting in jail on kidnapping and assault charges. During that time, someone handed him a Bible.
“I started reading it, and one night I prayed. I told God if He got me out of this, I would serve him for the rest of my life,” Tanks says.
Two weeks later, Tanks went to court. The video evidence indicting him was damaged, and the charges were dropped.
“I took that as a clear sign. Jesus showed himself to be real,” he says.
Two years later, God called him to teach His word. Tanks went back to school and obtained a bachelor’s degree in religion, then acquired a master’s degree in Christian apologetics. He is currently working on a Ph.D. in Bible exhibition, as one of his goals is to bring a Bible college to the inner city of Cleveland. His pastoral career began at Hope Alliance Bible Church in Maple Heights, where he served as the young adult pastor for two years and assistant pastor for four years.
“God was calling me beyond the pulpit. I enjoy hanging out with the young dudes, chopping it up with them,” says Tanks, a very unassuming man. “I use the voice God gave me to reach back to the people the church normally leaves out.”
The pastor at Hope Alliance decided to send Tanks out to establish a church aimed at reaching the Hough community. The first thing he and his wife did was look for a home in Cleveland’s Ward 7 for them and their four children.
“I have to be burdened by things that burden that community. I can’t be a pastor in the inner city, then go back to a house in the suburbs. We call that incarnational ministry,” Tanks says.
With that, Tanks is the pastor of Reach City Church. It’s been in existence for one year. It’d hoped to launch at Mary B. Martin School this past May, but COVID-19 prevented it. It has hosted team meetings at the Tech Hive.
The mission of Reach City Church is to advance the kingdom of God in the life of all men and women. The church does this by going out and making disciples of all men. The vision is to see people and communities made whole through the life-changing reality of the gospel and the practical needs of life. Its core values are: reach up, experience God; reach in, edify the body; and reach out and engage the community.
“I was saved in jail,” Tanks says. “I believe it’s my responsibility to go out and reach the people, love of the people and help them open up to receive the gospel.”
Tanks and his Reach City team, with the support of Councilman Basheer Jones, installed six Blessing Boxes across Ward 7. The boxes, which are filled weekly, include everything from hand sanitizer and women’s products to nonperishable food items and bus passes.
On the horizon is a plan to implement a free lunch program at Park Village apartments. The goal is to start working on a Stop the Violence campaign with Cleveland Peacemakers Alliance. The overarching goal is to purchase a building that will become the Reach Community Center.
“I tell people... I’m the real, for real. I say what I say and mean what I say. I want to restore trust back in the Black community, back in Christianity, where the church is not trying to pimp the people but be about community transformation.”
A Rising Star
Robin “Bijou Star” Sadler isn’t a faith leader by formal training or ordination. The Howard University alum holds a degree in broadcasting and once envisioned a career exclusively in that field, something like a Wendy Williams or Oprah Winfrey.
Her distinct voice can be heard daily on Urban One’s 93.1 WZAK from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., as she co-hosts the “Sam Sylk Show with Bijou Star.” She’s also an entrepreneur, the owner of Power Brand Group. However, being a preacher’s kid and growing up in the church, faith leadership is in her blood, and ministering has called upon her for quite some time. That has led her to create an online faith community called SIS Everyday.
“It’s so crazy how God uses all of our experiences to do his work. I already had a platform and was speaking regularly; that definitely prepared me for this,” Sadler says.
SIS Everyday is a community for modern women of faith created to connect, learn and grow in life, purpose and career. SIS stands for Sisters in Spirit. Sadler, a Shaker grad who has always worked to give back to the community and uplift women, says God gave her the vision for SIS Everyday a few years ago, before she gave birth to her son.
“The goal is to build something for women like myself, the modern Christian woman,” Sadler says. “We still love Jesus. We may not do it like our grandmothers did, though.”
SIS Everyday is designed to equip its community with the tools and resources needed to become the best version of themselves. The platform was recently launched with a Masterclass series titled Passion to Profit. It hosts local, female thought-leaders, addressing topics such as stepping out on faith, overcoming fears, identifying your passion, building your brand, business essentials and more. The website, siseveryday.com, includes a blog, podcast and sermons from various pastors. Visitors also can find the 30 Days of Prayer Challenge.
“It’s easy to click on a phone or computer and have access,” she says, adding that this platform works for this generation because people are not raised up in the church like it used to be, so they are not accustomed to the traditions, which sometimes turn them off. SIS Everyday shatters any preconceived notions of what church should look like.
Sadler says, being on secular radio, many would say, “You can’t do both.”
“God can use you even more to get the word to those who don’t know Him,” she says. “He knows who he is using and how to use them.”