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Whitworth ministry for president of Ministers’ Fellowship

Roberta Wilburn, whose primary ministry is as associate dean of graduate studies in education and diversity initiatives at Whitworth University, is the first woman to be elected president of the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship, an organization predominantly made up of African-American clergy—but open to all ministers. 

Roberta Wilburn
Roberta Wilburn leads clergy group, builds diversity at Whitworth.

She is also the first president not to be senior pastor of a church.  Along with Whitworth, she is in ministry with her church, Jesus Is the Answer.

A year after she moved to Spokane in 2007, and soon after her husband James Wilburn came, they were invited to attend the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship.  As a woman, she was ushered to join the ministers’ wives. When they realized she was a minister, they sent her to join the men.

Over time, one or two other women ministers have been involved.  Up to 15 attend at 10 a.m., first Saturdays, at Emmanuel Family Life Center, 631 S. Richard Allen Ct.

“I wondered why God wanted me in a male organization, but over time I was accepted, contributed ideas and was appreciated,” Roberta said.  “I walk by faith.  I follow God’s vision and God provides, teaching me about faith as I walk.”

Both at the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship and at Whitworth, she promotes appreciation for all God’s people.

Starting as secretary, she became the first woman vice president in January 2012.  This October, she was elected president for a two-year term beginning January 1, 2014.  In November, she was elected to finish the term of Pastor Jimmy Pierce, when he left Unspeakable Joy Church to move to Georgia. 

“The Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship seeks to unify the body of Christ,” said Roberta.  “It is a forum for ministers to share concerns and find support that benefits their churches.”

They do clothing drives, and hold Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve Watch Night, Holy Week and Easter Sunrise services.  Congregations  support each other, too.  They also promote Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Juneteenth, celebrating the emancipation from slavery on June 19th.

“We are also working to rebuild collaborative relationships with the East Central Community Center.  We invite speakers to talk on issues, such as housing, racism and legislation,” she said.

Roberta and James, as members of Jesus Is the Answer, have both served in leadership for three years under the leadership of Pastor Shon Davis.  She and James, who is an achievement gap intervention specialist at Lewis and Clark High School and president of the NAACP in Spokane, have been married 16 years.

Key pieces of her ministry at Whitworth are fostering appreciation and respect for cultural differences; advocating for social justice, and understanding the role of spirituality in life.  Given changes in societal demographics, she said she prepares teachers, counselors and administrators to be “culturally competent.”

“Many Whitworth students had little opportunity to interact with people of other cultures when they first came here,” Roberta said.

So Whitworth offers classes on cultural awareness and has an annual International Education Week Forum.  Every fall, Japanese students come, so students interact with peers in Japan without going to Japan.  Whitworth also requires that the January term includes cultural experiences.

Working with graduate students, Roberta said that because their families can’t go abroad, Whitworth provides cultural experiences in the classroom and community.

She believes God led her to Whitworth as the place for her to serve, because “people at Whitworth love their jobs, love God, and treat people well,” she said.  “Also its mission to honor God, follow Christ and serve humanity aligns with my core values.  Whitworth cares about students personally. 

“It encourages me to integrate my faith and teaching,” said Roberta, who is a professor as well as an administrator.

After high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., she studied education and art at Mt. Holyoke College, graduating in 1975. 

At George Washington University in Washington D.C., she earned a master’s in 1976, and a doctoral degree in education in 1982. She also earned a doctor of theology and Christian counseling degree in 2007 at Jacksonville Theological Seminary.

Roberta grew up Methodist.  Her first teaching experience was Sunday school. In Memphis, where she lived 15 years before coming to Spokane, she joined Abundant Grace Fellowship, a nondenominational church.

She had a spiritual awakening there through studying the Bible and realizing the importance of reaching out to the community. 

“Christian ministry is not just to be within four walls of a church, but, like Jesus’ ministry, it is to meet needs of people,” she said.

As an elder at that church, Roberta developed ministries such as one to single parents and one to prevent teen pregnancies.  The ordained her, and then she began seminary studies.

“We are to know God’s word and apply it to our lives so others apply it to their lives to be all God wants them to be,” she said. 

In higher education since 1980, she followed God’s leading to go to Memphis from Washington, D.C., when she was no longer married and was a single mother with a young daughter.

There, she chaired the education department and directed international programs at Lemoyne-Owen College. 

She developed international women’s empowerment grants for students to have experiences in Mexico and Africa.  She learned of other cultures through Lemoyne projects in Senegal, South Africa and the Dominican Republic.

“I have learned to value people regardless of culture or race, to be sure people are treated with dignity.  We need to be sure all children understand and appreciate diversity.  Often in school, children of color feel isolated and alienated,” Roberta said.

“If teachers, counselors and administrators are culturally sensitive, appreciate differences and see differences as differences not as deficiencies, they can help people they work with feel comfortable,” said Roberta.

“God teaches me more about faith as I walk with God.  It has not always been easy,” she said.

“Through tough times surviving breast cancer twice, God opened my eyes to ministry to help others walk through challenges,” she said.  “I look at problems from a Christian perspective.”

For a while, Roberta was the only African-American faculty member at Whitworth University.  Now the diversity of faculty and students is increasing.

“If there are more faculty of color, more students of color will come,” she said.

“At Whitworth, we promote awareness about cultural, ethnic, socio-economic and gender diversity, and appreciation of individual differences regardless.  Everyone has worth and value as God sees us,” Roberta said.

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Copyright © January 2014 - The Fig Tree