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The Bend Magazine

Q&A w/ Pastor Donald G. Leavell

06/25/2020 05:00AM ● By Kylie Cooper
Conversation by: Kylie Cooper  Photos by: Lillian Reitz

We sat down with the beloved Pastor Don of Corpus Christi Christian Fellowship to have a candid conversation on his journey to founding a church that now represents 38 different nations, how the recent deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, and too many other Black lives around the nation are not isolated events, but more so have catalyzed a tipping point, and why complacency is an existential threat.  

First, tell me a little about yourself and your journey. 

I grew up in East Texas in a town called Palestine, and I thought that was the best place in the world. It was all I had ever known. I went to junior college there at Henderson County Junior College, but I wanted to get as far away from my town as I could to discover who I was. But, I didn’t have enough money for out-of-state tuition because I was sending myself to college. I met a guy who had spent time at A & I Kingsville, and I thought it was a good place for me to go. I met my wife there and we got married during my senior year, and I graduated 1969. After that, I went into the Army for a little while and then left to work for Exxon for almost 17 years and stayed there for years and it was tough to get a promotion. I was one of the most educated guys there, you know? But finally, I did move up and went to drilling school to learn how to supervise through their extensive drilling program. 

And when did you finally make your way to the Coastal Bend?

I eventually ended up in the Middle East and by this time, I was already preaching and sharing with other preachers in the area. But being in a non-Christian environment really weighed heavily on me because my faith is very palpable, it’s tangible for me. So, I just wanted to please God and I felt lonely. I was 38 at this point and I thought, "Man, I am a late bloomer," and it bothered me. So, one day I told God, "Look, if you want me to preach, you have to send me a sign because if I make a lot of money, I won’t leave that to preach," because I always wanted to make a lot of money in my life. But, one day after that, I was walking down the road from a bible study and I began to weep. I said, “I don’t need the money, I just need you.” And that is when I decided to leave and come to Corpus Christi.

How did you navigate the experience of being in an environment where most people might not share your beliefs? 

I never force my views or beliefs on people. But I always asked for equal time. In the oil field, you’re surrounded by all types of people. Being a preacher, I would feel like if I didn’t speak my truth, then it would be like I was cooperating with these guys in certain types of behavior. So, I had to create a standard. I always demanded equal time: in your turf, do whatever you want to, but if you come on my turf, I am going to demand equal time. So, if people would come in to my office and act a fool for two minutes, I would say "Well, now I am going to tell you about Jesus Christ for two minutes."

You’ve been referenced as the “pastor of pastors” and preach to nations around the world. Tell me a little bit about that aspect of your work. 

We have a ministry overseas called "The Fellowship International” where we serve more than 30,000 pastors in Ghana alone, and have ministries in Asia, Africa, Europe, Central America, and here in North America. I think we are called to the world and I wanted to reach out in that way. My wife and I have always had friends of various races and I have always just loved people. In my 20s, I heard an inner voice telling me “I would like a place where all of my children can worship me together” and I responded that I didn’t know how, and God said, “Love everyone who comes in your doors.” I thought he was giving me something to do, but later I realized he spoke that into me and I have never had a problem loving people. I just absolutely love people and that is what really did it for me. I believe that God doesn’t speak to us, but into us, so that is how I have always viewed it, and I think that is why our church is so diverse. We have people here from 38 different nations!

Where do you think your passion for teaching and sharing comes from? 

I think it definitely came from my mom and dad. My dad was a lot of things. He worked for the railroads, he was a farmer, he was a pastor. My mother was a bible teacher and extremely educated. So, I definitely got my passion for teaching others from them. 

I want to shift the conversation to speak to the racial injustices around our country and the recent uprising in protests and calls for action that arose after the horrendous death of George Floyd. In one of your video messages on Facebook, you said attention being put on looters takes away from the real reason people are protesting in the first place. I’d love for you to expand on that thought. 

In the community, people will come up to me and ask, “Hey Pastor, what do you think about this looting? Isn’t it horrendous that people are tearing down our country?” So, I let them talk, I give them their equal time, and then I speak. The George Floyd murder was insidious and horrendous. We should never forget that and that is what is informing me. We’ve seen this before, but what Derek Chauvin did to George Floyd, that shocked the consciousness of America. He placed his knee on that man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and that is where the context of this conversation should be coming from, not the lotting. Because without that, it takes away our legitimacy. We don’t really want to have dialogue because dialogue always leads to discovery. So that is why we should always be talking, but there are forces in the world that don’t want dialogue for that very reason.

I love that phrasing, that “dialogue leads to discovery.” Why do you think it is difficult for people to understand that idea and then in turn actually have the conversations that are needed?

I think because it will unveil impure motives. We cannot forget the context of this conversation and what has caused it. People that know me, know I am not anti-police, but with some of them there is lawlessness, and the police around the country are a fraternity – they protect each other; but we should not have the backs of murders. I just think we need to recognize the precipitated. Those officers denied George Floyd of his civil rights and of his life. So, I think when people talk about the looters they are trying to shift the conversation in a way that is not helpful for us as a nation. It is an ingenious insult to do so.

We should all be asking ourselves “Is it more important to defend people who have lost their lives or is it more important to somehow shed light and deal with people who destroy property?” I think the evil those men displayed is what we should be discussing, because it precipitated the looting, it precipitated the protesting, it precipitated the recent deaths of innocent Black people. I think it is shameful when the destruction of property gets more attention than the destruction of human life. In my view, no rational human being supports violence in any form, but if one talks about the looters first, it is a sign of where that person’s heart is. And as a Pastor, I want to know where people’s hearts are. 

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Tony McDade's deaths are only four of the most recent examples of the racial injustice Black people in America face every day. I’d love for you to expand on the idea that these aren’t isolated events, but more of a tipping point, perhaps. 

It is my view that the arrogance Derek Chauvin showed when he murdered George Floyd really got shoved into the gut of most of us. It isn’t just Black people saying enough is enough, it is multiracial. And that is what we have needed, we needed a concerted effort. I think there are a lot of people, in politics and not, that want division in the country and they’re doing a pretty good job at it. But, I think the amount of people who are speaking to this now is the difference. I don’t want this world for my grandchildren and my children, and I pray for that. I believe God has mobilized those who have a conscience, sound reasoning, and compassion for others around the country and that is what we are seeing. It is not just a Black movement anymore, it is an American movement to seek real change.

What role do you feel the church can play in the fight for equality?

The church is the light of the world, that is what Jesus calls us, and I think the church has been woeful in this. I think church leaders need to make a full denunciation of racism and police brutality, but they’ve yet to do that. I think if they don’t give a denunciation of what is going on, they’ll be left out. I think unlike our predecessors in Christianity, we now have access to press in a way we’ve never had before, and some even have access to lawmakers and congressmen and senators and you can use that.

Those that have access, in my opinion, should use that access for righteousness, rather than for their own personal benefit, and too many evangelicals are currying favor to power rather than speaking to it. I think the church has failed miserably because you have these large churches with big names and followings, and if these guys would do their jobs, it would mean so much. They have access and you can make an immediate impact and make a great difference in advancing the call for justice and righteousness. God’s throne is built on righteousness and justice and scriptures tell us that when the righteous rule, the people will rejoice. So, we need good leaders in that aspect and not to fan the flame of racism and injustices. 

What do you think of complacency in a time like this?

I think complacency in this hour is a crime against humanity. Complacency is complicity with those who pose an existential threat. We can’t say this conduct is not an existential threat to Black people because they are senselessly dying at a much higher rate and they are innocent. To be complacent is to be complicit.  

Is there a message you want to relay to anyone reading this and willing to learn?

To the Christian community, I want to say that you must find in Jesus Christ the strength in all that is needed, the strength to do it, the wisdom to do it, the understanding to do what is necessary. Because Jesus Christ came into a hostile environment and the system that was, was an existential threat to him, from his birth. So, I identify with Jesus in that. So, I would say we cannot sit on the pews and say amen because somebody told us about a story from 3,000 years ago, but won’t say amen to justice and righteousness and equality in our present day. 

Outside of that, I think together we stand and divided we will fall. I would say do not stand with a lie, because the truth will always win out and that we must have dialogue. Do not be insensitive to pain, because the pain of another could one day be yours. I would also suggest to read Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from Birmingham Jail and that might help your perspective. Always ask questions, teach your children to be fair-minded, and let your voice be heard. And, if your ladder is leaning against the wrong wall, this is a good time to change walls. 

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