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Education opens doors for people of color

Two “Rev. Drs.” who came to serve as interim pastors at Morning Star Baptist Church in Spokane have decided after their 14 months there that they will stay on a bit.


Art and Leotta Jarrett

The Revs. Arthur (Art) and Leotta Jarrett decided to do the interim ministry after serving churches in San Mateo, Calif., Pilgrim Baptist and Trinity Baptist, the latter a new church based on a new concept.

Art retired two years ago from the church and Leotta from her work in education.

“Our concept is that a Christian never retires.  There is always a need.  We just pray to ask God to enlarge our territory,” Leotta said.  “The idea to remain in Spokane emerged as people asked us to stay.”

Art and Leotta were in Spokane awaiting their next assignment, even offered three opportunities, but they turned them down—at first thinking they would return to their home in California.

Leotta is now involved with the education committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Spokane chapter.

The committee addresses injustices and inequities in the Spokane school system, helping families of students of color gain voice for their concerns about harassment, textbook choices, student treatment, WASL tests and accessibility of times for parent-teacher association meetings.

“I want to be involved where I can affect change to promote mercy, justice, understanding and tolerance,” Leotta said.

She will introduce resources from the NAACP’s national Back to School and Stay in School programs.

In addition to that involvement, Leotta is teaching a course, “My Voice Is Important:  Let Me Speak,” at Spokane Falls Community College.

“Some people tend to be introverts, so there is not a chance their voices will be heard in family, church or the community,” she said.  “Their voices are quelled on issues of truth, identity or cultural needs.”

Her goal is for people to let fear slip away, so they can be empowered and heard.

Leotta also leads workshops for American Baptist women and preaches on Sundays when invited.

In April, she started the Inland Northwest Ministers’ Wives and Ministers’ Widows Fellowship (MWMW).  Now 15 women meet at 10 a.m., second Saturdays.

She is involved with the International MWMW, Inc., regional conferences, state association and local chapter in California.  It is part of an international body of 4,500 women of many races from the Caribbean, Africa, Canada, Central America and the United States.

“There’s much we can all do in the community if we go beyond the four walls of the church,” Leotta said.

Art is developing Full Proof Ministries, interdenominational training for church leaders and workers in Spokane.  His vision is to strengthen the biblical foundation for ministries of leadership, administration and service in the churches and the community. 

By “full proof” he means for people to be fully prepared, equipped and informed so they will be effective in building churches and God’s kingdom, “earnestly striving for excellence in glorifying God,” Art said.

The program includes Old and New Testament, Christian theology, sermon preparation, Christian education, leadership development, church history, ethics, discipleship, worship and church management.

The Ministers Fellowship Union plans to sponsor this program, Art said.


Art and Leotta

Art’s and Leotta’s English is accented by their roots in Nassau, Bahamas.

Art left at 17 to study at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., American Baptist Seminary in Nashville, Tenn., and Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., and received his doctoral degree in religion from California Graduate School of Theology in Glendale, Calif.  At Morehouse, one classmate was Martin Luther King, Jr., who led the civil rights movement in which the Jarretts later participated.

Art returned to Nassau and became pastor of the church Leotta attended in 1948.  They were married in 1950.

At a Cambridge University extension program, Leotta studied to be an elementary teacher.  Eventually, she served as assistant principal to Art at a school in Andros, the largest island in the Bahamas.

She joined him for his first assignment as a pastor in Chattanooga, Tenn., where he started a school for church workers and pastors with the Southern Baptist Home Mission Board and the National Baptist Association. 

After 11 years, he taught with the Oklahoma Baptist School of Religion at Langston University, until he was called to Pilgrim Baptist in San Mateo in 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement.

In Chattanooga and in San Mateo, they participated in the civil rights movement and marches, including being present for King’s 1963 speech in Washington, D.C.  They helped calm black students in San Mateo schools after King’s assassination in 1968 and helped integrate San Mateo schools.

While in Chattanooga, Leotta studied at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial State University in Nashville.

When she first came to the United States in 1953, she had been shocked by racial barriers with whites-only and coloreds-only signs for drinking fountains and other public places.

“I knew I needed to work for change,” she said. 

In California, she continued to pursue her dream, earning a lifetime teaching certificate at the College of Notre Dame, and a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the University of California at Hayward, a master’s degree in education and administration in 1974, a master’s degree in counseling in 1992 and a doctor of education degree in international and multicultural education at the University of San Francisco in 2000.

While she pursued the degrees and reared three daughters and a son, Leotta taught for 32 years in San Mateo public schools.

In San Mateo, Art, tired of church politics that kept him from leading a congregation to explore new ideas, started a new church so he could make changes as simple as holding worship at 9 a.m. before Sunday school classes and opening worship leadership to women—including serving as deacons and ordained ministers.

In 1999, Leotta was ordained, empowering her to serve churches as a pastor with Art.  Her ordination was granted based on her studies and service, Art’s mentoring, studies with theologians in the Bahamas, and attending workshops and schools for training ministers in the United States. 

“While we have had the privilege of many opportunities for education and work, we identify with the needs of those who have not had those opportunities,” she said.

Their roots inspire that humility.

Art and Leotta visit family in the Bahamas twice a year.

On visits while working on her doctoral studies, Leotta interviewed family and friends to share their stories in her dissertation, “African Bahamian American Perspectives on Caribbean Bahamian Families:  A Descriptive Study.”

She interviewed her 96-year-old great-grandmother’s sister, a relative who is also Sidney Portier’s uncle, a distant cousin who was a seaman, and a great-great-great-granddaughter of Pompei LaFleur, a distant cousin of Art.

“I gave voice to my people, aware that much Caribbean and North American literature have been derogatory about them,” Leotta said.

“The history we learned in school was not the history of our people, but British colonial history,” Art said.

Both trace their family roots to Yoruba people in Nigeria.

On Art’s mother’s side, Pompei LaFleur escaped from slavery in the Carolinas in a dinky boat and came to Andros Island, where he started the Conch Sound community.  He was proud he was Yoruba.

Ships often traveled from the U.S. South to South America to the Yucatan, providing an escape route for some U.S. slaves, because Caribbean plantations freed slaves 27 years before they were freed in the United States. 

About 85 percent of Bahamians are of African descent, Art said.

“We grew up in colonial times. Before independence in 1962, we had no power,” he said.  “Our leaders were British.  Only a privileged few had the chance to leave Bahamas and go to school.  Most went to England, a few to Canada, and fewer to the United States.”

Art’s father, a minister, opened his opportunity for study in the United States. 

Leotta’s father was a naturalized U.S. citizen because he served in the American military in World War I.

“He wanted us to be educated in the United States,” she said.  “It was instilled in us to take advantage of any privileges we were given—to honor and respect them.”

The Jarretts took that attitude into churches they served, coming “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” he said.

“Churches can be set in their ways,” Art said.  “Even domestics think they are elite, but slowly we encouraged people in our churches to go to school, earn GED diplomas, go to junior colleges and become certified in early childhood education or as a dental assistant.

For example, one man worked from the kitchen into a top office at a hospital, and a woman who scrubbed hospital halls, became supervisor of maintenance.

The couple set up a career guidance program, so young people could begin to dream and succeed in careers.

“It’s a privilege and blessing to serve others,” Leotta said, with Art completing the thought:  “It’s also an obligation.”

For information, call 279-2685.

By Mary Stamp, The Fig Tree - Copyright © November 2006