America to Scotland and Back: Unconventional Journey Yields Unlikely Partnership
By Julie Campbell
For more than two decades, Pastor Darnell Starks’s journey in the ministry has been anything but typical.
“Long story short, in 2000 I decided, at the age of 34, to finally accept God’s call on my life for ministry,” he explained.
After quitting his full-time job as a painting and decorating contractor in Chicago and attending a few years at Moody Bible Institute, Darnell made another unconventional decision, especially for a man with a wife and five children. He moved most of his family overseas to study abroad with him in Scotland. Two of his children, who were young adults, stayed behind in the States.
What was supposed to be a three-month stint at International Christian College in Glasgow morphed into seventeen years, where Darnell pastored three churches and served in itinerate ministry, primarily throughout the United Kingdom, but also in Africa and America.
But in 2020, God’s plan for Darnell’s ministry was about to change.
“It was during the pandemic that we were trying to see what God’s will was for us next,” he said. “Karen and I thought maybe it was time for us to come back home. So I reached out to Pastor Eric Livingston, the state pastor for Illinois, to see if he had any churches that were looking for pastors. He said that he was so glad that I had reached out because just the day before I called, he had been trying to remember my name.”
During that phone call, Livingston explained to Darnell that an all-white congregation in Peoria, Illinois, Mt. Hawley Community Church, was looking for an itinerate pastor for three months.
At first, the thought of coming back to America in the middle of political and racial tensions was unsettling, Darnell’s wife, Karen, admitted. “It wasn’t just Darnell and I that were moving here. We have an adult daughter, and she has three girls who are biracial,” Karen explained. “I was concerned that they could be in a place where they could grow and be nurtured.”
But true to his unconventional path, Darnell accepted the call, with Karen’s blessing, on one condition.
“I only agreed to come if they were open to considering me for the long-term role (as pastor),” he said. “We packed up and moved on faith that this was going to work out. They made it very clear that they wanted us to stay. And the interaction I’ve had with the leadership and with people in the church has been nothing but positive. The people have been so loving.”
Karen agreed, adding, “I feel very much that the church is our family. It’s the best feeling and fit we’ve ever had in all the years that he’s pastored churches. It’s a good feeling.”
In the last two-and-a-half years since coming to the church, more people of color have started attending.
“We have two black families who are really involved besides our own, and then we have about another three families who come occasionally,” said Darnell. “And they all say they feel very welcomed at the church.”
In February, Darnell plans to do something at Mt. Hawley that he believes is a “first” in the church’s history—celebrate Black History Month.
“I’m going to speaking on it every Sunday in February, and members of the leadership team have agreed to share their perspective on race,” he explained. “I’m just really appreciative that an all-white leadership team, all of whom have been here much longer than I have—some of them grew up in this church—that when I brought this idea to them they were 100-percent okay with it.”
While it’s still fairly early in their ministry at Mt. Hawley, Darnell and Karen see so much potential and are dreaming big dreams for the future. The church, which is blessed with an eight-acre property, is already reaching out to the community by feeding the homeless and hosting a junior football league and cheerleading practices, a Boy Scout troop, a drama club, a living nativity at Christmastime, and more.
“I want us to be known in the community and make a real positive difference,” Darnell explained. “We’re not a club for Christians but a real vital part of the community. And we’re well on our way to doing that.”
Karen would love to see the church minister to families with teenagers and maybe start a program from parents and grandparents with toddlers, similar to one she was involved with in Scotland.
“It’s a time when the moms, dads, or grandparents can have a cup of tea or coffee, and there’s other staff that is doing things with the children. I see moms and dads with strollers when I drop my grandkids off at school, and there are probably some stay-at-home moms or dads who would love that.”
Currently, the church is going through the Alpha Program, an evangelistic program consisting of 15 video talks on topics like “Who is Jesus?” and “Why Did He Die?”
“The group shares a meal together, watches the video, and then discusses it over dessert and coffee,” Darnell explained. “In the fall, we want to invite people who don’t know Jesus to come.”
The church has also called a new youth pastor, Bobby York, to focus on its youth ministry.
“The church, and not me, is the real story,” said Darnell. “This is a place filled with people who love God, seek to follow Christ, and are loving and welcoming to all people regardless of skin color or nationality. We love being part of this church family!”
Julie Campbell is an editor at Warner Christian Resources (formerly Warner Press) and a freelance journalist. A former city girl from Chicago, she enjoys country life with her husband Russ on a five-acre apple orchard in Madison County, Indiana. She is a blessed mom of three wonderful young adult children and one very spoiled red Doberman puppy.
Learn more about the Church of God movement at www.JesusIsTheSubject.org. Stay tuned to CHOGnews and Church of God Ministries social media this February for more special features in observance of Black History Month!