Following in his father's footsteps, leading sermons, would have seemed the obvious future for the Rev. Dr. Bartholomew Banks Sr. Naturally, he would help the community, preach on Sundays and take seniors on trips to the Florida Strawberry Festival. But, his career didn't start behind the pulpit. It started from behind a calculator when he was a University of South Florida student in the early '70s. While studying for his bachelor's degree in accounting, a diploma that would only accumulate dust on a shelf, Banks needed a way to make extra money. The self-trained organist answered a job opening at St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church, where he found his calling. Nurtured by the pastor, he climbed the church ranks from organist to becoming a pastor himself. In the sparse free time he has between juggling his church duties and his responsibilities as the director of Aging Services for Hillsborough County, he still enjoys playing the organ and watching black-and-white films that remind him of simpler times. He recently spoke with Times staff writer Arielle Waldman.
What are some of the challenges of being a pastor in these trying times?
The times that we live in now are actually no different from the biblical times that Christ spoke about when he was here on earth, and the solutions to those issues are still the same. We are dealing with issues of people not necessarily treating each other the way we are supposed to, the lack of dignity and respect and the need to encourage us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Some of the economic challenges are the same because there were poor people in Christ's day and he established principles in which we were supposed to be willing to help our fellow man.
There are still issues of housing, hunger and personal problems, so from that perspective what we see today is nothing new. To build the congregation, I continue to preach the teachings of Christ to empower us to be representatives of him. To spread love, goodwill and help those who are less fortunate raise themselves up — both spiritually and physically.
What are some of the ways you provide physical help?
Our outreach ministries program. One of the reasons we built this facility back in 1997, known as our Christian Life Center, was so we can have the facilities necessary to reach out to the community. We have practical things, including clothes closets, a food pantry and activities for the seniors, who we call the "keenagers." They have fun activities once a month like field trips to the fair, the circus or to Orlando's Holy Land exhibit. They went on a one-day cruise, which they didn't invite me on because it had some fun activities on board that I couldn't participate in, but I heard about it. We have Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, tutorial programs, and we let the youth take over the service, but I'll still do the sermon.
How did you become a pastor?
I would be considered a late bloomer because my undergraduate training was in accounting. Becoming a pastor was never my intent, even though as a child we went to church every day so that was pretty much what I knew. My father never put that pressure on me and I thought I wanted to expand to something different. But, over the years I felt the calling and responded. I grew up in Pensacola but my whole ministry training happened here in Tampa.
What are your responsibilities as the director of Aging Services?
Well, I've been an employee of Hillsborough County for 37 years, helping vulnerable populations. We provide services to seniors to help them remain in the community and enjoy a good quality of life. Our goal is to avoid premature nursing home placements, which is much more costly. We provide home-delivered meals, in-home services such as personal care, helping them with daily activities like bathing, chores and housekeeping. For seniors who are a bit more active, we have congregate meal sites where they can get out of the house and enjoy delicious meals and socialization activities. We provide workshops, Zumba classes, senior Olympic games and painting festivals. You would think their paintings would be amateurish, but they are really professional. We have a senior prom, where everyone gets dressed up and votes for a prom queen and king.
What are the challenges you face in your position with the county?
Some years ago, during the economic downturn, our budget was reduced. But fortunately, we were able to continue providing services to the 3,000 seniors without kicking anyone out of the program. It just slowed up the number of people we could take off the wait list. Now that the economy is a little better, the Board of County Commissioners allocated additional funding to reduce the wait list, but we are challenged to come up with ways to do more with less. We are enhancing partnership with community organizations who can provide services at a lower cost than we as county government can.
What are the challenges of juggling both jobs?
Both my pastoral ministry and county job satisfy my passion for helping people. It is a tremendous blessing, because I have the opportunity to administer both physical and spiritual aspects seven days a week, so to speak, because the people I preach to on Sundays are the same people that need services or know people who need services. I look at myself as a bridge from the government to the community.
Are any of your children following in your footsteps?
Well, one of my sons is currently in dental school but he is also a minister.
What are your plans for the future?
For years, we have been acquiring property around St. John Progressive Baptist Missionary Church. Our intent is to expand the facilities in order to provide more resources to the community. As we move forward, I would like to have a child care facility. We need a designated space for those types of activities so parents can be involved, while at the same time knowing their little ones are being taken care of. Right now, they sit in their laps. I hear babies crying now and again, but you get used to it. In fact, I enjoy it because it is a sign of growth.
Sunday Conversation is edited for brevity and clarity.