HOUSTON – “It’s been in my heart and spirit to love people. A lot of people love preaching and pastoring, but they don’t like people and that has been one of my main focuses. You got to love the folk even though it ain’t always lovable.” These words were rendered by the electrifying, power-preaching, scholar-pastor, Dr. Rev. Joe Samuel Ratliff during an exclusive interview.
In the Beginning:
Joe Samuel Ratliff hails from the County seat of Roberson County, in the rural town of Lumberton, North Carolina. His birthright identifies him as the eldest of nine children. His mother, Mary Armwood, was a teenager when she gave birth. Her parents, (the late Ellie and Rosabell Ratliff) sent her to a boarding school and she later went to college and married. Accordingly, they took young Joe and raised him as their own, in a religious home. At any early age, he began playing the piano. As he grew in age, he grew in grace. Throughout his youth, he remained active and engaged working in the house of the Lord. He would play the piano for various churches throughout his town and at his home church, Mt. Sinai United Holy Church. In addition to being active in the religious community, he excelled in academics and was very involved in student government and the Civil Rights Movement.
He graduated high school in 1968, the same year of the assassination of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. By that time, he had already become a leader in his own right as he was involved with many marches and protests. In this dispensation, he was charged with inciting a riot and had to go to court. Not long afterwards, it was decision time in reference to his higher learning. Though he was accepted into Duke University, his Grandfather Ellie favoured Morehouse in Atlanta for two reasons. For one, it was the alumni of Dr. King. Secondly, he had no intent of sending his grandson to Duke, which had the premier hospital; yet, they denied him treatment when he had tuberculosis simply because he was a Negro. So Morehouse is where it was decided that he would go.
Ratliff made his arrival to Morehouse during the era of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. He picked up where he left off in Lumberton and joined in on the protest movements in Atlanta. It was while attending Morehouse in his senior year, that he received an undeniable call to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He made haste and hearkened to that call and began in Ministry. It just so happened that he was playing for Cobb Memorial United Holy Church and the Pastor passed away. The members immediately called him to serve as their next leader. He would go on to shepherd there for eight years.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree in History from Morehouse College, he continued his studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta, Georgia. He earned both his Master’s and Doctor of Divinity degrees there. Afterwards, he went back to Morehouse College and taught Religion and Philosophy. In the first year of teaching there he married his first wife. He remembers his experience as a professor as a good one. He shared that he taught the likes of: Spike Lee, John Wilson (Present-day President of Morehouse) Edwin Moses (renowned track star), Martin Luther King, III, and a host of others who went on to excel in typical Morehouse fashion.
He was still pastoring at Cobb Memorial and teaching at Morehouse when he was faced with the burdensome task of having to burying his wife. She passed away from lung cancer. During this phase, he remembers dealing with a load of resentment and anguish due to the grief of losing her. It was a dark period in his journey that resulted in him leaving the church and his role as professor. After recovering from some serious bouts with depression and anger with God, Dr. Ratliff set his sights on Texas. He’d made a decision to enroll into Texas Southern University – Thurgood Marshall School of Law. His plan was to get his degree and travel the globe working for the World Council of Churches. However, he would soon learn the true meaning of Isaiah 55:8, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD.”
Prior to coming to Houston, he already had an ally in Pastor Emeritus William A. Lawson of Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. Pastor Lawson is: an affluent Pastor from the Third Ward area, a giant in the struggle for civil rights and a leader in community action initiatives for over 50 years. Hence, Pastor Lawson insisted that Dr. Ratliff get involved. Consequently, Dr. Ratliff joined the Wheeler Avenue Baptist Church. In doing so, he promptly began working in the church. He started a Singles Bible Class and many of the leadership of the church today, were students in his class. As time went on, Pastor Lawson influenced him to become a candidate for Brentwood Baptist Church, as the church had become vacant. Although initially reluctant due to plans that he’d previously laid out for himself, he eventually went to Brentwood to fill in for someone who didn’t show. Dr. Ratliff had already discovered some things about himself in regards to his former role as Pastor and he didn’t think that he would embark upon that journey again. He knew that he didn’t handle pain or losses well, from his encounter of losing his first wife. But, unbeknownst to him, he had a phenomenal experience. Apparently the sentiments were the same for the church, because he was called following that love at first sight moment!
The year was 1980 when Dr. Joe Samuel Ratliff married the love of his life, the former Doris Ernestine Gardner. In that same year, he was elected as the Pastor of Brentwood Baptist Church. This feat established him as the second African-American shepherd of the church. Formerly, the church had been a predominately White Southern Baptist Church. In fact, Dr. Ratliff shared that there still remains about 50 African-Americans, who were members under the leadership of the last Caucasian Pastor.
Life at “The Wood”:
When Dr. Ratliff first assumed his role as Pastor there were about 500 members on the roll, 300 in regular attendance and the church owned six acres of land. Through his stewardship, the church has multiplied exponentially in several capacities. Today, Brentwood is categorized as a mega church with several thousand members, its campus houses 12 buildings and the church owns over 100 acres of land.
Through the leadership of Dr. Ratliff, Brentwood, also referred to as, “The Wood” is literally one of Houston’s best kept secrets. The church has implemented a great number of community outreach programs that serves to benefit residents from the Greater Houston and surrounding areas.
Long before the awakening of awareness in regards to the AIDS epidemic began, Brentwood was involved in the fight early on. The church received a grant from the City of Houston to erect a housing facility for men living with the virus. However, the community warred with the notion and influenced the city to kill it, as there was not much known about the disease at that time. From this experience, the church sued the city and won. Thereby, Brentwood was able carry their mission out and constructed a housing campus for men. Although the units are full to capacity, the project has been an impressive one. Dr. Ratliff shared that once it was completed, some of the opponents that originally fought against it, admitted that it was not what they feared. Furthermore in regards to domicile measures, the church has recently completed its fifth Habitat for Humanity home. This is a distinction that acknowledges the church as being the only one to have completed that amount.
Another facet of the church is its full pantry that supports residents from nearly twenty zip codes throughout the city, weekly. Brentwood has partnered with the Houston Food Bank in this effort. In addition to providing a full pantry, the church also donates clothing to Houstonians. Every month, the church has members from different groups that go to the Pierce elevated and feed the homeless.
In 1993 the church established Brentwood Federal Credit Unit. It was designed to teach members how to save and invest, as there is no checking component associated with it. Throughout the years, the credit union has been very successful. They have recently partnered with a local bank. Members of the credit union have the opportunity to receive car, student and housing loans. It is a project that Dr. Ratliff declares that he is proud of. In the same year, the Brentwood Community Foundation and the Brentwood Economic Community Development Corporation was founded.
For 35 years, the church through the Brentwood Community Foundation Scholarship Committee has put on a Fashion Show and Luncheon. The event is designed to raise money for scholarships for students. It is the largest fashion show in the Black community in Houston. Esteemed personalities and affluent guests from all over come to witness and patronage this effort. Through this endeavor, the church has contributed over $1.3 million in scholarships. The Fashion Show and Luncheon is co-produced by Macy’s. In its inception it was created to give scholarships to students who attended the church. Over the years, the model has changed and the scholarships are open to general students.
The Fashion Show and Luncheon further highlights Dr. Ratliff’s commitment to education. For the last 30 years, Brentwood has given $25,000 to the United Negro College Fund. Dr. Ratliff and his wife, Doris also donates a $50,000 matching grant that goes to the scholarship fund in their names. On many occasions, Dr. Ratliff has been approached by graduates from HBCU’s that tell him they are Ratliff scholars. He expressed that he believes education is a critical part of life. He said, “In Lumberton where I grew up at, there is a population of about 30,000 people and so I know what you can do if you prepare yourself.”
It has been said that those who proclaim the message of Jesus Christ have been, “picked out to be picked on.” However, it is a burden that comes with the task. Dr. Ratliff is no exception to the rule as he was confronted with a public scandal in 2003. This unfortunate experience affected the church to a certain extent. Although the church lost some of its members, this aspersion against Dr. Ratliff did not shake his faith nor did the word of God return unto him void. Dr. Ratliff declares that, “In spite of, we just believe what we preach. It’s not easy, but you stand and tell people that God can see you through and you have to stand on what you teach.” He continued, “Believing what I preached is what got me through and we have been standing 15 years since that. We lost, but God allowed us to do more with less. That’s been our journey. My wife of 37 years in August, stayed right there with me and we fought a good fight.” “We always sing the song, ‘We are Soldiers in the Army, we have to fight although we have to cry….’ But, the issue becomes how much of your blood is on the battle,” he added. Despite all that Dr. Ratliff has been through he remains confident and hopeful. He summed up his story by stating that, “It has been an exciting journey and I wouldn’t take a day for it.”
The Influencer, Influences:
While Dr. Ratliff has tirelessly devoted several decades worth of service encouraging, mentoring and inspiring others, even an influencer needs an influence. Thus, I was compelled to inquire about those who have been instrumental in molding him into becoming the dynamic force amongst us today. Throughout, our interview it quickly became clear that he was a strong admirer of the works of the late great, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Additionally, he shared that there were three other strong men that made a positive impact on his life. He said, “My grandfather (Ellie Ratliff) was a heavy influence in my life. He was a strong Black man with a third-grade education, but he had money. He was what we call, ‘n@*$a rich’! He sent my two uncles, my mother and me to college. He taught me how to save and invest money. To this day, I still wrap a rubber band around my currency, just the way he used to.”
Dr. Ratliff also revealed that his high school teacher, the late Howard Davis was a motivational character in his life. It was Davis who carried him on his first road trip outside of Lumberton. He was the advisor of the Student Government Association, where Dr. Ratliff served as President, during his high school days. Another effective mentor in Dr. Ratliff’s life was the Chairman of Religion at Morehouse College, Melvin Watson. Dr. Ratliff said, “Melvin Watson taught Dr. King and he was brilliant. He gave me my first job teaching at Morehouse. He influenced me greatly in terms of modeling what a true minister should be. He was the one that influenced me to argue about women’s rights in the church. My Doctorate was on the role of women in the Black Church. Brentwood was the first Black Baptist church to license women pastors. Today, we have female ministers and deacons at Brentwood, and that goes out of my early influence with Dr. Watson.”
Advice to the Black Community:
Upon concluding our interview, I asked Dr. Ratliff if he would like to render any advice to members of our community. He fervently stated, “It is critical that somehow or another, we remember where we come from. In this turbulent time with the Trump era, we must renew our commitment to voter education and registration and get involved in the process. I can’t imagine us not understanding how significant our voting rights are.” He continued to say, “We didn’t transfer the knowledge and experience that many of us and our forefathers went through to get us to where we are. So that’s my advice – for our people to remember and renew our commitment to help ourselves.” Finally he exclaimed, “Black Lives Matter!”
Accomplishments, Awards and Honors:
To date, Dr. Ratliff has been the recipient of scores of awards, acknowledgments, accomplishments and honors. A snippet of these accolades include: being the First African-American pastor to lead the Union Baptist Association, the largest urban Southern Baptist organization in the United States representing more than 500 churches and missions; he was named “Minister of the Year” by the National Conference of Christians and Jews in 1985; the founding president of the National African-American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention; inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. Board of Preachers at Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia in 1997; his portrait was hung in the Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel Hall of Fame at Morehouse, Atlanta, Georgia in 1998; served as the keynote speaker for the 2002 Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.; he was presented with the Spiritual Enlightenment Award in 2003, during the Turner Broadcasting System’s 11th Annual Trumpet Award ceremonies, Atlanta; preacher for the Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, Howard University, Washington D.C. for over 15 years; he has preached and lectured extensively in the United States and abroad and has led mission trips and tours to Africa and other foreign countries and a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
His selected board affiliations include being: Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Morehouse School of Religion, Atlanta, Georgia since 1996; former Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC), Atlanta; trustee on the Executive Board for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc., Chicago; member, of the Board of Directors for The Houston Graduate School of Theology, Houston; Board of Directors for the Washington D.C. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Project Foundation, Inc. since 2006; Founding Board Member, Truett Theological Seminary, Baylor University, in Waco and appointed to the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA) by Texas Governor William P. Clements and served for 6 years.
In past, he was one of the Vice Chairs for the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington, D.C. He led the national campaign where he raised $10-12 million of the $100 million required to complete the memorial. He still remains on the battlefield for national movements around the nation that support social justice issues.
Last month, Dr. and Mrs. Ratliff were honored with their 37th Pastoral Appreciation Service. Pastor Ralph West of Brookhollow Baptist Church was the guest speaker, a capacity that he has served in for 35 of the Ratliff’s 37 years at Brentwood. African-American News & Issues salutes Dr. Ratliff for his commitment, loyalty and dedication to our communities.
By: Rebecca S. Jones