The Presbytery of Southern Kansas recently ordained the first African American woman in Garden City, Kansas. The Rev. Doris A. Evans was installed as lead pastor at United Presbyterian Church, coinciding with the church’s 137th anniversary. At 219 miles from the city of Wichita, Garden City is a true cultural melting pot that is indicative of these United States … sort of. Evans recognizes that Garden City is a rural community that is not so dominantly Caucasian, whatever one might assume. However, it isn’t necessarily reflective of the African American populations of other cities, either. There are a considerable number of mixed-race couples who are Latin and Caucasian and scores of Vietnamese families who escaped the Vietnam War as well as families of Middle Eastern descent. The local elementary school boasts support of at least 32 languages. The latest estimation by the United States Census Bureau dated July 2021 claims a 68.7% white population and 5.4% Black or African American population in a city of 27,856.
Evans says she didn’t see another Black person for months after arriving in Garden City. Given her history, she’s comfortable in this environment. She grew up in an area of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in the ’70s and ’80s where there was a similar racial makeup. As the only African American girl in her sixth-grade class, the other students were Jewish, Czechoslovakian, Yugoslavian, Chinese, Asian Indian and others, but not people who looked like her and her family.
Evans received her education in business but always had a passion for the Church. She began her career in health care as an EEG monitoring technician, education coordinator, and other roles with neurologists and residents from all over the world. All the while, she served in various roles in the Church. After a stroke, Evans’ lingering call to a role in ministry came to the forefront of her mind. The time for seminary had come. After a call to Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, she had three weeks to get the required essays and paperwork in for her application. Her initial path was education.
She recalls a mentor while working with the Synod of the Covenant asking her, “Are you going to preach or teach?” As the church staff seminarian at Grace Hope Presbyterian Church in the Smoketown neighborhood in Louisville, she worked closely with the children and youth in a congregation that is truly a community-serving institution. Evans then became a chaplain at hospitals in Louisville and later back in Cleveland. A lot of that work touched on mental health, veterans, traumatic brain injuries, PTSD and cancer units. She was undoubtedly building a resume in service to the community.
Fast-forward to 2020 and Evans had completed her Personal Information Form, still not certain whether to continue chaplaincy, pursue Christian education or work in a church, and was matched with United Presbyterian Church in Garden City as an interim pastor.
“What's in Kansas? What good could come out of Kansas?” she asked. “Like, what good could come out of the desert? But I can tell you there's a lot of good that could come out of this part of Kansas. So, It's wonderful.”
Evans says she’ll never forget one of the first questions asked of her.
“They said, ‘Would you be willing to get up there on that tractor and do the tractor pull?’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, you know, why not? Sure, I'll get up there.’ They didn't know I wasn't afraid of getting up there,” she said.
Evans says it wasn’t an easy start. It was October 2020 when she began as the interim pastor, with all the uncertainty that Covid provided at the time. Her tenure began with a 30,000-gallon “baptism” by busted water pipes and shortly after there was another bout with burst water pipes and more substantial damage to the church building. Evans and the congregation persevered and became stronger and closer because of it.
“There was a wedding that almost didn’t happen because the pipes burst on a Wednesday night and that wedding was on Friday,” she said. “But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. That’s what they say, anyway.”
In 2½ years as the interim pastor, Evans has been quite busy engaging the small community of Garden City. She leads the church’s efforts in mission with rent and medical assistance, bringing the community into the church doors through meetings, events, a voting location, working with the chamber of commerce and city commission to find ways to serve the community, and more. There are already discussions about creating a much-needed facility with an underground storm shelter in the empty lot on the side of the church that she calls “the wilderness” that has sat empty for 40 years. There is no such safe place on the west side of the city and the church is directly across the street from an elementary school and adjacent to multiple apartments and homes without basements.
The Rev. Dr J. Herbert Nelson, II, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), met Evans as he completed his Doctor of Ministry at the same time she started her Master of Divinity at Louisville Seminary. Nelson was on hand for worship and the luncheon reception, delivering the sermon for the installation service. His sermon focused on the direction of the Church in the 21st century and the importance of the innovation that he sees in congregations such as United. Nelson said spending time with the congregation was a source of inspiration as he contemplates drafting a book about the changing landscape of the Church.
“Rev. Evans and her congregation represent, in many ways, the future possibilities of the upcoming Church. The willingness to receive an African American pastor in a predominantly white congregation is a significant representation of what Christendom will have to look like in the days ahead,” Nelson said. “The diversity of our Church and denomination will be dependent on that diversity to grow. We give thanks for her leadership and the leadership of others who have been willing to dare the possibilities of failure while at the same time pressing to promote the love and Gospel of Jesus for all people and humanity. This affirmation is in large part to the members of United to seek competence over familiarity. Thanks be to God.”