Charles Edward Starks grew up in Guntown just north of Tupelo, Mississippi, a place with an equal number of white and African American residents. But after graduating with a pastoral ministries degree from Southwestern Assemblies of God University (SAGU) in Waxahachie, Texas, his first ministry assignment took him to live in Valentine, Nebraska, in 2009.
Serving as assistant and youth pastor at Crossroads Assembly in Valentine, near the South Dakota boundary line, Starks soon discovered no other Black man lived in the town of 2,700 people.
“God has a sense of humor,” says Starks, 44. “He called me to a predominantly white Christian organization, then to one of the whitest states in the nation.”
However, Starks says he didn’t find ministry opportunities hampered in the five years he stayed in Valentine, nor in the past five years as senior pastor of Living Hope Assembly of God in Blair, a community of 7,900 north of Omaha that is 96 percent white.
“We were loved in Valentine, as we have been in Blair,” says Starks, a recently elected Nebraska Ministry Network sectional presbyter. “I expected racial tension, but it hasn’t happened. There is more racial tension in the South than in Nebraska.”
Although raised in the Pentecostal Holiness movement, Starks says he didn’t have a born-again experience with Jesus until 2001, when he visited the Brownsville Revival in Pensacola, Florida. That led to his decision to attend SAGU, where he met future wife Adrienne Monique. Charles went on to obtain a master’s degree in Bible and theology at SAGU. Adrienne, who also has a SAGU master’s degree, is co-pastor of Living Hope. Charles is nearing completion of a Master of Divinity from SAGU. Charles and Adrienne, who is white, have three children: Asa, 12; Gabriela, 10; and Christian, 9. In addition to home schooling their children and teaching at church occasionally, Adrienne is the multiplying new leaders director for the Nebraska Ministry Network.
In addition to pastoring Living Hope, for the past three years Charles has been the full-time hospice chaplain for Methodist Fremont Health, located 25 miles from Blair. In his chaplain role, he has a flexible schedule, works from home a great deal, and spends much time on the phone.
But the job entails visiting daily those approaching death at nursing home facilities and private residences. He sits with them and talks to them as God’s representative. A year ago, Starks added bereavement coordinator to his list of chaplain duties. He has officiated more funerals than weddings.
Katy Bonham, clinical manager for the hospital, says Starks makes patients, grieving relatives, and staff members feel better just by being around.
“There could not be someone more perfect than Charles for his role,” says Bonham, 34. “In hospice, we deal with a lot of complicated and difficult situations, but time and time again I’ve watched him handle them with confidence and grace.”
Bonham says Starks is passionate about his role, and even those with faith sense they can open up to him.
“Charles has a gift for building relationships,” Bonham says. “He is warm and friendly, and people feel as though they can tell him anything. We are fabulously blessed to have Charles on our team.”
“I want to encourage people and make them feel comfortable with me,” Starks says. Some people are resistant at first because he is a clergymen; some believe they have been irreparably wounded by a church experience. Yet Starks steers the conversation to the importance of having a personal relationship with God.
“All the time I meet people who have been out of church for years,” Starks says. “But I tell them Christianity is about a relationship with the living God. It’s not being a part of a church that saves you; it’s a relationship with Jesus that saves you.”
Repeatedly, Starks says, such revelation is a freeing moment for many.
“I’ve seen people over 90 years old come to Jesus,” Starks says. “They sat in church all their lives, but they had no idea they could have a personal relationship with Jesus. They break down and weep.”
Phil Deakin, a deacon at Living Hope, says the pastor’s zeal for souls made him stand out among the 32 candidates for the position in 2016.
“His whole focus is, How do we build the kingdom of God?” says Deakin, 71.
Deakin, who operates a mechanical engineer consulting business, notes that some families have started attending Living Hope from long distances as a result of their interaction with Starks via hospice care.
“His reputation outside the church is amazing because of his compassion for folks who are in hospice,” Deakin says. “He’s very much an outreach person.”
According to Deakin, Starks has immersed himself in the community, by joining the Chamber of Commerce, evangelizing those he meets at the fitness center, and overseeing an annual church-sponsored law enforcement appreciation event.
Lead Photo: Charles and Adrienne Starks and their children feel at home in Nebraska.
Bottom Photo: Katy Bonham appreciates having Charles Starks as a chaplain on the hospice team.