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Seven questions with…Patricia “Big Mama” Barron

12.3. 2015 Posted By: Hannah Heinzekehr

In an effort to highlight the many Anabaptists engaged in important work and ministry across the country and around the world, we’re starting a new series. Each Thursday, we’ll publish a seven question interview with a different Anabaptist talking about their life, work, spiritual disciplines and influences. You can view past interviews here

Name: Patricia “Big Mama” Barron
Home congregation: Northside Christian Fellowship
Hometown: Omaha, Nebraska
Job: Owner of Big Mama’s Kitchen restaurant

Hannah Heinzekehr: How did you get the nickname Big Mama?

In the African-American community, “Big Mama” is the matriarch, and it’s considered a position of honor. Everyone respects her and does what she says. It’s usually the grandmother. When my daughters got married and started having kids, I wasn’t ready to be grandma or nanny, so I said, “Call me Big Mama.” My grandma was called Big Mama, too.

HH: Tell me about your restaurant. How did it come to be? What’s unique about it?

I’m located on the campus of the old Nebraska School for the Deaf. I took its cafeteria and made it into a restaurant. The school had closed in 1990 and sat empty for two years. But in 1992, Genesis, a local ministry, bought the property and dedicated it to children.

I’m on this campus because after I retired from the phone company, I wanted to open my restaurant. I had a place picked out near the downtown [Omaha] area. None of the banks would loan me money, because they said I was too old. I was 65 at the time. The director of the Turning Point program on this campus heard I was looking for a restaurant and invited me in. I was reluctant, but then I saw the kitchen, which was huge, and all the kitchen equipment, including the pots and pans. I thought I would only stay for one year, but now I’ve been here for eight.

Our church doesn’t have a pastor, and we wanted to do ministry with people in prison. At the correctional facilities here, you can’t visit unless you are accompanied by a pastor, so I asked around for other churches involved with this ministry. We found Underwood Hills Presbyterian Church and its Crossroads program. We went into the jail with them for Bible studies. The pastor started bringing the inmates to his church for a service, and then we, along with our sister church, Beemer (Neb.) Mennonite Church, fed them, and the pastor from Beemer offered a sermon.

I believe in giving felons a second chance. I found that that’s why there’s so much unemployment in North Omaha, where most of the African Americans live. In our community, there is so much unemployment. Families aren’t like what families were when I grew up. All some of the kids ever see is a life of crime, and a lot of these young folk are felons because that’s all they know. I take them on and hire them.

When I opened the restaurant, all my help were on work release. They worked during the day, then went back to jail at night. I work with the Urban League of Nebraska and with the Nebraska Department of Human Services’ Employment First Program. It’s for felons or people who have never been employed. We take them in here [at the restaurant] and teach them.

Some of the people who work for me want to be chefs. I work with the dean of a culinary arts school in Omaha. We’ve graduated four chefs since I’ve been here, and they all came straight from jail.

I was on featured on [the Food Network show] “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” and was on the Travel Channel. In 2013, we had a pilot reality show on the Food Network and Cooking Channel. It had good ratings, but the network said there wasn’t enough drama. I didn’t want any drama. But that [TV exposure] brings lots of people here. Lots of people see us, and a lot of folks know that I hire felons.

It’s a good advertisement and good for the restaurant.

HH: What’s your most popular menu item?

Oven fried chicken. I serve soul food here. It’s the food I was raised on, [food] my mom and grandma taught me how to

Oven fried chicken is a staple on the menu at Big Mama's Kitchen.

Oven fried chicken is a staple on the menu at Big Mama’s Kitchen.

make. My grandma would oven fry the chicken in just a little bit of oil. It makes it real juicy.

The next popular item is our fried catfish. I also have a gluten-free menu, so the meatloaf is the third most popular thing, and I make it with oatmeal. We try to encompass everybody so they can come here and have a meal.

HH: How do faith and your business fit together?

I feel this is my calling. I’ve always wanted to open a restaurant. I love to cook. I’ve been cooking since I was 6. You know you never get to do what you want to do when you want to. It’s always on God’s timing. After raising five daughters and working for 30 years at the phone company, I finally got to retire and do what I want to do.

I love to cook, and it gives me a chance to meet people and witness to them, particularly to those our society has cut off, which includes the felons. I have a chance to bring them into my midst and love them and witness to them.

I have three generations of my family working here. Everybody’s family, and if they’re not, I just adopt them.

HH: Is there any particular story that stands out as the most unique thing that’s happened during your time in business?

I have many stories. It just depends on what you want to hear. A gentleman who saw me on television in prison in Lincoln, Neb., said he was going to go work for me when he got out of prison. He got out of prison and came here. I got him back in school. He had gone to culinary arts school but never finished.

I witnessed to him and encouraged him to join Narcotics Anonymous; he was a drug addict at the time. He got into NA and eventually became one of the group leaders. He found a church and last year got married, and he’s just doing fine. He’s a chef now at one of the big hotels here. I’m just so proud of him because he defeated the drug thing, gave his life to the Lord, got married and is just doing great.

HH: Tell me about your church. What ministries do you participate in there?

We have Bible studies at my church. There are only four of us left at my church, but we keep going. That doesn’t stop us. We did an interview last month with a young man, and we hope he joins us [as a pastor].

I came to the Mennonite church in 1979. I think it was because I was looking for a group of people that truly believed in the gospel and lived out the life of being a witness to Christ. I found that with the Mennonite church.

I was a part of AAMA [African-American Mennonite Association] for years. I was a part of the Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries, back when that was around. I’ve been to Africa and Mexico and was on the MCC [Mennonite Central Committee] Central States board for years.

I love the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the focal point in my life, and I see the Mennonite church really having a mission to the people in this country. This country is falling. There is moral corruption and shootings everywhere. We need to stand with the banner of Christ and be a witness. It’s easy to be tucked away in our farms and our businesses and not really be involved with the world, but we have what the world needs and need to be out there broadcasting it. It’s the gospel and love of Jesus Christ.

I came into the Mennonite church because I liked the way they went into the community and lived with the folk and were a witness, and I’d like to see us get back to that. And sure, there may be rejection, but Christ was rejected. That shouldn’t stop us. I’d like us to recapture that. That’s what brought me into the Mennonite church.

What’s your go-to Scripture verse?

First Corinthians 13: Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful. It is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Loves is not irritable or resentful. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things. Love never ends.

This Scripture was given to me by a gentleman who was white. I’m African American. The pastor at the time, back in the early 1990s, had said there was a request for people to talk to folk who are ill and invalid. I volunteered. I talked to this gentleman for three or four months. We would talk and read Scripture. He was dying of cancer.

And one day he asked me, “Do you love me?” I thought maybe he was making a pass, and when I realized he was serious I said, “Do you want the truth? I like you, but I don’t love you. You’re white, and I don’t love white people. All the things you’ve done. You’ve stripped Native Americans of their land. I don’t know where I come from because you brought my people here, and because of Jim Crow you made it quite clear we weren’t accepted. You have all the power. So no, I don’t love you.”

He said, “If you don’t love me, you won’t see Jesus.” And I told him to show that to me in the Scriptures.

He gave me five or six scriptures, and this was the one that stuck with me the most. I pondered over those scriptures for days. I asked God to change my heart so that when I see people I don’t see black or white. I see people that need the gospel.

It was time for me to talk to the gentleman again, but he had died, so I never got to tell him I loved him. But I know he’s with the Lord, and I know he knows. I have no hangups and no hardships. I love. And I call that my Damascus Road experience.

Like Paul, all of us need to come to that point where we just love and where we look at people as a soul that needs to know the Lord Jesus Christ. He can use us. And I have been used and am being used. I love everyone and don’t hate anyone. No matter what you do to me, I’m going to love you, just as Christ loves us. We are his disciples, and we’re to love. That’s very meaningful to me. That should come from Christians.

When I was on the board of Mennonite Central Committee, I had a meeting in Pennsylvania. When I arrived at the airport, there was a guy holding a sign with my name on it. He was a white guy. I told him my name was Patricia Barron.

He said, “You’re Patricia Barron?” He got my bags and sat me in a waiting area and said, “Someone will come pick you up.”

Later, a woman from the host congregation came to pick me up from the airport. I asked her what was up with this guy. It turned out that he didn’t want black people staying in his home, and she said, “You’re coming with me. I don’t have any preference.”

I love that man that rejected me because I was black. May God help him and bring revelation to his eyes that this is not how we are to treat one another, particularly as God’s people.

Watch Big Mama make her Sunday special, spicy fried chicken: 

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