His name may not be familiar to those outside Christian publishing, but few have impacted the church as much as Melvin E. Banks Sr., the founder and chairman of Urban Ministries Inc. (UMI). On May 2 in Colorado Springs at its annual Leadership Summit, the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) presented Banks with the Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award for more than 50 years of excellence, innovation, integrity, and commitment to making the message of Christ more widely known.
Inspired by Hosea 4:6 where God says, “My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge,” he founded UMI in 1970 to create an African American Christian publishing house that would uniquely serve this audience. Today, UMI thrives as the largest African American Christian media and content provider, serving over 50,000 churches with curriculum, books, magazines, Bible studies, videos, teaching resources, and more.
Banks has been recognized with an honorary doctorate by his alma mater, Wheaton College, where he served as a trustee for many years. He has also been honored as a Moody Bible Institute Alumnus of the year and has been recognized for his achievements by many others, including the History Makers Foundation. His innovative use of video in Vacation Bible School has been widely duplicated, and his work has led to many companies becoming more ethnically and racially diverse in the reach and content of their publishing efforts.
Theon Hill, assistant professor of communication at Wheaton College, sat down with Banks at UMI’s headquarters to learn more about his pioneering vision.
What was your background in publishing and media prior to UMI?
I had very little publishing experience prior to my work with UMI. In high school, I worked on the school newspaper. During my transition from Moody [Bible Institute] to Wheaton [College], I began to dream of a magazine that would be inclusive of people of color.
Around that time, I was invited to work at Scripture Press Publishers, one of the Christian publishers at that time. I initially resisted because I did not see any connection between what Scripture Press was, a white company located in what to me were the “boondocks” (white suburbia) and me, located in the city where all the black people were. Eventually, God laid it on my heart to accept the offer. This position became my introduction into the publishing industry. During my time there, I caught the vision that you could use ink on paper and duplicate it as a means of producing large quantities of content and that then could be distributed to the masses.
Why is it important for people of color to see people who look like them in biblical materials?
When I grew up, all the Sunday school literature was produced by white people and all the writing was done from a white perspective. All the biblical characters were portrayed as white people. It dawned on me that the material as published did not connect. It did not talk about the culture that African Americans lived and how they worshiped. This fueled my desire to produce material that was more relevant to the African American context.
The geographical center of the Scripture spanned from North Africa to the southern tip of Europe; yet, biblical literature at the time featured characters with northern European features, so we sought to provide more accurate biblical representations.
What challenges did you face when you started UMI?
At that time, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was working to gain civil rights for African Americans. There was this attitude that we in the black community needed to do something to advance this agenda.