Reverend Leslie “Pastor Isai” Oliver is more than her collar. She’s a musician, a gospel house music singer, a dynamic educator and artist who eats, sleeps and breathes all the adjectives and accolades that describe her.
Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, she relocated to Charlotte in 2004. Oliver is an academician with multiple degrees. To date she’s earned a B.A. in English from Rutgers University, an MFA in Creative Writing from Full Sail University and a M.Div. (Masters of Divinity) in Pastoral Care from Union Presbyterian Seminary. She’s a busy woman who teaches full time for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools and an Adjunct ESL professor at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). While recently en route to Atlanta for a trip to showcase the percussion talents of a group of young people who are members of an impressive drum corps, she spoke with QNotes about her ministry, her teaching and her dream of a better future for girls and the women they will become.
How long have you been teaching?
I’ve been teaching since 2000. I teach Literary, Visual & Performing Arts to CMS students, but I do more than teaching kids how to paint and color. I teach them to express life as they see it. I affirm them. I empower them, because they need equipment, life skills, comprehension, not paint. So, I’m giving them something they can use outside of standardized testing.
How did you get into the ministry?
My mom. I saw her do it and I’m a fourth generation “Servant Leader.” My mom did what her mom did. It started with my great grandmother in Jim Crow Florida, my grandmother in post WWII New Jersey, my mother in the ghettos of the ‘70s and now my sister and I in the [new] millennium.
You’ve been seen ministering in outside public space and on social media. Why don’t you have a brick-and-mortar church with a Sunday morning congregation?
Jesus didn’t have one. He was a homeless hippie, who hung around with 12 dudes and was supported by a group of women. He was a social justice, liberated theologian who did most of his work outside. He rarely worked in doors.
What makes your ministry different from others?
Because I am the church. People want someone who knows what they’ve been through. People want to know that you identify with what they’ve been through – I can. People want relevant leadership. I’ve been the woman bent over, the woman at the well. So, I believe that through my authentic testimony, people see that, feel that and appreciate how I’m able to meet them right where they are. I speak their language. I’m a homegirl.
Do you think street ministry and/or internet ministry is the wave of the future?
I do believe more people will start doing this. The four walls, to me, is an illusion. The four walls mentality inhibits the spreading of the gospel in my opinion. There’s so much more to spirituality than four walls.
Are you partnered?
Yes, I am recently engaged to my partner of 19 years.
Does your partner support your ministry?
Absolutely. Almost from the beginning, whatever I’ve been involved in, she’s been my number one supporter. My partner, Michell Wyms, is my cheerleader. She’s the first to lend a hand, advice and admonish when necessary. And now, I get a chance to support her in the work she’s doing. She’s launched (AllTURNatives) a youth non-profit mentorship organization. It includes a mime team and a drum line, along with other programs that focus on entrepreneurship and aggression replacement therapy.
How has your orientation impacted your ministry?
Authenticity is a cornerstone of my ministry. Being a Black Queer Womanist Theologian is revolutionary. It’s important to be revolutionary in these times. There’s no need to hide. [People] need to see me in my truth and I bring that with me everywhere I go.
Any challenges being Queer clergy in this area of the country people often call the “bible belt?”
I don’t know, because I never cared. I’m trying to impact lives and I don’t have time to worry about what you think about mine. I’ve got students that are coming out or questioning their gender and they need support.
Does ministry influence your teaching?
My teaching is ministry. Working with children, empowering children is God’s work.
When you’re not teaching or ministering, how do you find joy?
Through writing, poetry and art. It’s a release. Writing is oxygen and art is like blood flow. Both keep me alive.
With all that joy, is there anything that just infuriates you?
Oh yeah, when people underestimate the brilliance of women. Stop playing us like we’re stupid. Nothing exists without us. Earth is mother, its elements are mother nature, the first bones found as proof of civilization were those of a woman.
What I’m trying to say is, people try their best to judge or diminish us. Ain’t nobody got time to play small. You can’t stand us but you can’t stop looking, so stop underestimating our brilliance. I will not decrease! I wasn’t meant to be an ellipse, I’m an exclamation mark.
Do you have a dream?
I do. I dream of a world that does not violate the essence of little brown girls. That’s coming from the survivor in me. When we do not affirm young girls at a very young age, from the moment that they can see – we violate their essence. Tell them they are smart. Tell them they are beautiful. Protect them. Tell them you will keep them safe and mean it.
Other girls are entitled from birth, keep that same energy for our [Black and brown] girls; instead of sexualizing and ridiculing them. I have a [19-year-old] daughter, and this is my dream for her. It’s a dream that’s being manifested and is in development because she certainly is sorting out [and] beginning to live through all those things.
What will Reverend Leslie be doing 10 years from now?
I’ll be empowering women – traveling, doing outreach and using my art for social justice – hopefully on the collegiate circuit. Ten years from now, Reverend Leslie will be mirroring the life of Alma Thomas. Alma Thomas became a visual artist at 68 years old after teaching for 30 years.
Anything you want readers to know about you?
I want them to know that when it comes to the souls of the people, I really am about that life.