Melvin E. Banks Sr., the founder of Urban Ministries, Inc., the largest independent, African American-owned and operated Christian media and publishing company, passed away Saturday. He was 86.
“Dr. Banks was a revolutionary publisher and giant for the African American church and community,” UMI CEO C. Jeffrey Wright said in a statement to The Christian Post.
“He was the first to create contextualized content that portrayed positive images of African Americans in the Bible. Because of his innovation, UMI has reached millions of Black churches and individuals with the Gospel.”
Banks was born in Birmingham, Alabama in 1934. He became involved with the publishing industry after completing his master’s degree at Wheaton College in 1960.
After graduation, he took a job at Scripture Press Publishers. During his tenure there, Banks struggled to sell euro-centric Sunday school content to African American churches.
In light of that experience, Banks was inspired to create contextual resources for African Americans with imagery and stories unique to their culture, UMI explained in a statement.
After a few years at Scripture Press Publishers, Banks left the company to start his own. He launched UMI in 1970 from his Chicago basement. The company grew to serve thousands of churches as it provided Sunday School and Bible study materials for black churches.
Some viewed Banks' work as controversial as the company produced Bible study materials that depicted Biblical figures as both black and white to reflect that the Bible is set in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Legacy.com,
He included images of young African Americans in the publications.
Banks argued that he helped black Christians find more that they could relate to in the Bible.
“For the first time, they were gaining a sense of esteem by seeing themselves portrayed in the publication,” Banks said in a 2017 video.
According to Wright, Banks’ work came when “many people were discouraged in the African American community because of the failure of the white evangelical community to come alongside the Civil Rights Movement.”
“The faith that we cling to needed to speak to the problems that people were facing,” Banks said in the video. “Are you going to be accurate when you talk about what happened in the Bible or keep on perpetuating the idea that everything is euro-centric?”
Banks also wrote several books and devotionals. He also hosted a two-minute daily podcast called Daily Direction.
His pioneering work has been recognized by some evangelical organizations, including the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Banks was presented with the ECPA’s inaugural Kenneth N. Taylor Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017. Banks also studied at Moody Bible Institute and was named the institution’s alumnus of the year in 2008.
“I would load up my [car] trunk and go from city to city,” Banks recalled of his journey in a video feature for the ECPA award. “And in that way, we were able to get the word out that we had a new product that we believe could help churches because it was speaking to the issues.”
The ECPA realized they weren’t speaking to black Americans as a result of Banks’ work.
“He liberated many pastors, churches and young people who were ready to give up on the Christian faith,” Rev. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ explained in the video feature.
UMI developed Christian education resources, including Bible studies, Sunday school and vacation Bible school curriculum, websites, magazines, books and videos for its more than 40,000 customers.
“So many people have been introduced to the life-changing message of Jesus because of Dr. Banks’ ground-breaking initiatives,” UMI Vice President Terri Hannett said. “For 50 years, UMI has produced discipleship content that was intellectually rigorous and uniquely relevant for the black experience.”
Banks planted the Westlawn Gospel Chapel church in Chicago and co-founded the Urban Outreach Foundation to reach pastors, lay leaders and Christian educators through conferences and other resources. According to UMI, he also co-founded Circle Y Ranch, a Christian camp and conference center for urban youth in Chicago.
According to a statement from UMI, Banks died from a month-long illness and is survived by his wife, Olive, and their three children.
Stanley Long, chairman of the UMI board who describes Banks as one of his closest friends for 50 years, said in a statement that he will miss Banks “beyond what words can describe.”
“He and I have shared the same vision and burden for as many years as we have been friends,” Long detailed. “As board chair, I will invest as much energy as he did to continue the work of UMI in the same direction it has journeyed from its inception, to impact the lives of as many men, women, and children as possible.”