Over the hum of a car engine, Barbara Edmonds greeted me by phone. Her pleasant, upbeat voice belied the length of her nearly 12-hour (thus far) day. Barbara and her husband Cornell had squeezed our interview into their commute from New York City to Central New Jersey. As they traveled the N.J. Turnpike, they took me on a journey of faith, labor, law, and love that spanned the more than thirty years of their marriage. Together they weaved a detailed tapestry depicting how love and faith can truly sustain marriage, family, and life throughout any challenge or obstacle. Their success on multiple fronts is most definitely a labor of love, and the Edmonds are diligent in their work.
Raised in suburban Long Island, Barbara Ingram Edmonds learned the importance of community involvement and giving back from watching her parents.“My father was very involved in the NAACP… my mother was very active with the Board of Education, her church, and Nassau Community College, where she worked.” Barbara attended church throughout her childhood, and eventually she and Cornell were married in the same church she had attended during her youth.
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. —Hebrews 13:16 (NIV)
Currently serving as director of Field Operations, Barbara came by her commitment to the labor movement and unions honestly. “My mother was active in her union,” she explained. In her junior year at Cornell University, Barbara accepted an assignment at Service Employees International Union 1199 (SEIU1199) for her participation in a field study program. “I got to see firsthand how abusive nursing home owners could be,” Labor movement, 35 of which have now been at District Council 37, New York’s largest muncipal employee union. Edmonds is front and center in the fight for employees’ rights and better service for the community, tackling issues such as workers’ pay and benefits, as well as preventing dialysis treatment from being privatized, which could have resulted not only in lower pay for nonunion workers, but less skilled workers delivering lifesaving health services to already marginalized members of the community. “We’re healthcare workers, crossing guards, service aides—we are the ones who keep services running in the community, whether it’s social services or healthcare—every day we play a critical part in our city,” she affirmed. Her commitment and dedication to her work is so thorough, she counts her staff among her blessings. “My faith has been instrumental in my work with the union.”
Currently serving as interim pastor at the Church of the Covenant in New York City, Rev. Cornell Edmonds’ path was a bit different. “My mother was a very involved church person who couldn’t walk two blocks without entering a church; my grandmother was the same way,” he recalled. “We grew up in a rough neighborhood… I received mixed messages about what it meant to be in the church; I saw a lot of hypocrisy… I grew up very poor, in a single-parent household with nine brothers and sisters, so the only real passion was survival.” His survival instincts led him to focus on education, receiving a degree in Human Studies and Family Development from Cornell University, where hemet his future wife. He was hired out of college as chief of staff for a legislator. “I was advising several attorneys on legislation without having a background in law, so I got my law degree to be better qualified for the job I was already doing.”
Years passed, eventually, Cornell began a successful private law practice —losing only four cases in ten years. Marriage and parenting were fulfilling, but he was yearning for something more. He felt a calling, and determined to do God’s will, he left his practice to attend seminary. “I went from making a comfortable living as an attorney to making $6.00 an hour as a seminary student,” he recalled. It wasn’t going to be easy, but he simply had to do it. “I wasn’t sure if I was going on a faith journey or an ego trip,” Cornell confessed. But Barbara, as always, was supportive. “We’re very supportive of each other in carrying out the work of our faith… I think the work that we’re doing is almost like a joint calling,” she explained. “We’re carrying out Jesus Christ’s work. We complement each other in that sense.”
We went through fire and through water, Yet You brought us out into a place of abundance. —Psalm 66:12
After three years in seminary school, the financial situation was bleak enough that Cornell risked not graduating. “The bills hadn’t been paid and I was receiving dunning letters, and if the bills weren’t paid I couldn’t sit for graduation,” he explained. “That was probably the longest argument I had with God… I had uprooted my family and asked them to have faith in what I felt was a calling from God, and I was about to lead them into homelessness. Barbara was incredible throughout the whole time; she asked for nothing in return.” Feeling that he was making every effort and had done everything to do God’s will, he stepped over an express mail envelope as he returned home one day, noting it was from an attorney’s office. “I had a serious argument with God that day,” he chuckled. As he sat on the couch crying, something divine happened. “It was the first time I experienced the voice of God speak to me,” he revealed. “At seminary for three years I had encountered the experience in my head, but not in my heart.”
God’s voice said simply, “Go deal with what I put right in front of you.” Edmonds’ response was more anger, followed by, “God, I don’t need any riddles or parables.” God’s response remained unchanged. Finally, after calming down, Cornell decided to rely on his legal experience and deal with the legal letter on the floor. “It was from someone I had referred a case to and had lost touch with,” he recalled. “In the envelope was a check for around $100,000.” Edmonds was quick to clarify, “This was not prosperity gospel; this was listening to God’s voice.”
Barbara had made only one request throughout Cornell’s time in seminary. “At the end I hope to buy a house, because I want the kids to stay in the same schools,” she had told her husband. Stepping out on faith, she looked at a few homes, knowing all the while they couldn’t afford anything. To make a long story short, that very same day the broker called about a fixer upper in a neighborhood where fixer-uppers generally went for $350,000. In a further showing of God’s grace, the asking price was $170,000—a deal they couldn’t refuse. But the house was on a boundary where the kids
might have to attend different schools. As it turned out, had the house been across the street they would’ve changed school districts, but on the Edmonds’ side of the street, their new home allowed the kids to flourish at their familiar schools. “This all didn’t happen because we’re wonderful people,” Barbara remarked matter-offactly. “It has to do with the blessings we’ve been given by Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 13:4&7 —Love is patient, love is kind…It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Rev. Edmonds will tell you, “Family is one’s primary ministry. In my relationship, my mission is to be in a position to protect the health and wellness of those I’m connected with either by marriage or blood.” Appropriately, the mission of the ministry he and his wife perform both at home and in the church is love. When asked about raising three successful, well-rounded children, Barbara answered almost immediately, “Our children have been incredible! It’s in surrounding them with the kind of love and faith we’ve been able to live. We’ve been blessed with children who really want to give back.” Cornell agreed, adding, “My faith has given me a language, a deeper understanding of what it means to be part of a marriage and a family, to really become something better.”
As the Edmonds continue their journey through life, love, and faith together, they understand that these things are entangled and entwined. “One’s faith, one’s labor, and one’s education are woven together,” Cornell remarked. “There is no shame in labor when it is connected to one’s faith, when it is something one is educated
and informed about . . I think it’s important that those interconnections be articulated…” Barbara agreed adding, “It all goes back to the concept of creating the beloved community, and those are all aspects of that… This is the 50th anniversary of the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ strike. There’s so much interconnectivity between that and Dr. King, and what grew out of that movement… to build the beloved community.” In parting, I referred to the Edmonds as a power couple. True to their nature of service and humility, Barbara
exclaimed, “We don’t see it.” Cornell followed right behind her with, “If there is any power in what we do or say, it’s the power of God.”