Caritas Village's new director brings theatrical flair to the longstanding community hub

Meet Leslie Barker, the new executive director of Caritas Village.

When Onie Johns opened The Caritas Village in the Binghampton neighborhood in 2008, she built a place that offered a range of social services and cultural activities along with a restaurant in one of Memphis’ most underserved neighborhoods.

More than that, Johns created a safe place for neighbors to meet and share with each other, whether it be through art, conversation, bread or ideas.

For almost a decade, Caritas has hosted everything from social justice meetings to bible studies. Its restaurant gives away up to 25 free meals every day and the space supports the Hope Art Gallery, an afterschool care program, a free medical clinic and an arts residency program.

This last year, Johns decided to embark on a new adventure -- retirement.

So the saying goes, it takes a village. With Caritas Village solidified as a community anchor, Johns is turning over the reins to its new executive director, Leslie Barker.

Formerly the Theatre Memphis director of outreach and education, Barker brings with her years of hands-on experience with community services through the arts and performance. Barker says she has always been fascinated with the intersection of faith, art and community and, for her, Caritas Village brings those to life in a way that breaks down walls and inspires trust and love between neighbors.

“In my mind, it is really hard for me to separate art and community in the kind of work I have been doing. I feel very much that Caritas Village gives us a way to share our stories and process the world around us in a safe place,” Barker said.

Caritas Village executive director Leslie Barker and founder Onie JohnsBarker has always had a deep connection with Caritas. Over six years ago, she participated in regular meet-ups at Caritas with a writing group.

At the time she was also gaining her MFA in directing from the University of Memphis and taking theology and art classes at Memphis Theological Seminary. After landing her full-time job at Theatre Memphis, Barker realized she missed Caritas.

After Theatre Memphis received a grant from ArtsMemphis to partner with a community organization, Barker aligned with Caritas and later devoted time to leading Caritas’ after school care program.

Her role at Theatre Memphis also had her out in the Memphis community, as she spearheaded SPEAK, a Melrose High School program that inspires students to use art as a vehicle to address social issues. She also helped facilitate the Central High School Theatre Memphis and Rhodes College fellowship.

“I really enjoy taking theatre outside the theatre walls. Over time, my focus became more and more focused on bringing people together through art,” Barker said.

Soon Barker fell in love with a house just blocks away from Caritas Village that she eventually called home. Two years later she accepted the position of Caritas executive director.

“All paths led to here,” Barker said, adding that Johns’ legacy and work with Caritas continues to be her model for growth as she focuses on cultivating the cultural and creative hub that Caritas offers the Binghampton neighborhood.

Johns said that while there was a talented pool of candidates that Caritas considered, “Leslie had the heart for the job. If you have the heart for it, you can learn the other stuff.”

Art has always been one of the pivotal things Johns wanted Caritas to provide to the community. Johns feels Barker’s experience in performance art will bring another unique dimension to Caritas’ vibrant art programs.

“Once we can provide everyone in the neighborhood with everything they need, then Caritas Village can really be a part of empowering the neighborhood. Once we do that, we can be a model for the world to live peacefully in."

In the near future, Barker notes that she plans to put together a theatrical production that brings together community members and local performers.

“I really look forward to how we can explore our community through art and through a central performance,” Barker said. “I believe theatre teaches people that when you create something together it is going to be far more beautiful than something you could of created by yourself.

It’s fun to see that light bulb go off for people during the production process.”

Creating more structured seasons at Caritas that are dedicated to art and even food is another goal for Barker. Chef Eli Townsend is Caritas’ current artist in residence and he is sharing his art and story through the joyful food he serves in the Caritas kitchen.

Down the line, Barker wants to create a collaborative program or class that helps people connect to volunteering opportunities, information and philosophy.

“Caritas gives people a space to test the waters, to get their foot in the door and to be seen,” Barker said.

In her retirement, Johns isn’t slowing down. She is taking art and writing courses and plans to write a book sharing her stories of Caritas and the Caritas Village model for others to create their own neighborhood hubs. Johns is also looking forward to being more deeply involved in the neighborhood outside of the village. She says her hope for the future of the Binghampton neighborhood is one of peace and plenty.

“Once we can provide everyone in the neighborhood with everything they need, then Caritas Village can really be a part of empowering the neighborhood. Once we do that, we can be a model for the world to live peacefully in,” Johns said.

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Read more articles by Rachel Warren.

Rachel Warren is a freelance writer whose writing has appeared in RSVP Magazine and Focus Magazine in Memphis. She is a sales associate at the Peddler Bike Shop. Rachel likes riding bikes, playing roller derby, watching scary movies and writing about Memphis.