Cover photo for Rev. Joseph Ruth Barndt Jr.'s Obituary
Rev. Joseph Ruth Barndt Jr. Profile Photo
1934 Rev. Joseph Ruth 2023

Rev. Joseph Ruth Barndt Jr.

September 3, 1934 — August 19, 2023

Royal Oaks

The Rev. Joseph Barndt passed away peacefully on Saturday, August 19, in Watsonville, CA. He was born in Sellersville, Pennsylvania, to Joseph and Dorothy Barndt and grew up on a farm with three older sisters (Dot, Annie and Ruth). His father would farm in the summer and build houses in the winter which is where Joe developed a set of skills that served him well. Although he was originally interested in aeronautical engineering, his studies at the University of Pennsylvania and Muhlenberg College eventually drew him into the field of religion and philosophy and prompted a cross-country move to attend Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) in Berkeley, CA.

Pr. Joseph Barndt received his degree from PLTS in 1960 and was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament on Feb 18, 1962. He did post-graduate work at the University of Tübingen, Germany, and in 1996 received the award for Distinguished Ministry in Special Service from his seminary. As a pastor, he served the Lutheran congregations Prince of Peace, Tucson, St. Philip, Oakland, St. John, Oakland, St. Peter’s in the Bronx, NYC, and was a campus minister at the University of Arizona and University of California, Berkeley. He was the author of 7 books on racism, social justice, and the mission of the church.

From the very beginning of his ministry, however, he was involved in the civil rights movement and in all those ministries he worked extensively with communities of color. Early in that ministry he heard the call as a white person to work among his own community within the movement. He credited his understanding of race, whiteness, and racism to the people of color who invested in him. He felt a strong calling to collective struggles for justice and found his place as an anti-racist white person working and organizing to dismantle white supremacy and racism. It also had international implications as he traveled to South Africa several times while organizing for the anti-apartheid disinvestment campaign and worked in solidarity with the struggles in Latin America, especially in Chile, El Salvador and Cuba.

As a pastor, he was also an organizer and helped start many collective efforts for change in the broader community as well as in the church. These included the Lutheran Coalition on Southern Africa, the New Wine Exchange, the Lutheran Coalition on Latin America, and the Justice Network in the Lutheran Church. He also contributed to other programs such as Mission Discovery, the Internationalization of U.S. Mission and the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation program of the World Council of Churches. In recent years he worked with the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) and traveled to Cuba with Pastors for Peace on one of their Friendship Caravans. During the past 19 years in Watsonville he helped start the Santa Cruz County Community Coalition to Overcome Racism (SCCCCOR) and at Lutheran Community Church he helped begin and lead the Community Information Center for Migrant Assistance (CIMA) while also leading anti-racism trainings for them and for the community. He never hesitated to offer his time and skills where needed, whether it was the church property team or supporting and advocating for those struggling for justice and hope in their lives.

In 1986 while working in New York he co-founded Crossroads Ministry with his spouse Susan (now called Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training), an anti-racism training and organizing collective. He was executive director for 18 years and then Executive Director Emeritus when he left the position in 2004. Afterwards he began working closely as a trainer and organizer with The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond in New Orleans, a collective of anti-racist multicultural community organizers & educators dedicated to building an effective movement for social transformation. He was most recently working with them to deepen the analysis of systemic and institutional racism.

His anti-racism work was a lifetime calling and focused on the dismantling of systemic and institutional racism, coming out of the definition of racism as the combination of prejudice and the misuse of power by systems and institutions. He knew, as a white person, that racism oppresses all of us, and facing it can free all of us. He had a special focus on the church which he loved and served as a pastor for 61 years, during which time he worked with many congregations, synods, and interfaith organizations.

Joe loved life and he and Susan would travel the world near and far whenever possible, often RV camping, while visiting old and new friends on the way. He would always find an opportunity to get folks together for a meal or gathering, reminding us to celebrate those gifts of friendship and love. Joy can be found even in the midst of struggle, and he embodied that reality. His Parkinson’s journey was a long and particularly difficult struggle that he engaged in the last few years with a lot of graciousness and creativity, seldom complaining, always hopeful (even when struggling with the healthcare system), still working and strong in faith. He will be greatly missed by all of us who benefitted from his wisdom, laughed and played and prayed with him, and took courage from his resilience and persistence at making the impossible seem possible. His work will continue to bear fruit on its own and through us in the years to come. Honoring him with gratitude are his spouse of 38 years, the Rev. Susan Birkelo, his sister Ruth Longacre, many nieces and nephews and their families, and his wonderful colleagues and friends who traveled this amazing journey of life with him and will always remember him with love.

A memorial service celebrating his life will be held on Sunday, October 1, at 3 PM at Lutheran Community Church, 95 Alta Vista Ave, Watsonville CA.

Memorial gifts honoring the Rev. Joseph Barndt may be given to Lutheran Community Church in Watsonville or another charity of your choosing. If you have been inspired, intrigued, or are interested in learning more, you may organize an Undoing Racism Workshop for your community of faith, a community-based organization or underwrite individuals or groups to attend a workshop.


A Prayer from Bishop Claire S. Burkat:

We give thanks to God for the life and ministry of The Rev. Joseph Barndt, who faithfully served the ELCA and its predecessor bodies for over 50 years. His ministry and his witness have a lasting effect on the people and systems of this Church. We celebrate his life and the legacy of his ministry. May we all rejoice with the communion of saints that Joe, child of God, has claimed his baptismal promise and lives in perpetual life and love with his Lord. Amen.

To send flowers to the family in memory of Rev. Joseph Ruth Barndt Jr., please visit our flower store.


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