Called to Serve
It’s a winding walk through cinderblock hallways, past brightly painted classrooms, and up a stairway to reach the office of Bishop Douglas Miles ’70 at Baltimore’s Koinonia Baptist Church. The voices of children enrolled in the church’s daycare program filter through the building. Twenty-five years after founding this church and 50 years after following his own call to the ministry, Miles reflects on a life dedicated to fighting for social justice in Baltimore. “I’ve tried to live my life not speaking for people, but speaking with people on the issues that matter to them and to me,” he says. It is a heady legacy.
Although Miles admits he always had a “sense that I was destined to preach the gospel,” his path to the ministry was not a direct one. Nor was his path to Johns Hopkins. As a senior at Baltimore’s Dunbar High School, Miles’ plans included college on the West Coast with a career as a doctor or science teacher. His mentors at Dunbar had a different idea, and when they were presented with an opportunity to send a student to Johns Hopkins, they chose Miles—a National Merit Scholarship finalist—who didn’t want to go.
“At that time, Hopkins did not have a great reputation in the African-American community in Baltimore, because it was like an island separated from the rest of the city,” explains Miles, who reluctantly followed his mentors’ advice and enrolled as a pre-med freshman in 1966.
He was one of 14 African-American students—the largest cohort of African-Americans up to that time—but the experience was not an easy one. “There was no support system for African-Americans,” says Miles, whose family moved to the new Lafayette Courts public housing project in East Baltimore around 1955. “To a large extent, African-Americans didn’t really have a place in Hopkins culture.” This included the campus barber shop, where Miles was summarily told by a barber using a racial epithet that he would not cut African-Americans’ hair.
Nevertheless, Miles and his classmates made it their mission to improve the climate for minority students at Hopkins, pressing the administration for more African-American faculty hires, and successfully establishing the campus’ Black Student Union. Miles changed his academic focus when he realized his spiritual call to the ministry, and graduated in 1970 with a major in humanistic studies with concentrations in history and philosophy.
Despite the challenges, Miles finds merit in his Johns Hopkins experience. “[Hopkins] gave me a different perspective of life from growing up in the African-American community in Baltimore, which was still basically segregated; it gave me a larger view of the world, a larger view of the possibility of life; and it even gave me a more rounded perspective of the race issue in Maryland—that not all white people were against black people.”
After graduation, Miles took that newly honed world-view with him and began to blaze trails. He was the first African-American to assist at Baltimore’s St. Mark’s United Methodist Church, eventually winning over white congregants who initially refused to shake his hand. He was among the first African-American trainees with First National Bank, the day job that helped him support his family while he pursued his ministerial calling.
In 1980, Miles was pastoring at Brown’s Memorial Baptist Church when he was approached by a representative of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the nation’s oldest and largest community organizing network, to join a group of pastors who were participating in an action against redlining at a local bank. Miles was reluctant—he had stepped away from social ministry after some rough experiences—but the IAF rep was persistent and persuasive. The event at Provident Bank—which ended with community leaders negotiating real policy changes with the bank president—resurrected Miles’ dedication to social justice work, and he has been active ever since with several national IAF affiliates, including the Baltimore affiliate, BUILD, where he is now co-chair emeritus.
Among BUILD’s many accomplishments, Miles says he is most proud of the creation of the CollegeBound Foundation, which helps prepare Baltimore City public school students for college and provides scholarships; the development of Nehemiah Homes for low- and moderate-income families; the push for afterschool enrichment for public school students as embodied by the Child First Authority; the signing of living wage legislation in 1994; and the re-building of the Oliver community, just north of Johns Hopkins Hospital. In 2015, he was repeatedly called on to speak about the city’s rising rate of violence and the April unrest that erupted in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray. Recently, Miles has worked with Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels in advocating for the creation of entry-level jobs for city residents through the HopkinsLocal program.
Miles urges people who are searching to make a difference in their communities to “organize, organize, organize.”
As he approaches his 50th anniversary in ministry, Miles is committed to his priorities: his family—a wife, two sons, five grandchildren, and one great-grandchild—and his church (which he co-pastors with his son, Rev. Dante K. Miles).
“I started preaching when I was 18, and I would take nothing for the journey,” he says. “My only desire is that I could be 20 years younger because I think it’s a great time to be in ministry because of the possibilities for change that exist for those who are committed.”