So much for all those lofty goals.
Born into poverty in the housing projects of South Carolina, Michael Farmer moved to Charleston in the fifth grade and started working on his dream.
He was the first black student body president at St. Albans High School, made a name for himself on the basketball court and landed a teller job at a bank, the first step toward an all-consuming goal — the cushy life he envisioned as a bank CEO.
But God had other ideas.
That’s how he explains the dramatic change of heart that thrust him into what he calls “school ministry.” The calling pushed him into programs that provide resources to at-risk kids.
Building rapport started with basketball, progressed to student activities through the Salvation Army and evolved into work with after-school programs through the East End Family Resource Center and a similar facility taking shape now on the west side.
There, at his Risen City Church, a combination church, family resource center and community hub, he will serve as parish pastor. He’s also involved in AmeriCorps mentoring and reaches out to kids as a Christian hip hop artist. Nothing fires him up like his ongoing work to expand after school programs in the valley.
At 31, this lanky, articulate and energetic champion of at-risk youth believes God had a plan for him far more significant than a fancy bank title. He’s devoting his life to a God-given cause.
“I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, in housing developments. We were dirt poor. We used to go to the Salvation Army and I still couldn’t buy what I wanted.
“You grew up poor monetarily, but you had what you needed. Mom was a single mom with three kids and raised us working two or three jobs. I don’t know my dad. Fatherless homes were the norm where I grew up.
“We moved here in ’99, the last week of my fifth grade. Mom said it was time to move to West Virginia. She grew up here. My grandparents lived here. It was out in the country. You see deer and all these animals and critters. I wanted to be in the city. It was a real big adjustment.
“I graduated from St. Albans in 2005. There was an article in the Gazette when I was the first African-American student body president. I played basketball for Coach Tex Williams and his son, Adam.
“I went to West Virginia State and majored in information technology. I got a job as a bank teller right out of high school. They asked if I wanted to do IT. They gave me a raise and I said I could learn whatever they wanted me to learn.
“I worked in banking and finance from the time I was 18 to 25, seven years.
“My goal in life was to be CEO of a bank by the time I was 30. I was very determined. I was 23 and accepted a job as a network administrator. The next step, I thought, was vice president and then bank CEO.
“But I remember my heart changing from, ‘How much money can I acquire?’ to ‘How many people can we help? That was a God thing, rearranging my heart. I was a work in progress.
“Growing up in poverty, you had nothing and then you get a job in banking and can buy what you want and do what you want and I was real depressed. I didn’t like that life. I had everything, but felt like I had nothing. I wasn’t working for anyone but myself.
“I started seeing some of the chaos in the areas we were living in, and I had a heart for figuring out how you could be proactive instead of just complaining about stuff.
“There are all these kids out there and all these negative forces coming on them and the Lord really worked on my heart to get me involved in student ministry.
“I didn’t want anything to do with youth. I thought kids were spoiled. We grew up with nothing and kids have everything nowadays.
“I wished I had the opportunities they had. I hated kids, but I wanted to do something with them. That’s when I came to understand who Jesus was. He softened my heart to really care about other people.
“You go through college and it’s a me, me, me mentality. Then it became, ‘What about everybody else around you?’
“We didn’t have anything growing up, but mom always took us to homeless shelters and children’s shelters. It showed us there are always people worse off than us. It put my mind to community service, serving people in any capacity.
“I coached Biddy Ball. That’s what really got me involved. I spent a year doing basketball and started doing St. Albans Youth Basketball.
“I was still doing IT in banking and finance. I took a real big step. I wanted to do something with schools, so we started a ministry called Team Undefeated. It gave us access to go into school and do morning devotion.
“I was involved with Maranatha Fellowship at the time. That got us involved in other things, like helping to coach basketball or volunteering at the school.
“That led to the ministry side of it. I didn’t want anything to do with being a minister. But getting that gateway through Team Undefeated got me focused on doing ministry, hearing the call of God. And that was the gateway into doing ministry and helping the community at the same time.
“I still am actively doing school ministry. I do work at Stonewall, Horace Mann and Dunbar middle schools and wherever else will have me.
“As part of that, we have a Christian hip hop group called Undefeated Music. It was a way to do positive hip hop. Growing up, we all loved hip hop and rap. Sometimes the message isn’t always positive but the message always tells a story. So it was great for us to express our story through hip hop.
“I worked at the Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club. When I was 25, I was still in banking and finance and hated the job and I got fired. They were downsizing, and I was low man on the totem pole. It was the greatest thing that ever happened because it pushed me out of my comfort zone of banking and into working in afterschool care.
“I worked at the Salvation Army for a summer camp and they asked me to come to Charleston to work with kids at the Boys and Girls club on the West Side. I wanted to work with kids who grew up in the same situations I did, so it worked out perfectly.
“I fell in love with kids, the area. I worked there for three years as the program coordinator. I had a chance to do a lot of great work there, but it was time for me to move on to bigger endeavors. The East End Charleston Family Resource Center had an opening for an after school director.
“About a year and a half in, we expanded to this West Side location. The program provides free after school programming, a free diaper pantry, free clothing closet and free formula and child nutrition where any kid off the street can come in and receive a free meal every day.
“President Obama came and visited. I came off of vacation just to submit my payroll. These two guys in black suits came in and said they wanted to talk to me about using the building. I said I was on vacation and needed to leave. When they said they were from the White House, I said, ‘Well then, let’s go upstairs.’ Our executive director was there. The president was coming for an opioid crisis forum in our facility. I helped coordinate that with the Secret Service, a big highlight in my life.
“It was great to meet him. A lot of us who were young African-American males, you don’t think about your life beyond a certain point, just day to day. It was great to see what he did in the time that he did.
“I read his book, ‘The Audacity of Hope’ and saw how he really started, grass roots and community organizing in Chicago. He started by doing the small and it grew into something greater. We could see the seeds that were planted in his life and the investments made in him as a youth and college student.
“It was inspiring to me. If you plant seeds of hope in these kids’ lives, you never know who they may be. You just need somebody to give them some hope, a safe place to be and some inspiration.
“We expanded here on the West Side. Resurrection Church owned the building here. We spent six months rehabbing the building. They invested around $30,000 to $40,000. They wanted to make an investment in the community.
“I’ve been with the resource center for three years and part of that was training to do ministry. I will be the lead minister here. When Resurrection Church purchased the Capitol Theater downtown, the goal was always that we would keep a parish site here. In September, Resurrection Church will move to the theater for Sunday morning service and I will be here doing evening services. Our goal is to connect with the community around us.
“My church plan here will be called Risen City Church. Resurrection Church planted us here. It will be like a community center.
“I’m also doing work with Step by Step, a program similar to the resource center. It provides after school programming and AmeriCorps mentorship to local schools. I will be a program coordinator with Step by Step and working with the expansion of after school programs in Charleston.
“I’ll be working more through AmeriCorps with StrengthCorps. It provides AmeriCorps mentors to go into schools and after school programming to provide one on one mentorship.
“I have a heart to expand after school programming to housing developments. Step by Step has after school programs at Orchard Manor and South Park.
“This is 100 percent my calling. I remember when I was 22 and had that transitional phase to want to work with kids. I knew I was called to greater than banking and finance.
“My wife says I put on all these different hats — one day a minister, then an after school director and then an AmeriCorps mentor and then a hip hop artist and basketball coach. Oh, and I also do photography and videography.
“When I turned 30, I said I was accomplishing everything I said I would do. I was director of an after school program and working in the ministry. And I’d met the president. It’s like, what’s next in life? The exciting part is that every single day, you are renewed in what you do. Whatever God wants me to do, I will roll with it.”