Church draws kindred spirits from diverse backgrounds
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — At first glance, you don’t notice the homeless people in the congregation in the south Jackson church at 800 Raymond Road.
You don’t notice the college student or the bail bondsman or the seminary professor sitting in that congregation either. Or the Nissan employee, the family living out of their car, the teacher, the nurse, the recovering addict or alcoholic.
What you notice, according to almost anyone you talk to at Southside Baptist Church — visitors included — is the overwhelming sense of love when you walk in the door.
“There’s nothing in this church but love. Nothing but love at this church,” said outreach coordinator Willie Cox. “If you can’t feel love at this church, you don’t have a heart.”
As far as the roughly 150 congregants of the inner-city church are concerned, nobody there is from the wrong or right neighborhood. They’re not rich, poor, homeless, black, white or Asian. They’re family.
If that doesn’t make sense, you just need to see it for yourself, members say.
“I believe Southside is a picture of what heaven looks like,” said co-pastor Jeff Parker. “It’s not a homogenous group, a holy huddle of people of the same color or ethnicity or economic level or educational level.”
Parker and wife Sheila are former missionaries to Zimbabwe and England, and as such, they did not shy away from the task when the congregation of Southside began to trickle away during the “white flight” of the late 1990s and early 2000s. But at first, it wasn’t clear how long they’d be staying.
“They were looking at selling the property,” Parker said. “K Mart was looking at buying it, but God didn’t call me here to sell property and move out. We felt a real calling to stay here in the city and go through the demographic changes and try to figure out how to keep a church here. We were real committed to that.”
It was a challenge at times. Southside, affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, was primarily white back then. As the congregation became more diverse and people left for other churches, Parker said there were those who would give excuses such as, “I just don’t agree with the vision of the church anymore.”
“At that time, racial prejudice was no longer acceptable, so if you’re holding prejudice in your heart you can’t allow that to be vented or seen because it’s going to be detrimental to your business,” Parker said. “So what people would do — though they might have deep down in their hearts some racial issues, or they’re getting out of here when their kids are teenagers because they don’t want them in that environment — they would fabricate any and every reason to leave the church.
“As a pastor, you knew part of the issue was a racial dynamic and their perceived ability to raise children in this kind of environment, so they would exit the church, and a lot of times it was like someone spinning tires and throwing mud.”
There has also been pushback from members of the black community at times, church leaders said. On occasion, Parker said there have been people who didn’t want an integrated church with a white pastor in their neighborhood.
Many pastors would have given up. Parker was determined that Southside would be a welcoming place.
“It was a deep love for the people, a deep love for the community, and being very comfortable with the diversity of the community and the church,” Parker said. “We knew the key (to prospering as a church) was leadership. It wasn’t a matter of a few black members coming in and us feeling like we had diversity.”
As the Parkers and the remaining members of the church worked and prayed, God was bringing Reggie Glenn, the now co-pastor, to the church in a roundabout way. He lived in Macon but was dating a woman in Jackson.
Tamara Glenn, now Reggie Glenn’s wife, found Southside Baptist one day when she was looking for another church in the area. She was driving around and couldn’t find it, so finally she just turned in at Southside. She has been a member ever since.
“It’s such an example of how God’s will and our wills are not the same, and God basically adjusted me to be here at the right time,” Reggie Glenn said. “Me and my wife had just reconnected, and she was telling me about this church she was going to in Jackson ... Eventually, she mentioned that her prayer was that I would come.”
In January 2010, Glenn moved to Jackson and became a part of the church. He started off as a youth pastor, but eventually became the co-pastor. There’s a difference between Parker and Glenn, but they’ll tell you it is purely superficial — Parker is white and in his 60s and Glenn is black and in his 30s.
“Between me and brother Jeff, there’s a love, there’s a kindred spirit,” Glenn said. “We want people to meet Jesus, but we also want them to know this is authentic. We don’t want barriers or anything divisive to come between what we’re doing.”
That kindred spirit extends throughout the congregation.
“It would take all day for us to let you know what this church means and what this church is. How it helps you define yourself, how it helps you to realize who you are and your potential after you’ve been in this world and this world has told you all your life that you’re not good enough and you’re not worthy,” said administrative assistant Bell Russell. “There’s just so much anger and hatred that you see in this world, then you come here and people are struggling and going through the same thing that you are. There’s so much love here.”
The church provides sack lunches and food pantry services throughout the week. It’s not unusual to have a steady stream of visitors during the week, Parker and Glenn said.
Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners are also big occasions at the church. They invite the homeless, and Southside members make their best homemade holiday dishes, and everyone eats as a family.
“We just do the best we can to love them where they are. We know they’re going through some tough times,” Glenn said.
But there’s a balance between the gentle love that reaches out to the less fortunate and the no-holds-barred teaching in the church. Glenn and Parker have no-nonsense approaches in their preaching and remind the congregation on a regular basis what the role of a church is — to love and serve at all costs.
“The Bible says you’re to love your enemy, you’re to pray for those who persecute you. The church is required by our final authority that we are to love the unlovable, to love everybody,” Parker said. “The danger to the church in America today is that it’s so defined by what it’s against that it loses the very quality that makes people find it attractive.”
Being in the inner city, there have been members who were gang-affiliated through the years. Glenn describes working with some youth who are looking for acceptance and have found it on the streets. Parker talks about one particular gang leader he befriended and would have deep philosophical discussions with.
“I think gangs and criminal elements in the city recognize goodness,” Parker said. “For the criminal element, even those entities in the inner city, once a church has a reputation for being loving and caring for the people of the community, there is a sense of protection.”
They don’t get into the details, but they stress that their ministry is just like that of Christ — open to all.
“We’ve had some tough kids and one thing that’s clear here is that I’m gonna respect you for who you are and I’m going to ask you for that respect from you to me,” Glenn said. “A lot of the kids and adults understand they’re doing something that’s against the will of God, but the standard of God still exists. You can come and be loved.”
One Sunday, a homeless man walked up to the side door of Southside Baptist Church.
“Do you know where I can get a sausage biscuit?” he asked.
He was quickly escorted inside where Bell Russell set him up with breakfast and reassured him that he was welcome if he wanted to stay.
Bell and husband Manderion, of Jackson, know a little about that. They and their five children at the time — now they have seven — lived out of their car for a while. One night they decided to stay overnight in the parking lot of the church that had been so good to them even though they weren’t members.
“This has always been our safe haven,” Bell said. “The first words out of his mouth that night were, ‘Let’s go park on the church, it’s the only place I feel safe.’”
As they were parked there, Parker noticed them and went to check on them. They had begun going to the church on occasion when one of their daughters wanted to attend a fall carnival and they had liked what they had seen. Since then, deaths in the family and other setbacks had rendered them homeless.
But not completely homeless, as Southside Baptist considers their mission helping where they can. Parker and Glenn were able to connect them with a place to stay, and eventually things began to look up.
“I used to look down my nose at the homeless because I thought all homeless had drug problems,” Manderion Russell said. “I have a heart for the homeless now.”
The Russells say they have lost a few friends who didn’t agree with their going to an integrated church, but that the richness in their lives and the fellowship they have gained have filled all the voids.
“It’s food here,” Manderion said, referring to the spiritual nourishment.
Manderion is now a deacon at Southside, and both of them are front and center to greet every visitor.
“Where I’m from, how people show love is different. If someone gives you something, they expect something back,” he said. “But when they give you something here, it ain’t held against you or over your head, it’s not something they force down your throat. It’s a different kind of love.”
Willie Cox’s addiction was almost born into him. As a child, his neighbors would give him alcohol, he said. They would put beer in his bottle, and he was drinking corn whiskey by age 5. That was what started the long road to New York City, and ultimately back to Mississippi and to Southside Baptist.
Cox left Mississippi for New York City because crack cocaine was so much cheaper there. Where he had to pay $20 a hit in Jackson, he could pay $3 for the same amount in New York. But one day he woke up and couldn’t do it anymore.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” he said. “I had got so I wasn’t buying nothing but crack.”
He came back to Jackson. He had been told in his condition he had about 90 days left to live. On finding Southside — where he was not a member — he asked Parker to help him get help.
″...I had cirrhosis of the liver, had pancreatitis, had Hep C, had diverticulitis, swollen prostate, diabetic, high blood pressure, and diagnosed psychotic schizophrenia,” he said, detailing his ailments. “I came to the church and asked if Jeff could send me to a rehab in Memphis, and he got a guy to take me to the bus station ... and I stayed there until I got clean.”
Cox completed rehab, but came home and relapsed. Shortly thereafter, he found himself in Meridian where he had a heart-to-heart talk with God.
“I have been homeless, out on the street with nothing to eat and nowhere to sleep because of my habit, but when I turned my life over to God he made everything possible,” said Cox.
Cox, now 54, has been clean for nine years. He helps feed the homeless with other church members on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, heads up outreach to apartment complexes in the area, and drives a van every Sunday to make sure people get to church.
“Willie’s a jack of all trades, he’s a real help to our church, and we love him,” Glenn said.
Cathy Millwood and her husband were very disenchanted with church in general when they moved to Mississippi from north Alabama for her husband’s job with Nissan.
“I had told my mother that if I ever got back in church full time that the roof would fall in,” she said.
As she and her husband looked for a place to worship in the metro area a dozen or more years ago, they were a little frustrated with the politics involved in churches. They were invited to Southside by one of her husband’s coworkers, Millwood said, on a very rainy day.
“We started worshipping and got to notice that the roof had a leak and every few seconds the popcorn on the ceiling would fall on us,” she said.
The Millwoods began to scoot down the pew to get out from under the sprinkle of ceiling material.
“I really thought it was just funny at the time, then the more I thought about it and the more I took in what was going on, I realized that was exactly what I told my mother was going to happen,” Millwood said. “And we knew immediately, this is where we should be.”
Information from: The Clarion-Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com