JONESTOWN — Linda McGrew thought she had grown up poor — and she had. But then she visited some homes in Quitman County.
“I (was) inspecting the units that we were to rehab (at a nonprofit). You could look through the ceiling and see outdoors. You could look on the floor and see the ground. Raw sewage — I mean I didn’t know that people still lived that way,” she said.
“It just gripped my heart. And the Lord started putting in my spirit, ‘This is something you can do at home.’”
Linda eventually started a nonprofit in her church choir loft in Jonestown, near Clarksdale in neighboring Coahoma County. Her work included after-school and summer programs for kids, housing rehabilitation and more.
“I didn’t have enough hands — and the Lord sent me some hands and some feet,” she said, laughing.
The girl who came back
Unlike many of her peers, Kelly Sayle didn’t break her neck trying to leave the Delta after graduating high school in Greenville.
“I just wasn’t that girl that ever was dying to leave,” she said.
After getting a psychology degree at Delta State, Kelly felt God calling her into ministry. She attended seminary in Texas, came back to Greenville for a brief stint as a student ministry associate — and then God led her out of state again for eight years.
In January 2016, while serving as a middle-school minister in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Kelly “happened” to be on a bus in New Orleans. She sat next to Rob Futral, pastor of Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison at the time.
She shared with him her desire to minister in the Delta, and he told her about But God Ministries, an organization founded by one of his church members, Stan Buckley.
At the time, But God Ministries (BGM) was meeting people in their spiritual, physical and economic needs in Haiti. Kelly had no idea that organization leaders wanted to expand to the Mississippi Delta — or even the United States.
But nine months later, in September 2016, she was helping them do just that.
‘We’re not going to fuss with people’
Kelly didn’t know Jonestown existed before she started working there.
The community’s population falls somewhere between 1,700 and 2,500 (depending on whether you believe the U.S. Census) and is part of what Kelly refers to as the “north Delta,” a region she’d never explored beyond the occasional away basketball game.
Jonestown sits about 15 minutes northeast of Clarksdale and has suffered the same ill effects as other Delta communities — job loss due to the mechanization of farming, white flight, a crumbling economy.
The town also contains a Montessori school started by a nun. More on that later.
For his part, Buckley always knew he wanted to take the ministry model that had worked in Haiti and use it in Mississippi. That model is SPHERES: spiritual, physical, H2O (clean water), education, roofs, economic development and soil (gardens).
A few years ago, Buckley and BGM Managing Director Rusty Hall started looking for a Delta community where BGM could partner with local leaders to improve people’s lives.
Buckley and Hall were looking for positive answers to three questions: Where was God already at work? Was there a man or woman of peace who could help BGM build relationships in the town? And, would the residents actually want BGM there?
“Because we’re not going to fuss with people,” Buckley said.
The two men met with the mayor of Jonestown, who then called a town meeting. About 30 educators, business people, pastors, law enforcement officers and others showed up. Buckley gave a presentation about BGM.
“And I’ll never forget at the end of the meeting I asked if there were any questions, and a lady stood up in the front row and asked, ‘What do we have to do to pass the test for y’all to come?’”
Like any ministry, BGM had to earn the community’s trust. They’ve done that by putting down roots and staying true to their word, Buckley said. They’ve built the Hope Center, a dorm-style facility for short-term mission teams that also houses Kelly’s office. Kelly lives in Clarksdale and can be seen in Jonestown on a daily basis.
On November 16, BGM (in partnership with the Mississippi State Department of Health) opened a free dental clinic for the uninsured in Jonestown. They’ve worked on people’s roofs. They’ve taken up the torch from the nuns at the Montessori school. They’ve got plans to turn Linda’s former community center into a new medical clinic next year.
But most importantly, they have built relationships.
Being before doing
People told Kelly she was crazy for leaving Chattanooga — “one of the top 10 most thriving cities in our nation,” she said — and moving to a poor Delta town where she didn’t know anyone.
But she wasn’t afraid of the place, she said. She was afraid of the actual ministry. She knew nothing about how to pull off BGM’s SPHERES model.
“It was so evident every single day that I had never done this before,” she said.
She began meeting people: the county administrator at the time. Local pastors. Linda McGrew.
Linda had attended that town meeting with BGM and was volunteering with the organization however she could. Kelly soon realized Linda could help BGM succeed in a major way.
“I would not have gotten through my first summer without her,” Kelly said.
Linda helped Kelly usher seven short-term mission teams through Jonestown in summer 2017.
The two women also committed to prayer walking through Jonestown on a regular basis — not as a project or with an agenda, but as a way to get to know the community.
“And that’s really our value (at BGM). We need to make sure we’re being before doing,” Kelly said.
“It’s so easy to have to do the work to make the ministry happen, that you (can) forget about the people that are receiving the ministry.”
In January, Linda came on board BGM as a full-time staff member after getting confirmation from God that she needed to close her own community center. She now runs the Life Center, BGM’s social services hub in Jonestown.
Evelyn Veasly, owner of R&V Diner, has been happy to see BGM in Jonestown.
Evelyn grew up on the outskirts of Jonestown. After retiring from the U.S. Air Force and working a corporate job for a couple of years, she wanted to help support her hometown. The diner, which also sells a limited supply of grocery items, enables her to do that.
“When I came back, (Jonestown) had kinda faded away a little bit from what I remember it to be,” she said.
R&V Diner sees a lot of customers from BGM’s short-term mission teams. BGM takes teams to eat at local restaurants — not for every meal, but some of them — as a way of supporting business owners.
“Would it be better financially if we just (got all our food) from Walmart and ate sandwiches? Yes. But we try to stay away from what’s always the easiest thing,” Kelly said.
BGM also wound up indirectly helping Evelyn refurnish her diner. A group of people from Oxford who were friends of the ministry came down to renovate the restaurant, and then one of them found out that the owner of the Oxford Chick-Fil-A had won all-new restaurant furniture.
“He came, and I just had some old benches, and he came and gave me all of that (furniture from his store),” Evelyn said, pointing. “The booths and the tables and the garbage thing over there.” She said some of the furniture also went to Frank’s and Country Kitchen, two other Jonestown eateries.
“And he came here and gave me some pointers … And there’s another guy from the But God Ministries, he’s into the financial. He’ll call and check on me every now and then.”
It’s hard for a restaurant to survive in a town of 2,000 people — many of whom can barely afford groceries, let alone one of Evelyn’s Philly cheese-style sandwiches (which are delicious).
“I tried to get set up with delivery … but you have to promise $2,500 a week. Well look at this town. I can’t promise one vendor $2,500 a week.”
The only vendors who do deliver are Coca-Cola and the alcohol distributors, she said. Clarksdale doesn’t have a Kroger, so if Wal-Mart doesn’t have what she needs, she has to drive to Cleveland or Southaven. And of course, while she’s gone, there’s no one to cook.
“But I just do the best I can, and pray, and cry, and pray, and you know, and cry some mo’,” she said, laughing.
Evelyn is glad BGM is here. “They’ve been doing wonders, in my opinion, for our community, with all the various — the dental, all the programs they have for the kids. And they’re thinking about a credit union …”
In addition, Buckley said, next year BGM hopes to break ground on an economic center: a 300,000-square-foot heated and cooled warehouse-style facility, with a loading dock and forklift, ready made for employers to come set up shop in the area.
“Then when we ask people to come create jobs, (there’ll be) a place for them to come,” Buckley said. Capital Bolt and Screw out of Ridgeland has already agreed to provide jobs in the facility.
More jobs would give Jonestown a foothold — or maybe a toehold — on economic stability. But it might not come soon enough for R&V Diner.
“January will be three years (that I’ve had the diner). If it doesn’t get better … I just can’t keep sinking money (into the business),” Ms. Evelyn said.
“I’m trying to sell it to someone who would still have as much passion about serving the community as I do. So I’ve got the mayor helping me look for somebody.”
Same problems, different solutions
At 146, Mary Bethel Missionary Baptist is probably the oldest church in Jonestown. Its pastor, Owen Robinson, is a century younger. He wears ripped jeans and Chuck Taylors with his shirt and tie.
Pastor Owen and Pastor Bennie Brown, of St. James Missionary Baptist, are part of the Swan Lake Association, a group of churches that’s been supporting the Jonestown area since about as long as Mary Bethel has been around.
“My home flooded about two years ago. We lost ev-er-y-thing,” Pastor Owen emphasized. “And I think he — if (Pastor Bennie) wasn’t the first person at my doorstep, he was the second one to show up and make sure that we had some financing and some help.”
When BGM came in, they simply locked arms with Pastor Owen, Pastor Bennie and others to continue offering that same kind of help to neighbors.
“(The way BGM operates is,) ‘This is not about us doing the work for you guys. It’s about us partnering to reach a common goal,’” Pastor Owen said.
Buckley noted that when BGM starts building affordable housing next year, the homes won’t be free. Residents will have to qualify for mortgages.
Obtaining a mortgage will be a big deal to Jonestown residents — who currently can’t even cash a check in town, Pastor Bennie said. When people left, the banks left, too.
“A lot of these small Delta towns depend mostly for their substance on government-type grants. And I think (BGM) and the churches are looking for a way to sustain ourselves without having to depend on grants and things that might disappear,” Pastor Bennie said.
He and Pastor Owen both said they’re glad BGM has a real relationship with the community.
“Kelly can come to my house anytime she calls,” Pastor Owen said. “And if I need to see her, she’s gonna go out of her way to accommodate that.”
That’s in contrast to some other nonprofits, who have done good things — but not for long enough to build friendships.
“(BGM is) gonna have a positive effect on the next generation,” Pastor Bennie said.
“The only (other) organization that has come to put roots down here … was the Sisters of the Holy Name.”
They’re the ones who started that Montessori school.
‘The heart of this town’
If you enter Lady Jackson’s office on a weekday, you might catch her cradling a sleeping child who needed a longer nap than his classmates.
And if you walk into the red tin building out back, you’ll see a class full of small children — moving, talking, playing, yes, but at a low decibel level. They might twist around to look at you (especially if you’re holding a camera), but your presence won’t keep them from continuing their dance exercise.
Lady has worked at the Jonestown Family Center for Education and Wellness for 22 years. The school has six babies in a toddler program and 21 kids in the Montessori program for ages 3 and 4. Lady became interim director in April when BGM took over from the Sisters of the Holy Name.
“This (school) has always been the heart of this town. The people have always trusted us,” she said.
The Jonestown Family Center began in 1992. In 1998, Sister Deanna Randall brought the Montessori curriculum to the center. A Montessori school uses more of the five senses to work with each student’s educational needs, Lady said. Not every child learns best sitting at a desk.
“People didn’t know about Montessori (when it started here), but those few children that we had, they set the tone… The children who’ve left here are doing very well.”
Other Sisters of the Holy Name have been involved with the school, including Sister Teresa Shields. You might’ve read about her in 2012 when a man broke into her home and stabbed and robbed her — and after she recovered, she returned to her work in Jonestown.
The Sisters didn’t lack commitment. But eventually, they needed another entity to take over the school. Enter BGM. Families pay a small fee to attend the public school, and BGM is also seeking funding from other sources.
The organization has brought more Christian elements to the curriculum, Lady said.
“We have prayer. We have like a devotion. We might talk about the Lord. Not only that, we sing songs like ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ And we also tell them you have victory in Christ Jesus. We sing ‘Victory is Mine.’”
The majority of employees at the school are believers, she said, and they often use Sunday school primary books at the school.
Lady has noticed a difference since incorporating Christian teachings, she said. Outside, she sees kids pounding on the playground version of a piano and singing “Jesus Loves Me.”
The same thing is happening at their homes.
“A few parents told me they went into the room and heard the child — they thought they was talking — and they stood in the doorway and the child was saying the Lord’s prayer,” Lady said.
There’s still so much work to do in Jonestown. But a classroom full of preschoolers learning about Jesus tends to give one hope.
And, as a mural in downtown Jonestown states, “Hope brings change.”