By KATIE EUBANKS
Jerry and Helen Young
40 years at New Hope Baptist Church
“The decision was made particularly during our senior year (of college),” says Dr. Jerry Young when telling the story of marrying his wife, Helen, in 1974.
“And the only question I had was whether she’d be comfortable in that role as a pastor’s wife. And that issue having been resolved, there were no more issues.”
Despite Jerry’s almost businesslike talk of “resolving issues” and “making decisions,” his eyes twinkle when he hears his bride speak. He jokes with photographer Deryll Stegall about how much better Helen will look than Jerry himself in the photos. Truth be told, Helen is beautiful inside and out, and seems to have a river of confidence running under her quiet exterior.
In April, Jerry and Helen will celebrate 40 years as pastor and first lady of New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson, where they also founded New Hope Christian School in 1982.
Jerry is the school’s headmaster; Helen is the preschool director; their daughter Kelli is the elementary school principal; and four of the five grandchildren are students there. “We see each other every day, and that’s a big blessing to us,” Helen says.
A big blessing, indeed. Of which there have been many.
From Rust to RTS
Jerry didn’t start out wanting to be a pastor, despite the fact that his father was one, and despite God’s still small voice in his own ear. He wanted to make a difference as an attorney instead.
He enrolled at Alcorn State University on a grant program — and the day before he was supposed to register for classes, he got a phone call telling him the funding had been cut. An angry Jerry got a job driving a bus, and was even prepared to move to Chicago for work. But his high-school principal helped him find the one available spot at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale, where his roommate was — guess what — a pastor.
During Jerry’s freshman year, he attended a Baptist Student Union retreat in Prentiss and finally made a serious commitment to Christ. After two years at Coahoma, he enrolled at Mississippi Valley State University.
Once again, the day before he was to register for classes, he got a phone call. The funding had been cut. And again, Jerry couldn’t understand what was happening. But this time a friend at Coahoma stepped in, and Jerry landed at Rust College in Holly Springs.
Somehow in that process, he enrolled in a class he didn’t need for his sociology degree: economics. Freshman business major Helen Akins was one of his classmates. He borrowed an issue of Time magazine from her for an assignment.
“That’s how the conversation (between us) started,” Helen says.
By that time, Jerry was pastoring a church.
“It wasn’t in Greenville (where he’d spent his teen years), it was a little bitty church in his hometown of Lamont,” Helen says, pronouncing it “LAY-mount.”
“La-MONT, please,” Jerry corrects her, and she laughs.
Helen, a Starkville native, grew up in the United Methodist church, so she was comfortable in a church environment. “I always had had a sense of what ministry should be like,” she says.
Her first date with Jerry was attending church. She also visited Mount Tenia Baptist, where he was pastoring, “so I got to see him in his domain,” she says. She’d never considered the good or bad that comes with marrying a pastor. “But I did know what I did and did not want in a mate.”
How did Jerry fare? “He met all the criteria,” she says, and nods.
Helen and Jerry graduated Rust together and got married a week later so their loved ones from out of state wouldn’t have to make another trip.
The day after the wedding, Jerry was installed as a pastor again, at one of two Greenville churches he would pastor simultaneously: Pilgrim Rest Baptist and St. John Baptist. (One church met on the first and third Sunday, the other on the second and fourth.)
A few years later, he applied and was accepted at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. But there was no married housing on campus. Helen wasn’t comfortable staying in the city alone with their new daughter, Jerlen, while Jerry went to class. So they lived in Greenville until the housing could open up the following semester.
Meanwhile, Jerry accepted a job teaching sociology at Greenville High School. And the father of one of his students told him about Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson.
Jerry hadn’t even known RTS existed. But in 1978, after visiting the school, he enrolled and moved his family from the Delta to Mississippi’s capital city.
Unity and a surprise sermon
Not only was Jerry Young the first black student to enroll full time and live in the RTS community, he also represented the Baptist faith at a very Presbyterian institution.
That wasn’t a problem, he says, because “God has shown so much favor. The professors there were sensitive to the fact that I was a Baptist pastor, and they allowed me to do direct study of Baptist polity, Baptist church history.”
Naturally, RTS also introduced Jerry to Presbyterian beliefs, which “forced me to study a great deal more of why I was a Baptist.” But instead of distancing himself from his Presbyterian brothers in Christ, he befriended and respected them.
“The late Dr. R.C. Sproul (a nationally known theologian, pastor and lecturer) was one of my professors and became a friend,” Jerry says. “To see men like that with that kind of knowledge — and to see how humble they were — that was revolutionary for me in my own thinking. The more you learn about Christ, the more humble you become.”
For Jerry and the folks at RTS, navigating their theological differences was simple. Jerry paraphrases a famous quote instructing the body of Christ: “In the things that are essential, have unity; in the non-essentials, have toleration; and in all matters, have love.”
Jerry still preached at the two Greenville churches on Sundays while attending RTS. But one week, he had Sunday off. He wound up attending New Hope Baptist Church in Jackson.
The pastor at the time, Dr. Burns, recognized him — and also, apparently, the gifts within him — and told the congregation Jerry would be giving the sermon. Reluctantly, he obeyed.
Eight months later, New Hope voted Jerry in as their new pastor. But he resisted this calling as he had resisted his calling to the ministry. He said no. It took a lot of conviction and even a car wreck (injury-free) to convince him God was tugging on his sleeve — but finally, he changed his mind. In 1980, he became New Hope’s seventh pastor.
Wisdom and knowledge at New Hope
Two years later, under Jerry’s leadership, the church established what would become New Hope Christian School, which today has about 250 students from preschool through sixth grade.
“A big blessing to me are parents who have children at our school,” Helen says. After nearly 38 years, “a lot of (those parents) are former students (of ours). And it helps me to keep up with the kids in our church.”
“Christian education is so important,” Jerry says. “C.S. Lewis said secular education, as good as it is, without Christian education, can create ‘clever devils.’ How can we educate kids in such a way that they embrace Christ and His principles? (We put) character before career, service before self, wisdom before knowledge.”
But don’t worry, there’s plenty of knowledge.
“When a 4-year-old takes a standardized test and scores anywhere from K5 to third grade — that points to the quality of the teachers,” Helen notes.
Challenges and blessings
Over the years, the Youngs’ family has grown to include not only their daughters, Jerlen and Kelli, but sons-in-law and grandkids: Linzee, Lauryn, Benjamin Hart II, Harper Elizabeth and Braxton.
During that time, Jerry and Helen have faced plenty of challenges, from parenting to leading a church and school, and even grand-parenting, which Helen says “takes you to a whole other level of ministry.”
When asked to name their biggest trial as pastor and first lady, Helen recalls moving New Hope from west Jackson to north Jackson in 1981. “We had a lot of opposition,” she says.
Jerry had not been pastor very long when the congregation voted on the move. The church had planned to build a larger facility in its existing location, but a local business owner wouldn’t sell the property needed for the expansion.
“I followed the lead of the trustees and deacons, and the church voted almost unanimously (to buy property in north Jackson and move),” Jerry says. “But I was still uncomfortable, and I had them vote two more times.”
Despite a thrice-approved plan, the move “got to be very challenging because there was an internal conflict — not because of anything I had done, but it got personal for some people. Family issues,” Jerry says.
“I was accused of being a good pastor but not a good businessman. There was a big spread in the paper on Easter Sunday. (And) the church was sued, and I wouldn’t counter-sue. What they were doing was against the scripture. (The whole controversy) probably lasted a couple of years.”
Jerry did his best to keep his head down and carry on. “All I need is kneeling room to pray and standing room to preach.”
Compare that relocation to the one the church completed in summer 2018, to their current facility on Beasley Road?
“There is no comparison,” Jerry says. “One of the blessings of having longevity at a church is, people get to know you and trust you.”
The new sanctuary holds enough seats for everybody at one Sunday service. Two services made it difficult for members to visit and get to know each other, he says.
When asked to name the biggest blessing he’s received from New Hope, he says, “For me, it’s the quality of the people. Getting to know them on a personal level. So many people from all walks of life who enrich my life, our lives. The biggest blessing has come from the people who walk with us, pray for us.”
Helen seconds that notion — “We couldn’t be among better or more caring people” —particularly in regard to the parents at the school. But the biggest blessing, she says, is seeing the children progress there.
“They develop mentally, and socially, and to some regard spiritually — they understand the concept of God and who they should model after. They learn a verse for each letter of the alphabet during the school year. Some have had (their verses) framed. Some parents have asked for another set.
“And when they come back and tell you how the school blessed them … “
Jerry has loved to see lives being shaped at New Hope: people who’ve left the church and come back; people who grew up at New Hope and now bring their own families; married couples who “decided they can no longer remain together, and to see God come in and turn that completely around, and not only do they remain together but their marriage (grows),” he says.
And, certainly the sweetest blessing of all: “To be able to not only baptize my daughters but to baptize my grandkids. I baptized my oldest grandson (Benjamin) this past Sunday.”
Vacations and budgets
In the midst of all the trials and triumphs, daily family life must occur. So what does a typical week look like for the Youngs?
Jerry just laughs at the question for a few seconds.
Keep in mind, he not only pastors the church and leads the school, but is also president of the National Baptist Convention (he started his second consecutive term last month).
“Let’s just say it’s challenging — consistently and constantly,” he says.
The Youngs work as a team to make sure they achieve a sort of “ministry-life” balance. “We don’t compromise on our family,” Helen says.
“I keep certain things intact — how he eats. I get up earlier to make sure our meals are done.”
“What she does is of paramount importance, because they’re things I don’t have to think about,” Jerry says. This helps him focus on his other tasks.
The Youngs attend “a lot of conventions and congresses” to keep themselves engaged, he says. “It’s important to get with other preachers and pastors (and spouses) and keep the fire burning.”
They also take “mini-vacations” as a family, Helen says. Jerry loves the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville, and the grandkids love Disney World. (Granddaughter Harper Elizabeth, who’s been playing in the New Hope sanctuary during this interview, says her favorite vacation has been to “New Orleans, Louisiana.”)
Jerry loves to read, and Helen enjoys spa days, home décor and shopping with the “grand-girls.” She recently took them out to spend their Christmas gift cards.
Jerry asks Harper Elizabeth: “Did you go over budget?”
After a second, Harper says, “I did,” and nods, continuing to play. She knows she’s not in any kind of trouble.
‘Now unto Him … ‘
Nobody gets to where the Youngs are today without the Lord’s guidance — and He often uses believers to share that guidance with each other.
Jerry and Helen each name a parent as the biggest spiritual influence on their lives. Jerry says his father was “an extraordinary dad,” and Helen says her mother was “very timely.”
“(She was) pretty quiet, but very intentional in training us. Momma was the one who would take us to church. (And) growing up in the United Methodist Church, the pastor’s wives, I was always amazed at them. They have always been influential in my life.”
In addition to his father, Jerry cites a number of pastors who’ve blessed him in unusual ways — including two Southern Baptist men who are well known to many Jacksonians.
“Jim Futral (formerly of Broadmoor Baptist Church) has been a friend for 35 years. He’s such an encouragement in my life. (The late) Frank Pollard (of First Baptist Jackson) was a tremendous preacher, tremendous person. He was such an inspiration for me, so encouraging.”
Of course, the biggest way God leads his servants is through His Word. Helen’s favorite scripture is Proverbs 3:5-6 — “Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.”
Jerry initially says his favorite verse is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
But then he says it might be Ephesians 3:20-21 instead, which says this:
“Now unto Him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
“I say it so much, the church knows what I’m talking about if I just say, ‘Now unto Him … ‘“
For a family who’s experienced more of God’s blessings than they could have imagined, the passage fits.
“Even now, when I say that verse,” Jerry says — “it reverberates.”