By KATIE EUBANKS
If you’ve lived in the Jackson area long, you might know Joel and Meredith Travelstead — but you might only know the highlights. They’re a CPA and OB/GYN respectively, they have three sons, and they make their home in the capital city.
You’d never guess that the homes they grew up in were broken, or that Joel’s home routinely had the lights cut off. You’d never guess that a near-widowhood experience was one of the triggers for Meredith’s YouTube channel.
Listen long enough, and you realize they’ve lived some life, and not just the easy parts.
“Joel always uses the quote, ‘Don’t trust a man that doesn’t walk with a limp,’” Meredith says, referring to Jacob, Israel’s patriarch who wrestled with God and got his hip knocked out of joint as a result.
“A lot of the challenges in life we had were wrestling with the Lord,” she says.
“A person who’s never had struggle – they generally don’t have the perspective, or the grace that softens judgment (when they meet folks who have struggled),” Joel says.
Thanks to their experiences, their gospel roots, and their voracious desire for God’s Word — all gifts from God Himself — the Travelsteads are able to teach and minister to others who are limping from life’s wrestling matches.
A good foundation
Joel and Meredith grew up at Hillcrest Baptist Church in south Jackson, and they each came to know the Lord at 10 years old.
“My mom always brought me (to church), but for some reason she was not there this Sunday,” Joel recalls. “I went and hid out in the balcony.”
The pastor at the time, Maurice Clayton, shared the gospel, and when the invitation came around, “it was obvious I wanted to give my believing loyalty to Christ,” Joel says. He walked to the back, down the stairs, through the vestibule, and finally down the aisle.
Brother Clayton also led Meredith to the Lord, this time through a gospel presentation at Vacation Bible School. “I remember having asked a lot of questions beforehand, but realizing what it meant to accept Christ as your Lord and Savior,” Meredith says.
Thanks to their spiritual upbringing together at Hillcrest, Meredith and Joel became high-school sweethearts, though she attended Jackson Academy while he went to Wingfield.
“Since ninth or tenth grade for me, she’s been my best friend,” Joel says.
The youngest of six, Joel was working and helping his mom financially by 15 years old. His father had left when Joel was a baby.
“I had to come to grips with the idea that I have no father, and (I was) not so much questioning God but trying to figure out how to operate in a dysfunctional family structure. Charles Welch, my youth minister, explained that in God’s family structure, it’s God (at the top), then father and mother, then children,” Joel says.
“If you eliminate father, you are one level closer to God, and He is directly caring for you in the absence of an earthly father. It turned a family situation where culture might call you a victim or at a disadvantage into a special relationship with God.”
Meredith and Joel dated in the days of the landline. When her calls wouldn’t go through, she knew his mother’s electricity had been cut off for failure to pay the bill. So Meredith would call Joel’s friend who lived nearby, and he’d walk to Joel’s house and get him.
When Joel applied to Millsaps College, he found out his mom had not filed taxes for 10 years, and he had to restate the taxes in order to apply for financial aid. Turns out, she got a refund.
Despite such obstacles, Joel says, “It was a wonderful life. (And) so much of my spiritual life, that is a direct result of my mother.”
“We had a good foundation,” Meredith says.
The valley of the shadow
Meredith and Joel both attended Millsaps, where Joel majored in accounting. But his favorite courses? Political science, which he minored in.
“I had two wonderful teachers. I wouldn’t agree with most of what they believed politically, but they were the classical liberal that you don’t see too often nowadays,” Joel says.
“What I look back most fondly on (at Millsaps) are those political science classes and arguing and debating.”
Those classes helped spark a lifelong love of teaching in Joel, and helped him appreciate hearty discussions with people who believed differently than he did — an effective tool in sharing the gospel.
Joel and Meredith spent their early married years in on-campus housing at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, where she was in med school. Their apartment was 450 square feet and cost $195 a month, Joel says.
They’ve come a long way since then — not without their share of heartaches and trials.
Joel says the hardest day of his life was when Meredith’s father died. “She was very close to her dad,” Joel says. “They reached me, and then I had to tell her.”
Meredith and Joel’s oldest son, Will, was born extremely premature and weighed less than 2 pounds. He spent nine weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit. Their middle son, Reed, was born with a hole in his heart.
Finally, “(Our youngest son) John just came early,” Joel says, laughing.
Another of their most dramatic challenges happened on May 15, 2014.
“I was in surgery and my housekeeper, Ms. Mae, called my phone, which she never does, because Joel works from home and is always so available,” Meredith says.
“The nurse answered because I was scrubbed in. I just heard her saying, ‘Yes, uh-huh, uh-huh …’”
Panicking, Meredith started taking off her scrubs. The nurse told her Joel had fallen off the roof onto the slate patio while cleaning out a drain at home. He was alive, and Ms. Mae had called an ambulance.
After learning Joel would be taken to UMMC, Meredith raced home to find him being loaded into the ambulance.
“It was surreal. He looked at me but wasn’t talking to me, and the (paramedics) wouldn’t talk to me.”
They also wouldn’t let her ride in the ambulance, so she had to follow behind.
“I didn’t know who to call. I always called Joel (about emergencies). So I was crying by myself following the ambulance.”
Psalm 23 kept coming to her mind, so she recited the scripture over and over on the drive to the hospital — which for her felt very much like walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
Joel had crushed his temporal bone and had to be intubated and sent to the neuro ICU. Even after it was clear he would survive, Meredith was scared of his potential long-term disability.
“It was an arduous recovery for him, and walking through that together made me put all reliance and trust in the Lord,” she says.
Joel recalls very little from the first week after his fall. He’d lost both his balance and his hearing, which meant learning to walk again and receiving a cochlear implant.
It would take six weeks for him to walk unassisted, a year to regain balance, and three years for him to find the right solution to restore his hearing.
He didn’t realize how serious things were until a follow-up appointment two weeks after the accident, when the doctor told him, “My patients with those fractures are (normally) dead.”
‘Will people think I’m being preachy?’
At the time of Joel’s accident, he and Meredith were teaching a young singles’ class at church. They’ve taught frequently over the years, whether as guest teachers or for their own Bible study groups. They’ve nearly always taught together, not separately.
A few years ago, when the First Baptist Jackson women’s ministry asked Meredith to share a testimony on video, “I passed,” she said. She didn’t feel right about receiving that attention.
Then after COVID-19 hit, women in the church were asked to submit videos of encouragement. The theme for those videos? Psalm 23. The same passage that had comforted Meredith as she’d followed Joel to the hospital.
“I almost audibly heard the Lord say, ‘It’s time,’” Meredith recalls. She didn’t want to do it, but she obeyed.
“That was April 2020. There was a lot of fear (surrounding COVID). I went to my office, and a nurse filmed me. I put on every part of (protective) garb we had — the face shield, masks, gloves — and as I went through the psalm, I was taking (the gear) off.”
Several months later, a patient told Meredith, “I watched that video of yours. I was isolated in my home, crying and depressed, and I watched it over and over.”
“I filed that away,” Meredith says.
Later, she and Joel became acquainted with City Church, founded by some of the same folks from Hillcrest Baptist. One of the people the Travelsteads met was Ishmael Harley, who grew up in the south Jackson apartments where the church started.
Ishmael’s early memories of the church were so powerful, Meredith told him: “We’ve got to share this story! Someone should do a video series!”
Someone — just not her.
Then at a City Church Christmas program, Meredith met Ishmael’s mother.
“Did you ever work at UMMC?” she asked Meredith.
“Did you ever deliver babies?”
“You delivered my son Ishmael.”
Meredith ran into the church building, grabbed Ishmael and said, “I was the first one who held you!” Finally, she was convinced she needed to share Ishmael’s story, and the story of City Church, on video.
Now Meredith has her own YouTube channel, where she interviews believers about how Christ has worked in their lives through everything from pornography to suicide, cancer and more.
“She was so worried about the YouTube channel,” Joel recalls. “(She wondered) ‘Will people think I’m being preachy?’ I said,
‘We have got to get uncomfortable’
The Travelsteads consider their marriage a partnership of encouragement. Just as Joel encouraged Meredith to start her video ministry, she encourages him in his endeavors. They strive to give each other the respect craved by men and the love craved by women.
“(If I could give my younger self advice) I would tell young Meredith, don’t get your feelings hurt if he needs something (different than you do),” Meredith says.
“What does he see as his purpose? I should be building him up (in that) and not being critical.”
“Everything she’s describing there is exactly what she does,” Joel adds. For his part, “When I was 18 to 20, I was much more headstrong. It was my way or the highway. She has an amazing way of disarming (me) when I get like that, but it’s through that encouragement.”
Like newlyweds learning to live out their vows, people come into church every week with practical questions — and harder ones, Joel says. That’s what he and Meredith hope to address with their teaching, which they currently do in the 20s and 30s Sunday school at First Baptist Jackson. (Those lessons are also available on YouTube, under Joel’s name.)
“So much of what we consider our ministry is (showing how the Bible is relevant),” Joel says. “Technology is such that people have access to high-level theology — but some of it is good and some of it is bad. The days of pat answers are gone. Because if we don’t give people (real) answers, they’ll just go look it up (online).
“If you give people the pat, ‘We just love you,’ and send them on their way, they’ll go on their way and not come back.”
“You want people to wrestle (with the hard questions),” Meredith says — and the church ought to be with them when they do. That’s why, on Sunday mornings, she and Joel tackle topics like gender, race and social justice. “A lot of it is things we’ve grappled with, with our kids.”
“We have got to get uncomfortable,” Joel says.
Cheeto crumbs and tentmaking
Beyond just teaching, the Travelsteads also provide a venue for fellowship, Bible study and worship in their home, which they built in northeast Jackson six years ago after designing the house themselves.
Early in their marriage, they had to decide where in the metro to settle down. They went house hunting on Lakeland Drive, and it did not go well. “I don’t want to live my life in the car,” Meredith said after traveling the congested thoroughfare. So they decided to live somewhere with a minimal commute.
“We knew the kids were going to go to Jackson Academy, even though we didn’t have kids yet,” Joel says. “And we were at First Baptist Jackson, and she worked at Baptist Hospital.” So they’ve stuck to the Fondren and northeast Jackson communities since then.
At their previous home in northeast Jackson, they hosted community group Bible studies but were pressed for space.
“The only place we could put the kids while the adults had Bible study was in our bedroom,” Joel recalls. “(After everyone left), Meredith and I would go to our room and pull back the covers, and we’d find Cheeto crumbs and Oreo crumbs in the bed.”
So when they decided to build, they did it with group gatherings in mind.
“We designed this living room to host a Bible study or even a small church,” Meredith says. “We’ve become the landing place (for our kids and their friends). We always say yes — whether it’s a Disciple Now weekend, a pool party, or a Bible study and then a pool party.”
The house is indeed well designed, and beautifully decorated. But the home is a means to an end. Similarly, the Travelsteads don’t view their jobs as the end all be all. This interview is more than halfway over before they talk about their careers.
Meredith loves being an OB/GYN because “you get to do surgery, you get to deliver babies, and you have continuity of care. You’re seeing patients year after year. Now I’m seeing patients (as adults whom) I delivered as (babies).”
Beyond his work as a CPA, Joel loves dabbling in real estate.
“I saw deteriorating properties in our neighborhood, and I was complaining about it, and Meredith said, ‘Then start buying (properties) again,’” he says. So he did. Rehabilitating houses and landscaping remind him of how God brings order out of chaos.
It also gives Will, Reed and John something to do — they’re the yard crew, Meredith says.
Whether in a hospital, on the phone with a client, on a front lawn, or in their home, the Travelsteads use every opportunity to pour into others.
“You have one job, and it’s not the career you have,” Joel says. “It’s to make disciples.”
“Like Paul, (your day job is) tentmaking,” Meredith says. The apostle Paul made tents to support himself financially, but his mission was to share the gospel.
Meredith’s initial concerns about her YouTube channel were not unfounded. Christians are often tempted to “do something for God” and make it all about us. But “I just want to use it for the Lord,” she says.
That statement applies to everything she and Joel do. Instead of pointing at themselves, they just want folks to see two imperfect people, saved and sustained by a perfect God.
“He uses your limp,” Meredith says.