By ANNA CLAIRE O’CAIN
Imagine the day that believers are able to enter the gates of heaven in awe of our Savior’s presence. Picture strolling the streets of gold and shouting praises to Jesus alongside the rest of His saints. In that beautiful place will be God’s people from all walks of life — from different areas, statuses and races.
Then imagine getting to experience a small taste of such love and diversity in Mississippi’s capital city. Jeff Parker, pastor at Southside Baptist Church in south Jackson, describes just such an atmosphere when talking about his church.
“I am a missionary at heart,” Jeff explains. “We had come home from Zimbabwe — we had lived in Zimbabwe, Africa, then in England. I’ve always sensed a calling to the African American community.”
Jeff says, “‘Southside looks like heaven,’” as his wife, Sheila, often says. He explains, “We tend to look for homogenous people that look like us, act like us, dress like us, (are) educated like us, (are) economically about the same place we are. (But) when you look at a church like Southside and you sit in there and you see the diversity, then you realize, ‘Hey, this is heaven. This is what heaven would look like.’
“You are able to hear the heart of other people that may not come out of the same social circles that you come out of, but you are able to hear the heart and the level of fellowship and understanding you normally wouldn’t have.”
By welcoming these differences and obeying God’s call to serve, Pastor Jeff and the members of Southside are able to embrace diversity.
Opening the floodgates
Over the years, becoming a racially diverse congregation is something that Pastor Jeff and the Southside staff have been passionate about.
“The first thing is, and I have always believed this — I think it always comes down to leadership. I think that if you don’t have diversity in leadership, then you are not going to have diversity in a congregation,” Jeff explains.
“What happened was, years and years ago we had a white staff. I would say the only person that was anything other (than white) was the custodian, who was African American. I felt strongly that diversity needed to be in our pastoral staff.”
Jeff shares that church leadership must have a heart for reaching people of all races. “I think sometimes, just like on a mission field, you have to know the heart of people. Whatever the nationality, ethnicity, language or culture.”
Desiring to promote diversity and reach the heart of the African American community, Southside hired an African American man as their co-minister of youth. He later went on to serve as associate pastor, then co-pastor.
“That began to open the door to children and young people feeling as if when they came into that church, that there was diversity in the leadership,” Jeff says. Children, youth and adults from various areas, statuses and races flooded through the doors.
While that original co-pastor no longer serves at Southside, “we are trying to fill (that) position and hope to at some point in the future,” Jeff says. Southside employs people of color in key positions of leadership and outreach.
Embracing diversity in a changing neighborhood does not come without its challenges, though. Jeff explains that many other evangelical churches in the area have moved or shut down entirely.
“Churches were exiting, leaving, getting out — I just had a real hard time with that. I felt like that was contrary to the scripture — to the Great Commission.”
Jeff continues, “Watching churches leave and walk away from what I believe is a mission field, (all) because of racial transition — the racial makeup changing, economics — for whatever reason, to me it just seemed like … ‘Who’s going to continue to be that voice of truth?’ We just need strong churches in the city.”
With a heart burdened for the African American community and a desire to fulfill the Great Commission, Jeff and members of Southside have stayed in south Jackson and continue to make a difference.
‘I just thank God.’
“Everybody just shows love, and they greet you with love,” says Southside staff member Willie Cox, who keeps the church’s ministry going by doing everything from cooking meals to groundskeeping to giving people rides to Wednesday dinner.
Willie describes the atmosphere at Southside: “We have a nice crowd on Sundays. Sunday school starts at 9. We have breakfast for Sunday school, then we have worship at 10.”
In explaining his role at Southside, he says, “I do everything,” and chuckles.
“I really don’t have a title (the website lists him as Outreach Coordinator), but I do everything. I’m the groundskeeper, I’m the maintenance man, I cook breakfast on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.
“Wednesday evenings we have two different types of soup — I help with it. I pick up the people that need a ride. They call me and I will go pick them up in the van, take them back and forth to church. I go out and feed the homeless on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”
As he serves those in need inside and outside of the church walls, Willie recalls a time when he needed a helping hand:
“At one time I was on drugs real bad — it has been about 20 years ago —and I came up here to this church and I asked brother Jeff could he get me a bus ticket to Memphis, and he bought me a bus ticket. To me, that saved my life,” Willie says.
“I went into a rehab and got out and I prayed and asked the Lord to deliver me, and He did. So I just thank God.” Today, Willie works with Southside as they strive to offer others the same hope he found in Christ many years ago.
‘It happens every day.’
Southside member Bell Russell also works at the church part time and is often the first point of contact for those who reach out for help:
“Mostly I am like a part-time administrative assistant. I answer phones, I minister to those who come up and knock at the door — sometimes we have people who come looking for prayer or encouragement. It just depends on who rings the phone or knocks on the door — (we’re) just basically trying to meet the needs of the community,” Bell says.
Part of Southside’s ministry is especially dear to her heart: “Counseling — that’s my favorite part. Meeting and talking to and inviting the people in the community to come out and hang out.”
One unique ministry at Southside gets the little ones involved:
“Every fourth Wednesday, a wonderful leader, Bethany, has this little store. Through the week, the kids can come to church, and they can earn what we call Southside Bucks. Every fourth (Wednesday) night, they get to spend them in the store that she made, and they love it. It’s like kiddie heaven,” Bell says.
“It’s probably one of my favorite nights because (of) the look on their faces from all the hard work, learning verses, bringing their Bibles to class, bringing friends to class, remembering, answering questions — there’s a million ways they can earn the Bucks.”
Bell shares some additional ways that she and other Southside members serve their community:
“Outside of spreading the Word of God, we have a food pantry that ministers to anybody who’s hungry or down on their luck and in need of food. We have a clothing closet (and) twice a year we have community meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas where we open up the clothing closet and basically ask people to clean it out,” Bell says with a chuckle.
“Willie carries sack lunches in and around the community to the homeless. We also have a sack lunch meal where they come and ring the doorbell and get something,” she says.
“If you need it, ask for it. It’s just a bunch of people looking to serve God. I think each person individually brings their own form of community, worship and ministry to Southside as a whole. I think that’s what makes it a unique church because we’re not just doing it at Southside.
“We learn it at Southside, then we go out into the community, and we share it with those in the community — whether it is the community of Pelahatchie, or Brandon, or Pearl, or Clinton, or wherever one of our members stays. Southside just doesn’t happen on Wednesdays and Sundays. I feel like it happens every day.”
Showing God’s love each day to all people is what the staff and members of Southside Baptist Church aim to do. By overcoming obstacles and serving together, Southside members from south Jackson and the metro area get a small glimpse of what we will all one day experience when we are embraced by the arms of Jesus.
For more information about Southside Baptist Church, visit ssbaptistchurch.com or call 601.372.9161.