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Memphis in ‘middle of spiritual warfare’

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the last of eight stories highlighting North American Mission Board missionaries as part of the 2009 Week of Prayer, March 1-8, and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions, with a goal of $65 million to help support Southern Baptists’ 5,600 North American missionaries.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (BP)–Six people were found shot and stabbed to death in a mass murder in Memphis’ dangerous Binghamton neighborhood. Three children who survived the attack were hospitalized in critical condition.

And before the dead bodies were cold, yet another shooting and robbery took place in the same gang- and drug-plagued Binghamton area just six miles from downtown Memphis.

Southern Baptist missionary Willie Jacobs Jr. and his wife Ozzie — believing it will take no less than Jesus Christ to stop such senseless neighborhood violence and bloodshed — have taken on the challenge.

Although in their early 60s and married for 41 years, the couple is not ready for matching rocking chairs and simply waiting on monthly Social Security checks. They are on a mission from God in one of the most dangerous cities in the United States.

“Memphis is in the middle of spiritual warfare,” Jacobs said. “We’re dealing with murder, crime and drugs throughout the city. There’s a racial divide that has plagued Memphis since the days of Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s never healed. There’s also an economic and a political divide.

“In the middle of all this, we try to do ministry.”

And as if ministry in Memphis wasn’t challenging enough, Jacobs serves as regional coordinator of church planting for the four-state Memphis Delta region, including parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri in a partnership involving the North American Mission Board, the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Mid-South Baptist Association.

The Jacobses are among the 5,600 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. They are two of NAMB’s missionaries featured in this year’s Week of Prayer, March 1-8, with the theme, “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million.

Before transferring to Memphis last July, Willie and Ozzie (pronounced “O-zie”) were quite happy and content in Columbus, Ohio, where he was serving as a church planting strategist for the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio. Jacobs previously spent 30 years as a full-time pastor — 20 years at a single church — in the Dallas, Texas, area. Both Alabama natives, the Jacobses have three grown daughters and two grandchildren.

“For 40 years, we dreamed of the day when we’d become missionaries going to Africa,” Jacobs said. “But God allowed the mission field to come to us after years of experience as a pastor in Texas.

“We came to Memphis because we sensed the lostness and spiritual climate of Memphis. We felt the Lord wanted us to come here and make an impact in new and innovative ways. This is a God-sized job here in Memphis when you look at the enormous responsibility we’ve been given as national missionaries.” At times, he said, it’s almost overwhelming.

In launching a multi-pronged strategy for the Memphis area, Jacobs does his best to work alongside predominantly African American denominations that are strong in Memphis, such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and the National Baptist Convention, although he described their concept of missions as “quite different from ours as Southern Baptists.”

“One of the biggest challenges we face among Southern Baptist churches is to help people change their mindsets about how ministry is done. The churches need to learn new approaches in order to reach people with the Gospel, and do it in such a way that’s nonthreatening. You have to build relationships,” Jacobs said.

“There’s a real need for churches to realize that ministry takes place on the outside and that a lot of the needs of people are going unmet because church members and fellowships are not going out.”

The greater Memphis area has a population of 1.2 million, making it Tennessee’s second-largest metropolitan area behind Nashville. But Memphis proper, with 674,000 people, is Tennessee’s largest city, the second largest in the South and the 18th largest in the U.S. About 61 percent of Memphians are African Americans while 34 percent are Anglo. Another 3 percent are Hispanic. Jacobs said he knows of 55 different people groups in the Memphis area.

Where do you begin if you’re Willie and Ozzie Jacobs?

“We try to start out by finding a person of peace in the community to help us engage the community,” Jacobs said. “We want to sow down the Gospel, start Bible studies and raise up leaders. We’re working with students from the Mid-America [Baptist Theological] Seminary to help us engage the community. We work closely with a zone of churches inside the I-240 loop. As our Bible study groups grow, we’ll try to knit them together to form churches.”

Realizing they can’t possibly cover all of Memphis, the Jacobses concentrate on the inner-city neighborhoods of Binghamton and Klondike, the Frayser area north of Memphis and Whitehaven in south Memphis.

“You’ve got different types of people in all areas that may not go inside a traditional church but yet they will come to Bible studies with people in their own cultures,” Jacobs noted.

Ministry to Memphis apartment complexes is one of the Jacobses’ top priorities.

“Multi-housing is one of the untapped, unreached people groups,” he said. “It’s among the U.S. apartment dwellers where you find the most single-parent homes, crime and drugs. We’re finding that apartment managers welcome us to come in and start Bible studies because they are looking for help to offset the negatives and bring stability to their complexes.”

The Jacobses work closely particularly at Bent Tree Apartments in Memphis in an effort to create a network of apartment ministries throughout the Memphis metro area.

“We need people to come and help with after-school tutorial programs in the apartment complexes, or just volunteer to spend three hours a day in teams reaching people for Christ in the apartments,” Jacobs said. “One of our goals as we work in the apartment ministry is to go into other Memphis complexes with this model and replicate it over and over again.

“When people’s lives are changed through Jesus Christ, it changes the culture of people who live within the city,” Jacobs said. “I think Memphis can be changed in a great way. As we sow down the Gospel of Christ, crime will be reduced, drug activity will be reduced and lives will be changed. That’s why God sent Ozzie and me here to Memphis.”
Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board. For more information on this year’s Week of Prayer missionaries and the ministries of the North American Mission Board, visit www.anniearmstrong.com.

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  • Mickey Noah