News Articles

Miss. River Ministry leaders connect & dream in convocation

WEST MEMPHIS, Ark. (BP)–More than 140 Southern Baptists gathered April 3-4 to build partnerships, exchange resources, share dreams and worship together in their shared focus on the nation’s poorest region, the Mississippi River delta.
The Mississippi River Ministry Convocation, held at First Baptist Church in West Memphis, Ark., was the third such event since the Mississippi River Ministry’s inception. The first was held in Memphis in 1992 to launch the initiative and another was held in Jackson, Miss., in 1994.
The Mississippi River Ministry was formed to answer the needs of the 8 million-plus people living along the lower Mississippi River region, known by many as “America’s Third World.” Inhabitants often suffer from poverty, poor health, substandard housing, illiteracy and high infant mortality.
In 1997, the ministry involved more than 7,000 Southern Baptist volunteers working in care ministries, evangelism and church planting through state Baptist conventions in the target region, including Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana, networking in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board and national Woman’s Missionary Union.
Meeting planner Tommy Goode, an MRM regional coordinator, highlighted the convocation’s theme, “Building Partnerships, Changing Lives,” to the group of state convention staff, directors of missions, pastors and lay volunteers.
“Some (of the MRM partnerships) are formal, some are friend-to-friend, but the partnerships are important because without the partnerships that keep us together, we couldn’t function,” said Goode, a member of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention missions ministries team.
The convocation program included conferences for urban and rural ministry leaders and missions support organizations, resource awareness, networking and inspiration. An exhibit area filled with MRM ministries and volunteers, meanwhile, provided convocation participants with resource awareness and networking opportunities. Chuck Kelley, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Kenneth Weathersby, team leader for the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s evangelism and missions strategies group, were the convocation’s keynote speakers.
Jane Bishop, a special ministries leader for NAMB, facilitated the missions support conference, underscoring ways to collaborate among churches, associations and states, ideas for developing and working with volunteers and community survey needs and techniques.
Gary Farley, director of missions for Pickens Baptist Association in Alabama, facilitated the rural conference in an examination of different ministry models. He also highlighted the need for intentionality in progressing from ministry awareness to ministry action.
Jimmy Barrentine, missions ministries team leader for the Arkansas Baptist State Convention and facilitator of the urban track conference, noting, “A city church never has to ask, ‘Are we needed here?’ The needs are so apparent in the city. It is time to reclaim the city and celebrate the city and recognize that more and more we are an urban nation.”
Testimonies of those active in MRM ministries provided a touching addition to the program, as those involved recounted the blessings and trials of working in the delta.
Audette Jenkins, a semester missionary working at Brinkley Heights Baptist Church in Memphis, told the crowd, “When I came to Brinkley Heights, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do … but I have been able to clothe them, their families and their babies, homeless men and women — the forgotten people this ministry is based on.”
She related that the MRM is valuable because, as one recipient of an MRM project explained, “‘They not only restored my house, they restored my dignity.'”
Beverly Smothers, state MRM coordinator for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said Tennesseans often divide their state into three states: eastern, middle and western. “We get the other two states of Tennessee to be aware of the east part and to contribute resources to that and to get eastern Tennessee to realize its potential. All across the volunteer state of Tennessee, the MRM will continue to be a big deal for us.”
In his testimony on MRM on the associational level, Tim Abernathy, director of missions for Southeast Missouri Baptist Association, said, “It helps me as a I come to a meeting like this to look at what some of you are doing, how you got started and … that I can take some of that back with me” to help the association become more involved in its communities.
Abernathy noted that as his association relates to the MRM in the future, “the MRM is the future of SEMO Association. Let me share with you why: We have less than 50,000 people, total population, within the borders of our association. We will have, this coming Sunday, if it’s an average Sunday, 1,400 people in Sunday school, basically one out of every 35 in the area.
“Last year, those 1,400 that attended regularly in Sunday school baptized 143 people” he said. “If we assume that 50 percent of our population has reached the age of accountability and are lost, we baptized in our half of the bootheel, six-tenths of 1 percent of the lost population. In reality, lost people are not coming to church for various reasons, whether it’s social, economical or it’s the color of their skins.
“If there is a future for our churches, it is going out to where the lost people are. So the MRM is an opportunity for our churches to go out where lost people are with social ministries we can present,” Abernathy emphasized. He cautioned, however, that “social ministries without the gospel is not ministry.”
Diana Lewis, a home missionary and leader of an MRM ministry in Dixsonville, Ark., shared comments from some of the residents of the rural community where she ministers.
During a skating trip, Lewis noted that an 8-year-old girl “looked up at me and said, ‘Mrs. Diana, God doesn’t just love one of us, he loves us all.’ What a wonderful comment from a girl that doesn’t know the words to ‘Jesus Loves Me.'”
One of the women who attends a ladies group with the ministry told Lewis, “I need to talk to you.” Lewis said she thought the woman “was going to ask for help with food, clothes or utilities, but she said, ‘I want to talk to you about being saved’ as comfortably as she would ask about food or clothes.
“That’s what our ministry is all about — that people can know they can come to us comfortably and talk to us about spiritual things, material needs, whatever they need to talk about,” she said. “We must say it over and over again to them that ‘You matter to God. Not all of us think you are worthless and you are not beyond his love.'”
West Memphis Mayor Al Boals also noted the MRM’s impact on his city through World Changers. “In 1995, I was contacted by the church about World Changers. There wasn’t a lot of communication among people in West Memphis then, but when World Changers came and got involved, there was more between different parts of the city.”
Following three World Changers projects and 65 renovated homes, Boals noted, “We’re improving the lives of West Memphis and it’s all because of you.”
Participants also heard discussion from Tom Ratcliff, Don Anders and Smothers about future plans for the ministry. Ratcliff, director of the Missouri Baptist Convention missions department, chairs the MRM regional steering committee. Anders, an MBC department member, is Missouri’s MRM coordinator.
Ratcliff said in future he wants “to see more than 1,500 professions of faith a year and volunteers (increase to) 15,000 in the very near future. Some of the challenge is getting the attention. The publication of the Mississippi delta as a (NAMB) North American mission study has helped.”
Smothers said the future of MRM will include “larger metropolitan areas” and focusing on student ministry for MRM involvement and education.
Anders added his dream is “that we will have an attitude that we can make a difference. We, as Southern Baptists, will say, ‘We can try. We can’t reach them all at once, but we can one at a time.'”
In other convocation business, Goode received the Beverly Hammack Award for Excellence from NAMB, its highest annual recognition for church and community ministries leadership, named in honor of Hammack, retired director of the ministries section for the former Home Mission Board.
Presenter Jean White of the NAMB church and community ministries section, read an open letter to Goode from Hammack noting that Goode has “led the work in Arkansas beyond the dreams of any of us. My highlight of working with you was with the project that developed into the Mississippi River Ministry.
“You get 95 percent of the credit for being insistent and making the project fly,” Hammack wrote. “You are a strong, committed leader who not only has compassion, but challenges others to find and develop that same caring for people.”
Ratcliff added following the presentation that “very little of the Mississippi River Ministry would have taken place without Tommy Goode. He takes his revival time and coordinates the ministry of seven states. He has put a face on the people on the Mississippi River.”
Goode responded that he was “surprised, dumbfounded,” but said he realized “it is the highest form of affirmation for leadership for state church and community ministries that is conveyed by our denomination. Coming from people who are national leaders in CCM, it’s more than just another plaque, it’s very meaningful and personal.
“It’s also meaningful because of who Beverly Hammack is,” Goode added. “She set the highest standard for leadership and advocacy for CCM in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m honored beyond words to be named the recipient of an award in her name. Among your peers, this is it.”

    About the Author

  • Russell N. Dilday