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Pioneer Paul James, 90, reflects on early SBC work in New York

DELTONA, Fla. (BP)–On Paul and Ava James’ last Sunday night at Baptist Tabernacle in Atlanta, 1,400 people showed up to tell the pastor and his wife goodbye. The next Sunday morning, they found themselves cleaning up the gymnasium of a YMCA in the heart of New York City in preparation to lead services for a congregation of about 40 people.
The decision to leave the 3,000-member Atlanta pastorate he had served for 16 years was not an easy one, said James, who now lives in Deltona, Fla. Regarded by many as the “founding father” of Southern Baptist work in New York, James celebrated his 90th birthday April 17.
It was the late Courts Redford, Home Mission Board president at the time, who first approached James during the summer of 1957 about the possibility of going to New York. He and Ava were in a worship service at Glorieta (N.M.) Baptist Conference Center when Redford asked James to step out on the patio.
“Several of us want you to go to New York City and organize Southern Baptist work there,” Redford told him.
James was a natural choice for the New York assignment. Born in upstate New York, the son of a northern Baptist pastor, he was “a bona fide Yankee with a Southern Baptist education and a solid record of church experience,” notes Keith L. Cogburn in “Like the Book of Acts: The Baptist Convention of New York Story.”
But Redford’s invitation “was lightning out of a clear blue sky,” James recalled.
James went back into the auditorium and joined Ava as the congregation was singing “Footsteps of Jesus.” He said to her, “Suppose the steps of Jesus should lead us to New York.”
Convinced that God was calling the couple to New York, Ava went gladly, James said. But she later told a friend, “I watered my roses with my tears.”
James’ assignment with the Home Mission Board was to direct the development of Southern Baptist work in New York. “Funny thing was, there was nothing to direct,” he quipped.
He began with the small congregation of the Southern Baptist Chapel meeting at the YMCA in downtown Manhattan.
Begun by a group of Southern Baptist laypeople who had moved to New York from other states, the chapel initially was assisted by Ohio Baptists before becoming a mission of College Avenue Baptist Church, Annapolis, Md.
The laypeople who launched the work were committed and willing to make sacrifices, James said. Some would travel 35-40 miles to services.
But work in the “Big Apple” presented numerous challenges.
One was the challenge of racial and ethnic diversity. The city was “the world in miniature form,” bustling both day and night.
There was the challenge of Southern Baptist identity. “We didn’t want to be simply a nucleus of Southern Baptist transplants,” James said. But Southern Baptists weren’t well known. It “took some doing to get local people interested,” James said, and the New York churches still struggle to be indigenous.
There was the question of relationships with Northern (American) Baptists, who already had churches in the region. James maintained the two groups were not “competing lighthouses,” but that each must do its part to dispel the darkness.
“The risk of total failure was very great,” James admitted. But, “I had confidence that the Lord was in it.” And he realized, “When you turn your back on New York City, you’re turning your back on 7 or 8 million people” who need Christ. “The growth of the work is the thing that kept me going.”
On Jan. 10, 1958, just two months after James’ arrival, the Manhattan chapel was constituted as Manhattan Baptist Church with 99 members.
The church eventually became the sponsoring church for 17 new chapels. One of those, begun in Madison, N.J., eventually started 10 chapels. As others followed Manhattan’s lead, new works were started for Hispanics, Caribbean immigrants and other language/ethnic groups.
That was the secret of growth — churches starting chapels, James said. In just five years, by 1962, Manhattan Baptist Church and the missions that grew out of it counted a membership of 3,000.
It wasn’t always easy to keep that vision before the local congregations, who sometimes became wrapped up in building up their own membership and finances, James acknowledged. But he tried to impress on every congregation that they had once been a mission helped by another congregation, that they were now a church, and they needed to have the privilege of starting another church.
And yes, sometimes he “put a little pressure on them.”
As the work grew, so did James’ responsibilities. In December 1963, he resigned his pastorate to become full-time director of missions for Metropolitan New York Baptist Association. Then in 1969 he was unanimously chosen as executive director for the newly formed Baptist Convention of New York. He served in that role until his retirement in 1975.
Throughout his ministry, James has emphasized the importance of the local church — “a warmhearted fellowship of Christian believers” — growing the kingdom of God through evangelism, missions, stewardship and Christian education.
“I have always been committed to these basic things,” he said.
When the Jameses moved from Syracuse, N.Y., to Deltona, they really weren’t thinking about anything except retiring, James admitted. But it wasn’t long before they learned that First Baptist Church, Naples, needed an interim pastor. James responded to the call.
Since moving to Florida, James “has been interim pastor on nine different occasions in some of our leading churches,” noted Joe Courson, who was James’ pastor for a number of years at Stetson Baptist Church in DeLand.
“I can’t think of anyone who modeled for us any better what a Christian minister should be than Paul James,” said Courson, now director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s church annuity promotion department.
It was small things as well as big things that endeared James and his wife to Floridians. For example, Courson said, Paul and Ava would save the Christmas cards they received. During the year, during their devotional times, they would pull out those cards, pray for the people who had sent them, and typically, write notes of encouragement to them.
James’ most recent interim in Florida led him to a new church. While still a member at Stetson, he chaired the committee that planned a new church start in Deltona. Taking its name from the nearby cities of DeLand and Daytona Beach, Deltona has grown from a population of 12,000 people when James moved there to 60,000 now.
James was interim pastor of Deltona Lakes Baptist Church for a little over a year and kept his membership there after Fred Lowry Jr. was called as pastor in 1993. James taught a Sunday school class there until recently. He is still a faithful and active participant in Sunday school and in the church’s other Sunday and Wednesday activities.
His sense of humor is as keen as ever.
“Know how you get to be 90?” he asked. “When you get to be 89, and then you’re very, very careful.”
At retirement, he would not have guessed that the Lord would give him so many more years to serve, he said.
“The Lord’s been awfully good to me.”

Kristi Hodge contributed to this story.

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