MEMPHIS, Tenn. — 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, located just six miles from downtown Memphis.
Southern Baptist missionaries Willie and Ozzie Jacobs Jr. — believing it will take no less than Jesus Christ to once and for all change the crime-culture of Memphis and stop such senseless neighborhood violence and bloodshed — have taken on the challenge.
Although now 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 perennial “Top Ten” most dangerous cities in the United States.
“Memphis is in the middle of spiritual warfare,” says Jacobs, when asked about the spiritual climate of Tennessee’s youngest but second largest metro area. “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 was not challenging enough, Jacobs serves the North American Mission Board (NAMB) — in partnership with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and the Mid-South Baptist Association — as regional coordinator of church planting for the four-state Memphis Delta Region, including parts of Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Missouri.
The Jacobses are two of 5,500 missionaries in the United States, Canada and their territories supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering® for North American Missions. They are among the NAMB missionaries featured as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 1-8, 2009.
This year’s theme is “Live with Urgency: Sowing Together for Harvest.” The 2009 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering’s goal is $65 million, 100 percent of which benefits missionaries like the Jacobses.
Willie and Ozzie (pronounced “O-zie”) didn’t have to transfer to Memphis last July. They were quite happy and content in Columbus, Ohio, where Willie was serving as a church planting strategist for the State Convention of Baptists in Ohio. Before that, he spent 30 years as a full-time pastor — 20 years at a single church — in the Dallas, Texas area. Both Alabama natives, they now live in nearby Collierville, Tenn., and have three grown daughters and two grandchildren.
“For 40 years, we dreamed of the day when we’d become missionaries going to Africa,” he 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.” He says sometimes it’s almost overwhelming.
Jacobs has launched a multi-pronged strategy for the Memphis area. He does his best to work along aside other predominantly African-American denominations — strong in Memphis — such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC) and the National Baptist Convention, although “their concept of missions is quite different from ours as Southern Baptists,” Jacobs admits.
“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 non-threatening. You have to build relationships,” says Jacobs.
“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 the city Tennessee’s second largest metropolitan area behind Nashville. But with its 674,000 people, Memphis proper 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 three percent are Hispanic. Jacobs says 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,” he explains. “We want to sow down the gospel, start Bible studies and raise up leaders. We’re working with students from the Mid-America 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 Frazier, Tenn., 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,” said Jacobs.
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 are working especially close with 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,” he 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. 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.”