Thursday, February 13, the Historic Mt Helm Baptist Church hosted the groundbreaking ceremonies for Helm Place, a residential development that will boast 88 market rate townhouses. For roughly three decades, the area that surrounds Jackson’s oldest historically black congregation has been blighted. Homes where doctors and lawyers once lived now look like haunted houses. The streets, once populated by children playing, are crumbling and empty. The hopes of many of Mt Helm’s members is that Helm Place will bring long awaited and much needed community back to that section of the Historic Farish Street District. I pray that it will.
I was pastoring Mt Helm when City officials approached the church with the project that was originally slated for the Jackson State University area. The controversial development and its developers, Chartre Companies, was resisted by many West Jackson community leaders. But then Mayor Harvey Johnson and later Mayor Chokwe Lumumba believed in what these potential houses could do for the capital city and inquired about moving the project to the Farish Street District. Maybe that belief is what led them to negotiate with a house of faith.
I was admittedly reluctant about it at first. To be sure, I knew Mt Helm had a missional obligation to lead revitalization beyond its four walls, even as it had a spiritual obligation to support revival and reform within the four walls. I just wasn’t sure if this company and strategy were the best fit for our needs and priorities. As always, I shared this information with members of the Joint Board, the deliberating body for the church. Almost all of the deacons, deaconesses, and trustees that compose that board agreed that this was the best thing to do and wanted to bring it to the congregation for further decision making. Though there were some who objected for reasons good, bad, and indifferent, the majority of members joyously wanted the church’s leadership to move it forward.
And they did. That was about a year ago. Many weeks of negotiations, delays, revisions, and the like ensued between that time and now. But the groundbreaking Thursday says to the congregation and the City that Helm Place, named in the church’s honor, is indeed on the way.
I was invited back to open the ceremonies with a time of worship. Hymns, responsive reading, and an invocation marked yesterday’s event as something more than your average political gathering where elected officials exult another economic expansion. The oldest black church wanted to let the watching city and state know that it was still, first and foremost, a church.
Mt Helm was filled with dignitaries for the event. Among them were former Governor William Winter, Governor Phil Bryant, and Mayor Chokwe Lumumba. I sat on the pew next to our present governor and mayor, who sat next to each and exchanged handshakes and smiles often.
My biggest responsibility was to offer prayer. I want to share what you what I prayed in that sanctuary Thursday. I hope it blesses you as it did those gathered.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
By Your kind providence You were present with our enslaved ancestors as they worshiped You in the basement of First Baptist Church-Jackson
By that same providence Your mighty hand led them joyfully from their cruel captivity to this place, their Promised Land
By Your loving providence You moved upon the hearts of Thomas and Elizabeth Helm, white Presbyterians whose beneficence blessed those first black Baptists with property and for whom this Church is honorably named.
By Your preserving providence, You sustained this Church in the days when hope unborn had died and in the days when the demonic powers of Jim Crow reigned supreme. Because of Your grace this Church and the Farish Street District prospered with Christian virtue and commerce and culture in spite of such evil.
Now in these last days, after many years of neglect and abuse, this Church and this community are in need of revival and resurrection. So we thank You, Lord, for this this day for this moment. For by faith we believe that these houses are signs of new hope and new life. May the decline, dereliction, and dilapidation give way to better days and better things.
May they and may we be built on a sure and strong foundation even as we yearn for buildings not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens.
Bless Mount Helm and Helm Place and all who are gathered together today—young and old, rich and poor, black and white, Democrat and Republican.
To You, O God, be the glory in the Church and community, for great things You have done and great things You shall do! In the name of our Rock, our Foundation, our Strong Tower.
In Jesus Name, Amen