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Hello! I'm Riley Manning, Religion editor here at the Journal. I graduated from Millsaps in 2011 with a degree in English and a bad habit of correcting other people's grammar. My favorite places to be are on the beach with a book or in a hay field at sun down.

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riley.manning@journalinc.com

Stories Written by Riley Manning

DALL

DALL

For the past few weeks, many Christians have journeyed through the penitent season of Lent. Beginning on Ash Wednesday and culminating 40 days later on Easter Sunday, Lent signifies Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the wilderness. Heading into the final week of Lent, Holy Week, the Rev. Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, comments on the significance of Lent and its practices.

Q. For those who may not know, what is Holy Week, and why is it important?

A. Holy Week is the last week in Lent, and starts today, Palm Sunday. During Holy Week, Christians re-enact, relive, and share in the mystery of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection. In many ways, the events of Holy Week tell us what our faith is all about.

Q. What is the purpose of the somewhat somber tone the Church takes in the weeks leading to Easter?

A. Lent is a penitential season of preparation. The serious tone of the season is meant to contrast with the joy of the resurrection at Easter. We accompany Jesus on his way to the cross, on his way to his passion, death and resurrection. The Church calls us to practice the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer and acts of charity. Without this somber period, the celebrations of Easter would not have its full meaning for the faithful.

Q. What are some of the rituals or traditions involved with Holy Week, and how did they get started?

A. Holy Week observances began in Jerusalem in the earliest days of the Church. Christians would travel to Jerusalem at Passover time to re-enact the events leading up to the resurrection. On Palm Sunday, we wave palm fronds as we enter the church, reminiscent of Christ’s triumphal entry to Jerusalem. Groups of early Christians made this procession from the Mount of Olives into Jerusalem. On Tuesday, priests from our diocese travel to Chrism mass in Jackson, where priests renew their promise of obedience to the bishop. That dates back as early as the fifth century. The Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday is the highlight of the church’s liturgical year. After sundown, it begins with the lighting of the Easter fire, and adults who have prepared for entrance into the Church all year receive the sacraments of the early church. These traditions were revived in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com The Rev. Nick Phillips draws parallels from comic stripes to his faith, and uses them as homiletic tools in his sermons at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Biggersville.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
The Rev. Nick Phillips draws parallels from comic stripes to his faith, and uses them as homiletic tools in his sermons at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Biggersville.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

IUKA – Growing up in the 1950s, the Rev. Nick Phillips, pastor of New Hope Presbyterian Church in Biggersville and lawyer at Phillips and Phillips law firm in Iuka, remembers his family tradition of reading the Sunday morning comic strips together before getting up to do anything else.

He recalls losing interest in serial-style comics like Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie, comics that advanced a story from week to week, in favor of the self-contained laugh-a-day comics like Nancy and Sluggo.

Pretty soon, his passing amusement became something more.

“I began to notice that some had more truth to them,” he said. “I began cutting out the more meaningful ones, then specified to ones that pertained to religion.”

By the late 1980s, Phillips had begun what he calls “true collecting,” clipping comics daily and meticulously sorting them by categories. He organized them by characters they depicted, like clergy, children, Biblical figures, and themes like prayer and theology.

Dennis the Menace“There are a lot of Dennis the Menace panels that show Dennis praying. In one of my favorites, Dennis is kneeling and he tells God, ‘You better sit down,’” Phillips said. “The Frank and Ernest comic strips often refer to the Beatitudes, or show God on a cloud saying something funny.”

In 1996, Phillips was granted a fellowship while attending the College of Preachers in England, where he explored comics and faith over the course of two directed study projects.

“It was affirming for them to agree that the comics could be a serious source,” Phillips said. “The first directed study was to sort them, but the second one was more in depth, dealing with the theology of humor. Sometimes the best way to look at things is to turn them on their heads, and comics can help us do that.”

One thing Phillips noticed is the comics overwhelmingly depicted features of the Old Testament, and almost never about Jesus himself.

“The Old Testament is more situational,” Phillips said. “It tends to favor story over concept, and to place those ancient Biblical images in a modern context creates a lot of irony.”

MosesPerhaps the most religiously inclined comic, in Phillips’ view, is the B.C. comic strip, drawn by Johnny Hart from 1958 until Hart died at his drawing board in 2007. Set in a prehistoric time period, the comic was regularly criticized in the latter half of its running for increasingly bold religious commentary.

“Hart and B.C. had a very evangelical message. Though it never mentions Jesus directly – being B.C., before Christ – it’s clear from the symbols what’s being talked about,” Phillips said.

In particular, one Easter strip showed four panels getting increasingly darker. The caption read, “The First Good Friday.”

Phillips said Hart co-authored another comic, the Wizard of Id, but it wasn’t as religious as B.C.

For Phillips, there’s something about the brevity, the quick punch of a comic strip that makes it a powerful medium.

“A comic strip continues every day. It’s constantly refreshing and offers a new way of seeing something,” he said. “Like a parable, it takes a truth and boils it down to its essence.”

When Phillips finished his first directed study on comics, his collection numbered around 1,500 strips; now they have nearly doubled. He has gone from presenting his findings to professors on overhead transparencies to presenting to churches and civic clubs through powerpoint.

Though the funny pages may seem like awfully low art to convey something as powerful as faith, to Phillips, they are a way of seeing faith play out in culture.

“I’ve always been intrigued by different ways religion and faith are expressed,” he said. “Sometimes that challenges us, and reflects culture, too. If something catches your attention, no matter what it is, maybe it’s something you need to explore.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com Smity Harris of Tupelo, left, and Gene Smith of West Point, both F-105 pilots and former POWs in Vietnam, share memories after the groundbreaking ceremony Monday for a Vietnam memorial in Veterans Park.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Smity Harris of Tupelo, left, and Gene Smith of West Point, both F-105 pilots and former POWs in Vietnam, share memories after the groundbreaking ceremony Monday for a Vietnam memorial in Veterans Park.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

TUPELO – In an unconventional groundbreaking ceremony, Vietnam veterans and their supporters packed the meeting room of the Tupelo Aquatic Center to escape the drizzling rain and celebrate the future construction of a replica of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington.

The black granite monument in Veterans Park will measure 60 percent of the size of the original, and will bear the 58,267 American names who were lost in the Vietnam War.

“Since I came to office, this project has been one I have become more and more passionate about,” said Mayor Jason Shelton. “It’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s also a tremendous addition to Veterans Park.”

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com City Councilman Buddy Palmer, left, makes a donation to the F-105 Thunderchief fund before the groundbreaking ceremony on Monday at Veterans Park.

Thomas Wells | Buy at photos.djournal.com
City Councilman Buddy Palmer, left, makes a donation to the F-105 Thunderchief fund before the groundbreaking ceremony on Monday at Veterans Park.

According to Carlyle “Smitty” Harris, a retired Air Force Colonel who spent eight years in a North Vietnam prison, the wall will stand as one of only five permanent Vietnam War memorials of comparable quality and size in the country. Others include the Westphall Memorial in Angel Fire, N.M., Wall South in Pensacola, Fla., and the Wall that Heals in Wildwood, N.J.

“I’m honored to be here among people whose purpose is to honor veterans,” Harris said. “This project is something we can all be proud of.”

The memorial has been in the works since 2011, and according to Don Lewis, chief operations officer for the city of Tupelo, $125,000 from the city and the Convention and Visitors Bureau has been obtained for the project. This money will go toward constructing the parking lot and other infrastructure, which is set to begin immediately. The monument itself will be paid for by donations and sponsorships of the wall’s 144 reflective panels.

Rex Moody, state council president for the Vietnam Veterans Association, said panel sponsorships currently total around $66,000, leaving $350,000 needed to complete the project.

“The wall will be a real benefit to veterans who can’t travel to D.C. It will allow them to come, see, and heal,” Moody said. “Not everyone who lost their life died there, and not everyone who came home left there.”

A separate initiative will also bring a pedestaled F-105 “Thunderchief” aircraft to Veterans Park. The F-105 was the plane Harris piloted when he was shot down in 1965, and was crucial in delivering punishment to Vietnam’s toughest targets.

“I wasn’t shot down, I didn’t like that missile so I just ran it over,” he said. “It’s really a remarkable airplane. Fully loaded with bombs and fuel, it weighs over 52,000 pounds and could reach a top speed over twice the speed of sound.”

Tom Burnside, president of Mississippi’s chapter of the In Country Vietnam Motorcycle Club, said he and his club were grateful for the monument.

“It’s important for the generation coming up to remember what we did,” Burnside said. “Vietnam was the most unpopular war ever fought. We were asked and we went for our country, and weren’t always treated well when we got back. If you ever get the chance to go to Washington, go see the Wall. It’s an experience.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com

The story of Jonah is one in the endless number of biblical characters that inspire the imagination. Over the course of their ministry, local pastors have developed their own affinity for particular scriptural characters. (File)

The story of Jonah is one in the endless number of biblical characters that inspire the imagination. Over the course of their ministry, local pastors have developed their own affinity for particular scriptural characters. (File)

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

In the Christian canon, all figures fall short in the shadow of the big JC, but for many, scripture captured the imagination as children in the form of figures like Samson or Jonah.

From Esau to Methuselah, the amount of names in the Bible are as numerous as grains of sand. Some characters are granted whole books, while others it seems, get scarcely a passing glance.

But pastors say each one offers something worthy to be gleaned, and they have a few favorites of their own.

The Rev. David Eldridge, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church

For the Rev. David Eldridge, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, the story of Joseph and his coat of many colors has always resonated as a testament to God’s constant work behind the scenes.

“God takes Joseph through the pit, the prison, and the palace,” Eldridge says. “It’s a good reminder that God is really working all things together for good.”

Especially poignant is at the end of the story, during the famine, when Joseph’s long-lost brothers appear, asking Joseph for food without recognizing who he is.

“In a sense he’s toying with them, and I think this is a moment where you see the humanity of Joseph,” Eldridge said. “He also shows us that the path to reconciliation is not always a neat, straight line.”

The Rev. Carson Overstreet, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Carson Overstreet, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Tupelo, sees a profound vulnerability and strength in the figure of Ruth, one of only four women in Matthew’s geneaology of Jesus.

In the book of Ruth, Ruth loses a husband and two sons, and is left to care for her sister- and two daughter-in-laws.

“With the men of the family dead, the widows are left vulnerable,” Overstreet said. “The options for widows at the time were to re-marry or become prostitutes to support themselves.”

Ruth has no obligation to stick around, Overstreet says, but she stays with the other women for the sake of community and loyalty.

“She has a lot of determination in the face of adversity,” Overstreet said. “And that gives us strength.”

The Rev. Terry Garrett, pastor of King’s Gate Worship Center

King’s Gate Worship Center pastor, the Rev. Terry Garrett, gravitates toward Elijah because among goliath-slayers and sea-parters, the prophet is, well, pretty normal.

“Elijah had a nature like ours. He wasn’t a superhero, just a man of faith who God used mightily,” Garrett said.

Garrett said the story of Elijah is indicative of the Pentecost spirit, because Elijah shows the gifts of the spirit are available to everyone.

“It would risk the whole movement of God by the body to say only a select few can do works,” he said. “It’s exciting that a normal person can achieve the same results through prayer as an apostle or prophet.”

The Rev. Clementine Mays, pastor of Poplar Springs CME Church

The Apostle Paul is an inspirational figure to the Rev. Clementine Mays, of Poplar Springs CME Church. Paul saw instructing other ministers is equally important as saving lost sheep.

“I believe Paul penned the pastoral letters – I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus – to help guide others in the ministry,” Mays said. “Therefore, I’ve tried to study the word in a way that I can help mentor other ministers along the way.”

Mays also admires Paul’s conviction after his conversion, even through pain, suffering, and death.

“Paul’s story shows that it doesn’t matter how you start in life,” she said. “And no one can write your story but you.”

The Rev. Sanford Adams, rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church

The Rev. Stanford Adams, Rector at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, found commonality with doubting Thomas through his own inquisitive nature.

“I’ve found that when I approach my own journey with questions, I am most open to listening,” he said.

For Adams, the figure of Thomas was crucial in the discernment process required by the Episcopal church for all reverends-to-be.

“To question helps me see where God is involved in every event and relationship,” he said.

The Rev. Jim Curtis, pastor of First United Methodist Church

First United Methodist’s the Rev. Jim Curtis said the disciple Peter caught his attention through the Tenebrae services of his youth.

“Peter is a type A personality with none of the ability,” Curtis said. “When Elijah and Moses appear to them, Peter doesn’t know what to say. So he can’t shut up.”

But Curtis said Peter’s impulsivity, as shown when Peter jumps out of the boat after Jesus when Christ walks on water, may reveal something more.

“In Peter I see a hunger for more,” Curtis said. “Jesus called Peter first. But why did Peter follow him? They didn’t know each other. Maybe Peter was a terrible fisherman, but he wanted to connect to something greater, and I can immediately relate to that.”

Adam Miller, minister at Mayfield Church of Christ

Adam Miller, minister at Mayfield Church of Christ, said though Enoch is referenced only four times in scripture, what the book says about the father of Methuselah is wonderous.

“All the Bible really tells us is that Enoch walked with God, then scripture literally says, ‘He was not, for God took him,’” Miller said. “This man walked in such faith that God didn’t make him suffer death. That’s extraordinary.”

As a pastor, Miller said he sees himself in Joshua, who God chose to lead the Israelites to the promised land after Moses.

“Imagine being tapped to fill Moses’s shoes,” Miller said. “From the very beginning to the end, Joshua trusts God, even through defeat. As a leader, it’s easy to get frustrated sometimes, but Joshua finished the job.”

The Rev. Rick Brooks, pastor of St. Luke United Methodist Church

The Rev. Rick Brooks of St. Luke United Methodist Church, pointed to Nicodemus, a Pharisee and scholar baffled by Jesus’s words and deeds, who comes to question Christ in secret.

“Nicodemus is a seeker,” Brooks said. “He has a deep feeling of some great truth to be discovered. And he had the courage to personally seek Jesus out.”

The gospel of John tells us later that Nicodemus took up for Jesus when the Pharisees plotted against him, and later helped Joseph of Arimathea lay Jesus to rest in the tomb.

“After he became a follower, his life changed forever,” Brooks said. “He never hid his faith in Jesus again.”

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com The dog that fell from an overpass on McCullough Boulevard and then was hit by a car Monday afternoon is now recovering after surgery on two of its legs at Tupelo Small Animal Hospital.

Lauren Wood | Buy at photos.djournal.com
The dog that fell from an overpass on McCullough Boulevard and then was hit by a car Monday afternoon is now recovering after surgery on two of its legs at Tupelo Small Animal Hospital.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

TUPELO – On Monday afternoon, Tupelo resident Pam Leech received quite a surprise when, as she drove west on McCullough Boulevard, a small dog dropped from the overpass in the opposite lane.

“I was shocked,” Leech said. “It wasn’t moving.”

Leech turned the car around and was crossing the street to retrieve the pup when it was struck by a passing car. By the time a police officer arrived on the scene, two other pedestrians, Dr. Megan Schroyer and Tupelo-Lee Humane Society board member Martha Dale, had stopped to help. Dale would be the one to deliver the Jack Russell terrier mix to Tupelo Small Animal Hospital.

“It was the sweetest, cutest thing,” Dale said. “It didn’t try to bite or anything when I picked it up.”

Leech said though she did not see a car on the overpass when the dog fell, she said she didn’t see how the dog could have gotten over the barrier on its own. It wore a collar, but bore no information.

“I just feel like it had to have been thrown,” Leech said. “It was way out in the road when it fell.”

Despite the fall, Dr. Ryan Black, veterinarian at Tupelo Small Animal Hospital, said the dog was stable when it was brought to the clinic.

“It definitely needed medical attention. There was no road rash, though, and the break to its front right leg was pretty clean,” Black said. “As far as if it was thrown off or not, I can’t say.”

Black performed surgery on the pooch Thursday afternoon, and said recovery time could range anywhere from eight weeks to six months.

The unnamed dog’s story has gone viral on social media. According to the vet clinic, nearly 11,500 people had viewed the original post. As of Thursday afternoon, it had been shared nearly 200 times.

“People have sent me messages offering to help out with vet bills,” Leech said. “Just goes to show there are good people out there.”

Dale urged residents to turn to the humane society if they ever find themselves unable to properly care for a pet.

riley.manning@journalinc.com

File | Daily Journal The Rev. David Eldridge, here appearing on a panel in 2012 at the Lee County Library, is the eighth and youngest senior pastor in Calvary Baptist Church's history.

File | Daily Journal
The Rev. David Eldridge, here appearing on a panel in 2012 at the Lee County Library, is the eighth and youngest senior pastor in Calvary Baptist Church’s history.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

TUPELO – The pastor of one of Tupelo’s largest congregations has announced his resignation.

The Rev. David Eldridge informed his 1,800-member Calvary Baptist Church congregation Sunday that he would be absent from the pulpit this Sunday to preach at First Baptist Church in Clinton in view of a call to become that church’s new senior pastor.

“Usually in the Baptist world, we don’t tell anyone we’re leaving. We’re just not there on Sunday,” Eldridge said. “But I love the Calvary congregation and wanted them to hear it from me before it got out on social media.”

Eldridge grew up in the Clinton church. He said it was the place where he was saved and attended through high school. He also is a graduate of Mississippi College in Clinton.

Ed Mitchell, chairman of deacons at Calvary, said the news was equal parts sorry and joy.

“Clearly it’s a loss for Calvary. The church’s reaction was one normal for a congregation who’s in love with its pastor,” Mitchell said. “But he’s been a wonderful blessing here, and it’s a blessing to see him excel and move on to greater things.”

Eldridge said he wasn’t planning to leave Calvary, where he has manned the pulpit since 2008. When FBC Clinton’s pastor resigned, he said, numerous people approached him to apply for the position.

“I wasn’t looking to leave, or sending out resumes,” he said. “When they reached out to me I was very hesitant.”

In his tenure as Calvary’s eighth and youngest senior pastor, the 34-year-old has overseen numerous mission outreaches, including the church’s donation of space on their West Main Street property to the Tree of Life Clinic, which provides basic medical care to Lee County’s uninsured.

“It’s been a time of prayer and discernment,” Eldridge said. “But my family and I felt like the Lord opened the door. We would be disobedient if we didn’t follow that.”

The congregation of FBC Clinton will vote on whether to accept Eldridge as its new pastor immediately after the service.

As for Calvary, Mitchell said the church would begin the search for a new leader as soon as possible.

“As Southern Baptists, we believe the Lord has already selected our next pastor. Now it’s just a matter of identifying him,” Mitchell said.

riley.manning@journalinc.com

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Anthony Mayfield, 7, stands in the center aisle holding hands with other church members during a prayer led by Bishop Joseph Kopacz at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo on Sunday morning.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Anthony Mayfield, 7, stands in the center aisle holding hands with other church members during a prayer led by Bishop Joseph Kopacz at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo on Sunday morning.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

The St. James parish in Tupelo is becoming somewhat of a second home to the newly appointed bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson.

Bishop Joseph Kopacz, the diocese’s 11th bishop following the resignation of 10-year bishop Joseph Latino in December, delivered the English and Spanish masses at St. James last weekend. The visit marked his third stop at the church in a mere six weeks in the position.

“At this rate,” he told the congregation, “you’re going to get tired of me.”

Having served the diocese of Scranton, Penn., in which he grew up, Kopacz told the congregation his appointment came quite unexpectedly, yet he was pleased to find himself in Mississippi “among good company.”

Out of Scranton

Kopacz grew up in a family heavily involved in the church, receiving his education in the Catholic schools of the Sts. Anthony and Rocco Parish. The priests there, he said, were very influential in his decision to become a priest.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Bishop Kopacz speaks to the congregation at St. James during mass.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Bishop Kopacz speaks to the congregation at St. James during mass.

Following high school, Kopacz went on to receive his undergraduate degree in history from the University of Scranton, then entered Christ the King Seminary in East Aurora, N.Y. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1977, and over the next 30 years, held various pastor and associate pastorships, as well as administrative positions across the Scranton diocese. In his assignment prior to the bishop role, Kopacz served as pastor of three parishes in close proximity. Under his leadership, the communities were consolidated into the Holy Trinity Parish. It was while looking over plans for a new church Kopacz received the call that he would be serving in Jackson.

“I got the call around Thanksgiving, but I couldn’t tell my family until like the day before the official announcement, which was weeks later,” he said. “It’s hard to hold in something so dramatic.”

Once the announcement was made, Kopacz spent the next two months organizing the transition, orienting new pastors, and saying goodbye to the people he’d spent his whole life around.

“Being a priest for 36 years in the same place, you become a part of so many people’s lives, and that was kind of daunting to part with,” he said. “All of a sudden, you have to pack everything up, decide what to take and what to throw away.”

But at the end of the day, he said, he knew this new adventure would be a continuation of the ministry he had already been doing.

Charting new territory

As Kopacz has made his rounds throughout his new territory, it’s not uncommon for him to be treated somewhat like a celebrity among Catholics. After mass, St. James parishioners eagerly vied for a handshake, a group photo, or even for the bishop to hold their children.

“In a way, it’s similar to my work as a pastor, in that I’m constantly coming in contact with new people,” he said. “But everything being so public has been a big adjustment.”

The geographic and cultural landscape of the Jackson diocese is quite a change from what Kopacz is accustomed to. His former area was much smaller, and contained a higher concentration of Catholics.

“The St. James parish itself is a large parish,” Kopacz said. “And very diverse. For instance, Southaven has around 1,300 families represented in their congregation, while, say, Iuka may have 20.”

However, what Kopacz has seen so far in Mississippi is solid, steady growth. In addition to the traditionally Catholic families already living in the state, the population is increasing due to residents moving in from more Catholic areas and an ever-growing Latino community.

“There’s a lot of life in this diocese,” he said. “My challenge is to create unity.”

Kopacz said he would spend his first year as bishop traveling around the state, to gain perspective on the diocese as a whole. With a clear picture in mind, he and his cabinet will decide on a direction in which to steer the Jackson diocese, which includes all of Mississippi except the 17 southernmost counties.

Day in, day out

According to Father Lincoln Dall, priest at St. James, Kopacz is exemplary of the type of leadership Pope Francis is looking for.

Pope Benedict XVI was much more of an academic type, Dall said. Under his administration, the types of people more likely to be chosen for bishop were Canon lawyers or maybe the director of a seminary.

“But Benedict never spent one day in a parish,” Dall said. “As a priest, the rubber meets the road not while making the rules, but pastorally applying them. Pope Francis highly values that pastoral experience, the day-in and day-out work of the priests on the ground level. In his eyes, a bishop’s most important attribute is the ability to be comfortable and genuine interacting with everyday people in a meaningful way.”

Kopacz agreed. Especially as one new to the area, he told St. James, a bishop is called at times to lead the people, at times to walk beside the people, and at times to follow the people.

“And that’s what I’ve been doing so far,” Kopacz said. “A lot of listening and following.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Jabaris Jones (J3), left, Joson Watkins (JWat) and Robbie Ruth (IamLenflow) are among five Christian rap artists who will take the stage next month at Prayze Factor's hip-hop showcase in Columbia, S.C. The Christian rap movement may seem like an unlikely way to spread the gospel, but the group said it is gaining traction in the most unexpected places.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Jabaris Jones (J3), left, Joson Watkins (JWat) and Robbie Ruth (IamLenflow) are among five Christian rap artists who will take the stage next month at Prayze Factor’s hip-hop showcase in Columbia, S.C. The Christian rap movement may seem like an unlikely way to spread the gospel, but the group said it is gaining traction in the most unexpected places.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

TUPELO – For some, rap and hip-hop music may not be the first outlet to come to mind when they think of spiritual music, but Christian rap artists Joshon Watkins (JWat), Jabaris Jones (J3), Tony Price (Bigg Tone), Roshod Forster (JetBlaq), and Robbin Ruth (IamLenflow) say it’s a movement that is growing every day.

All five of them came to the music on their own, discovering it individually before finally converging at a music showcase last year.

“We all started thinking we were the only ones around here doing this thing,” Watkins said. “Then you get into it and realize how huge it is, and say, ‘Why not do this together?’”

Preparing the way

Jones, Ruth and Price have always been involved in music.

Jones began taking his passion for rap seriously as a ministry in 2010, but for Ruth, rap was a surprise even to him.

Roshod "Jet Blaq" Forster. (Courtesy photo)

Roshod “Jet Blaq” Forster. (Courtesy photo)

“I never intended to rap. It just kind of came about,” he said. “I’ve been into music since I was 18, producing songs and writing lyrics, but my influences are from all over the spectrum, Led Zeppelin, Dave Matthews, Lecrae.”

Meanwhile, Watkins and Forster came to the microphone through the church.

Forster is a proud product of a youth-minded church, whose ministry inspired him to start writing. For Watkins, the music came at a time when his church needed it.

“One night I noticed our youth just looking bored, and I knew we needed to do something different,” he said. “When it comes to reaching them, Wednesday nights aren’t enough. I wasn’t even into music before, but it turned into something big.”

Price has been in the game longer than any of them, since before he was saved in 2005. When he backslid and found himself in jail, he emerged a new man, he said, and released his first Christian album in 2007. He discovered the rest of the crew at the Summer Jam music festival in South Carolina last year.

“I overheard them in the huddle, and I could tell they were hungry and thirsty,” Price said. “You can feel when someone is pulling on you. I truly believe God prepares the way.”

Breaking the genre

While the label of being a “Christian” artist may cause problems for some musicians, the group said each one of them embraces the genre, and hopes to breathe new life into it.

Tony "Bigg Tone" Price. (Courtesy photo)

Tony “Bigg Tone” Price. (Courtesy photo)

“There’s a big distinction between a Christian rapper and a rapper who happens to be Christian,” Forster said. “You can’t be out for your own edification, but for the building of the kingdom.”

Jones agreed.

“What do you do with a blessing? Do you feed the people or keep it to yourself?” he said.

To Ruth, what separates Christian rap from secular is the substance of the message. Substance, he said, is exactly what the mainstream rap scene is missing, and what rap fans find themselves craving.

“Rap music is so dumbed down sometimes, because it doesn’t have to have a message,” he said. “When you really have something to say, you bring to the table a mindset of excellence. And when you make your message relatable, it goes above genre. Anyone can tell someone to get saved, but as an artist, you can’t just give scripture, you have to apply it to life.”

For Forster, that doesn’t mean leaving out the nitty-gritty. It’s OK to talk about where you came from, he said, but only if it leads people to where you are.

“The secular industry sells a false idea of the fast life. If you think about it, lots of artists are actually demeaning their fans because all they say is, ‘Look at me, how much better I am than you,’” Forster said. “In a world influenced by this kind of hip hop, you have to give the people something else.”

In actuality, Ruth said, rap may be the perfect medium to deliver the gospel, because of its widespread fan base. Just last month, when Christian rapper Lecrae performed at Tupelo’s BancorpSouth Arena, 10,000 showed up to listen.

“And they all knew the words,” Ruth said. “Rap has touched everybody, culture as a whole. People may see it as a low art, but I Corinthians says God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.”

On the road

In April, the five rappers will venture to Columbia, S.C., for the Prayze Factor hip-hop artist showcase, where they will each perform. The event contains a competition portion in which artists are voted through three elimination rounds via social media. Last year, Price was astonished to make it through to the final round.

“As the only cat from Mississippi, I wasn’t expecting to get that type of love,” he said. “To me, it was a clear sign that God wanted to deal with me.”

For all artists, Price said Prayze Factor offered a platform for Christian artists to be heard unlike any other. Putting on a good show there can be crucial in developing a fan base.

“Fans of independent artists like us will come anywhere to see you,” he said. “I had a show in Little Rock, and I saw one kid who knew every word. I was so floored I gave him the microphone and he spit the whole verse. That showed me God didn’t call my ministry for the church. He called it for the street. For someone to say, ‘I felt that, I relate to that,’ that’ll touch you. It’ll bless your soul.”

Forster said for an artist to keep his feet on the ground, forget about the numbers, be creative, and stay genuine.

“You can’t measure yourself by the crowds or the money or the self-glory,” he said.

After all, Price said, the real ministry happens after a performance, when listeners get to interact face to face with the artist. And have fun, Watkins added.

“One of the biggest handicaps is people think being a Christian isn’t any fun,” Watkins said. “But we have fun all the time.”

riley.manning@journalinc.com

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com Cami Bandre, 8, walks in front of the United Way sign made of Pepsi boxes as she enters the BancorpSouth Arena for the Day of Caring fundraiser for the United Way on Friday.

Adam Robison | Buy at photos.djournal.com
Cami Bandre, 8, walks in front of the United Way sign made of Pepsi boxes as she enters the BancorpSouth Arena for the Day of Caring fundraiser for the United Way on Friday.

By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

TUPELO – After hours of construction, the dust has settled on the United Way food sculpture competition.

“We weren’t really sure what to expect,” said United Way campaign and communications associate Robin Matkin. “We were blown away at what they came up with.”

MTD made an impressive showing with their veggie can lawnmower, as did Franklin Manufacturing Corporation with a motorized recliner of saltine crackers, but Toyota’s robotic arm won out in the end.

The massive construction incorporated more than 2,000 packages of Ramen noodles and hundreds of cans of tomato soup. Toyota intern Dylan Shockley, the brains behind the sculpture, said it took around two weeks to plan and construct.

“It was a lot of fun,” said the University of Mississippi mechanical engineering major. “We modeled the frame after one of our body-welding robots, and designed it on our auto CAD drafting system. It came together much better than we thought it would.”

Food used for sculptures was collected in-office by individual companies, and after the contest, the victuals were divided and distributed among the United Way’s eight food pantries in Northeast Mississippi.

The Friday event doubled as this year’s Day of Caring in conjunction with the United Way’s celebration of its 2013 campaign. The United Way exceeded its goal of $2.4 million last year, earning more than it has in its 52-year service to the area.

The event also recognized companies and individuals crucial to the success of last year’s efforts.

Toyota received an award Friday from United Way for increasing company giving by $79,000 over last year’s campaign. Total Toyota giving for the campaign was $171,233 with additional donations bringing that total at more than $200,000. Also, MTD was given the Distinguished Service award for its commitment to excellence through the course of the campaign.

FMC Technologies earned the Advancement award, given for the biggest dollar increase by a company giving less than $10,000, bringing the total given up to $8,056.

And finally, MTC was given the Distinguished Service award for its commitment to excellence through the course of the campaign.

riley.manning@journalinc.com

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By Riley Manning

Daily Journal

PONTOTOC – Juniors of Tupelo Christian Preparatory School took the school’s mission to the home of Tupelo Police Officer Joseph Maher on Friday morning.

As part of TCPS’ Spirit Opportunity Week, the teenagers cleared the lot of leaf and limb after an extensive tree-removal project a few weeks ago.

“We’ve been truly blessed,” Maher said. “The love and support has been overwhelming at times. It’s great to see the Stauffers taken care of, and us being taken care of, like this.”

Maher was critically wounded by a gunshot in a December shootout that claimed the life of fellow officer Sgt. Kevin “Gale” Stauffer. Maher said after two surgeries and a slew of checkups, he was nearly feeling back on his feet as he joined the students raking leaves.

“It’s amazing,” said Maher’s wife, Lindsey Maher. “Two weeks ago we had about 50 trees in the yard, and they took 30 down. I’m making sure [Joseph] doesn’t overwork himself out here.”

TCPS Athletic Director Aubrey Boren reached out to Build for Beth spokesman Steve Tybor wanting to know what he could do for help. The Build for Beth initiative aims at raising resources to support the Maher and Stauffer families in the wake of the Dec. 23 shooting.

“During the school’s Spirit Opportunity Week, each grade goes out and serves the community in different ways throughout the week,” Boren said. “They were very excited to come out.”

TCPS junior Aaron Lyons said other grades had helped with yard work around the area, or read to residents of nearby nursing homes, but to help the Mahers was a privilege.

“It’s an honor to help someone who puts their life on the line,” Aaron said. “This is just one of the many ways we can say, ‘Thank you.’”

According to Tybor, the trees were cleared free of charge by Brewer Tree Service of Nettleton, while the new gutters installed last week were donated by All American Siding in Tupelo. In the next six weeks, Tybor said US Lawns of New Albany planned to sod the yard.

riley.manning@journalinc.com