By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When you meet the Rev. Chad Grayson, you instantly notice two things about him.
First, he has a powerful, steel-worker-like handshake.
Second, his wide-eyed – almost impatient – enthusiasm gives you the impression he’s about to rush through a curtain before a cheering crowd, or out of a tunnel onto a football field for a championship game.
There’s a reason for that. Before the new pastor at Tupelo First Baptist Church surrendered to preach in 1999, he led the Trojans of Magee High School to a state championship football game.
He also played quarterback at Copiah-Lincoln Community College.
The father of two hung up his shoulder pads a long time ago, but he still roots heartily for the Dallas Cowboys, and he sees a lot of similarities between being a pastor and leading a team.
“Sunday is like our pep rally around here,” said Grayson, barely able to keep his seat as he reflected upon his first five weeks at his new church.
“The game is the rest of the week, the way in which we live our faith every day. That’s the challenge.”
Passion and enthusiasm
Folks at First Baptist will tell you a kind of phenomenon is taking place these days.
As Mitch Waycaster, who served on the search committee that brought Grayson to Tupelo last month, put it, “Brother Chad’s enthusiasm for the Lord and his passion is inspiring, and God is honoring that passion.”
First Baptist has had great affection for all of its pastors, most recently for the Rev. Randy Von Kanel, who followed a call to the mission field in the Cayman Islands 11 months ago.
But every minister brings a different gift, and Grayson’s is turning out to be an enthusiasm that is contagious.
Attendance at Sunday school has increased to more than 655, up 100 from two months ago, and last Sunday 30 people came forward to be baptized. That’s pretty impressive, even for a congregation of more than 1,800.
Tuesday, Grayson nearly lost his composure, looking out over the empty sanctuary as the Rev. Randy Wood rehearsed at the piano with his choir members.
“This has nothing to do with me,” Grayson said, waving his Bible across the facade of the balcony.
“This is the work of the Holy Spirit. This is God moving within this church.”
Still, one can’t help but think it has at least a little to do with Grayson.
The 33-year-old grew up in a family of five children and led the kind of happy, rough-and-tumble childhood that could be read in the pages of a Willie Morris novel, full of pickup games, church picnics and scraped knees.
By the time he was in high school, Grayson had become somewhat of a celebrity around Magee, a small town known for its powerhouse football teams.
Grayson made The Clarion Ledger’s “Dandy Dozen” list of the top players in the state in 1995, and signed a scholarship to play at Mississippi College.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
After spending only a day at the college, Grayson felt himself being pulled away, so he worked for a year at an appliance rental store, a gig that nearly got him beat up more than once since part of his job was to repossess items for which people had failed to pay.
One Saturday morning he entered the home of a young couple whose kids were watching cartoons, and he almost lost it. Grayson quietly called the couple outside and told them to get the payment for the TV down to the office right away.
Grayson’s sense of being called, which initially sent him on his year-long sojourn in the blue-collar working world, eventually led him to rededicate his life.
Even though he’d always been a regular churchgoer, he says he was lost in a world of doing his own thing.
On Aug. 5, 1997, at 1:41 p.m., on the side of Hwy 28 East, Grayson’s life changed forever.
He pulled his delivery truck over to the shoulder of the road and surrendered himself to God.
“That’s when I truly got saved,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”
Friday, looking around his office in Tupelo, Grayson finally relaxed for a moment, and seemed lost in the memory of his roadside salvation.
“My goodness is like a filthy rag,” he said, gazing out the window at the freezing precipitation.
Grayson went on to get his bachelor’s degree from Leavell College, and his master’s degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Monday, at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Grayson listened as 10 area pastors discussed what was happening in their work. He sat next to his colleague, the Rev. David Eldridge, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, another of the gifted, young Southern Baptist ministers now leading Tupelo congregations.
The two had come for the monthly meeting of the Greater Tupelo Ministerial Alliance, and their presence, alongside such diverse participants as Catholic and Lutheran priests, a Methodist minister and a Church of Christ minister, was a clear signal that they valued interdenominational friendships.
“Hey, I want to work with anybody on social matters – or any number of other matters – on things to make this city stronger and better,” Grayson said after the meeting.
“Jesus, on the other hand, is something I won’t compromise on.”
In casual conversation Grayson often speaks of Tupelo being among the most “churched” cities in the state, meaning it has more churches per population than almost anywhere. Grayson wants to take that a step farther.
“I want Tupelo to be known as the most saved city in the state,” he said.
That kind of boldness has been a Grayson trademark in his previous three pastorates, starting at Holy Grove Baptist Church in Braxton in 2000.
“He stepped on my toes plenty of times,” said Doug Rogers, chief of the body of deacons at Airline Baptist Church in Bosier City, La., where Grayson served for five years before coming to Tupelo.
“When I was looking for a feel-good message, I usually didn’t get it from him,” said Rogers, praising the young pastor for his courage to preach the truth.
Grayson seems to be well liked in his new church, evidence that a challenging message and a charismatic personality aren’t mutually exclusive.
“He’s truly evangelistic, and he always brings the message back to a personal relationship with Jesus,” said Waycaster.
Heading into their seventh week, Grayson, along with his wife, Lenora, a physical therapist at The Cedars in Tupelo, and their two kids are settling in nicely.
The pastor says he’s not a “numbers guy,” and doesn’t want to quantify how much growth he thinks the church will experience in the coming months, Neither does he want to discuss any specific projects that he might have in mind.
He’ll say only that he prays that the good things happening at First Baptist will spread to the rest of the city, and, watching him move around his office, holding a Roi-Tan cigar box full of his grandfather, the Rev. “Sonny Boy” Grayson’s sermons, you can’t help but believe him.
For now, Grayson is getting his bearings, but if folks continue to respond to his preaching the way they have so far, expansion of the church’s ministries, in one form or another, might be on the horizon.
Ever the humble sportsman, Grayson is taking it all in stride.
“Don’t you dare give me the credit for this,” he said, pointing his finger playfully and smiling like a shark.
“I’m the under-shepherd of this church, but Jesus Christ is the power behind any success I’m having here.”
Grayson checked his cell phone, knowing that, as the precipitation continued to fall, he’d soon have to go and pick his kids up early from school.
“Over all these years, my excitement for Jesus has never cooled,” he said, beaming and setting the phone aside for the moment.
“Our Sunday night crowds here are starting to look like Sunday mornings, and I praise God for it.”
His phone buzzed again, but he finished his thought.
“Tupelo is my mission field,” he said. “I want the gospel to be unleashed on this city.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org