By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal
Two of Tupelo’s biggest congregations found a new face preaching from the pulpit this month. One comes after a long absence of a head pastor, the other on the heels of the unexpected departure of another, but both said God has put them right where they need to be in Tupelo.
Pastor Keith Cochran
West Jackson Street Baptist Church has a knack for choosing pastors who truly fit the church, as evidenced by their pastors’ longevity. In its 50-year history, the church has hosted only two.
When the Rev. Bert Harper left the church after nearly 30 years in 2011, the congregation was prepared to wait for the right man, no matter how long it took.
Walter Billingsley served on the church’s pastor search committee, and said the process was meticulous and prayerful.
“The committee was elected by the congregation, so it was really humbling to be trusted with this grand task. We wanted to make sure we got it right,” he said.
The committee patiently sifted through endless resumes and interviews for the rest of 2011 and all of 2012.
“We wanted someone who seemed called to West Jackson Baptist Church in particular, not someone who was just looking to make a move anywhere,” he said.
They found their man in the Rev. Keith Cochran, then associate pastor of a Baptist congregation in Germantown, Tenn. West Jackson Street will be the Memphis native’s first time serving as head pastor.
“If asked four years ago if I was planning on being a head pastor, I would have laughed at you,” Cochran said. “But God started pulling on me and when I came for my interview and stood in the pulpit, I knew this was the right thing.”
Cochran said he first felt the call to ministry in high school as possibly a youth leader, a role he pursued in his undergraduate studies at the University of Memphis. A skilled basketball player, Cochran got the opportunity during his senior year to travel the globe doing basketball mission work.
His travels took him to the Phillipines, Russia, China, and Iceland, where the American team would put on demonstrations and play against local teams. During half time, the team shared the gospel with onlookers.
“My favorite place was Russia,” he said. “Growing up in the ’80s, all those movies like ‘Rocky IV’ and ‘Red Dawn’ made us very afraid of Russians. But there we were in Red Square, the place we feared, sharing the gospel. It’s funny, the Russians we met who were our age were just as afraid of us.”
Cochran returned home, sidelined with knee and shoulder injuries. Though he missed basketball, he met his wife and realized God had been preparing his heart for ministry through his favorite sport. He soon took on a recreation ministry role at his home church in Memphis, but left for Florida for a position in student ministry. Cochran shifted churches over the years, each time gaining more responsibility. Cochran said he never had an endgame, only to keep himself open to God’s direction.
“If God told us where he wanted us to be in 20 years, we’d mess it up trying to get there,” he said.
Father Lincoln Dall
Unlike most Catholic priests, Father Lincoln Dall came to the priesthood from another profession.
“I worked as a [certified public accountant] for six years before entering the ministry,” the Chicago native said. “There was a point where I just felt it was not where God was leading me, so I joined the Peace Corps.”
Dall said his family was shocked, but supportive, so he packed his bags and moved to Canada to serve in a food bank for two years before moving to Ecuador for mission work.
The conditions of Ecuador proved crucial in shaping Dall’s ministry, as he learned first hand how much first world societies take for granted. He lived in a cluster of villages along a river. Though electricity was usually available, there were no phones or direct access to mail. For three years, Dall did not speak directly to his family, and learned to wash his clothes in the river, to dry them on the rocks. They ate guinea pig, boar, whatever they could catch in the jungle.
“Because food was not guaranteed, sharing a dinner table with a guest was the most welcoming thing a family could do, and to waste that food by not eating all of it would have been very rude,” he said. “I guess overall I was struck by how few choices they have there, compared to all the opportunities available in America.”
Through his experience in Ecuador and his seminary studies at Sacred Heart School of Theology, Dall found himself drawn to the liberation theology of South American thinker Gustavo Gutierrez.
“The theology of liberation is based on Exodus and basically means that God liberates us on all levels,” he said. “It really resonated with my experiences in Ecuador because it stresses the dignity of those pushed to the margins.”
When he graduated seminary in 2008 at age 42, he took this attitude with him to his first assignment as assistant pastor at St. Richard Parish in Jackson. During his 21⁄2-year tenure there, Dall became very involved with prison ministry, and continued to do so when he took up his next post in Yazoo City, at St. Mary parish, where he served for the past two years.
“I’m very excited to be in Tupelo,” Dall said. “St. James is a super active church with a great youth presence and lots of activity.”
Kristy Ivancic, president of St. James’ pastoral council, said Dall is meshing well with the congregation.
“He has a great enthusiasm as well as a very gentle and compassionate nature,” she said. “He is very fluent in Spanish from his years in Ecuador, so he is connecting with our Spanish ministry as well.”