MEMPHIS TO WEST MEMPHIS
We started our day in Memphis, Tennessee just south of the Great Pyramid. Is this Egypt? No, it’s Tennessee and this Memphis Pyramid houses a Bass Pro Shops superstore… Tom started out on the riverfront, running along the the east side of the Mississippi, heading downstream toward the Harahan Bridge. It’s Sunday morning and people are out traversing the Big River Crossing. Not a few miles in, and we’re in Arkansas now—state number eight out of ten on our Mississippi River journey.
Tom met me alongside Hwy 51 at Bridgeport Rd for the exchange, and I started my run down the service road until hitting the Big River Crossing trailhead again. The path took me under the highway through a lush, swampy terrain. It was another hot day, and Tom graciously stopped about every mile to give me cold water and check in. I was meant to go about 5 miles to finish the route, but I called it quits just under four miles. It was already 9:30am, so I’ll blame it on timing as we needed to get cleaned up and make it to church by 10am. But in all honesty, I’ve got to stop running 7:30 min/miles in this heat and then maybe I can get some distance in!
Anyhow, time to head to church! West Memphis, Arkansas has its own identity and we’re spending two days here to discover it all. As we turned down 8th street to find the church where we’d meet our host Fred Leonard, we saw several churches—not that church, not that church, nope not that church—there it is, the oldest congregation we’ve been told, Old Saint Paul Missionary Baptist Church. The parking lot and street side were already full of cars and congregants, so we pulled down the block to make a quick change out of our sweaty running gear, buying as much privacy as possible. Our version of “Sunday best” paled in comparison to the fancy hats, suit jackets, and polished shoes that were making their way into the sanctuary, but we tried.
As we walked in the door, everyone greeted us with “welcome to Old Saint Paul”—its was clear we were newcomers. Some kind folks directed us through the sanctuary door, and we found a seat in the middle. The service began with some messages of welcome and thanks from a woman at a lectern in front, and the congregation was still trickling in. But soon enough, the “master of ceremony” Latoya J, an emerging Gospel singer, was introduced and everyone in the congregation was roused to their feet. The band started erupting in music and the cry of “Hallelujah” turned to song in grand call and response style, with clapping hands, hands raised, swaying bodies—the spirit emboldening the choir and the congregation beyond.
Now at this point we are only about ten or fifteen minutes into a service that would end up lasting nearly two and a half hours… the spirit filled the people and the room many times over through preaching, singing, exclaiming, and a kind of rapture that many of the church members fell into just before the “spoken word” section of the service. The scripture meditation today was focused on the story of Job—how he fell down and worshipped the lord when everything was taken from him… How even in our best days, the worst can befall us, and we should not curse the lord in these moments. Instead we should look to Job and continue to thank god for what little or what nothing we have. We came to the earth with nothing, and we will leave with nothing.
You can be sure this was not a staid, straight forward bible reading, of course. This was a call and an affirmation, an “Amen” and a “Hallelujah,” a “God is Great… is Great… is Great… is Great” with the build and repetition that wrapped the congregation in the word and message, into deeper faith and communion with each other and their good friend Jesus. The words “thank you” were also said so much during this service—thank you to god, but also thank you to each other and the community, to the family and friends who joined in on this special day, just so many thanks in this special place. We were thankful to share in this experience.
The service ended without a song or big to-do. Everyone just began to scatter, but of course talking and grouping up, perhaps planning their afternoons together. We luckily ran right into Fred Leonard at this point. Before we could settle into a conversation, though, Fred wanted to introduce us to someone—Mr. Solon Anthony, the 93 year-old father of Pastor Frederick Anthony who led today’s services. Mr. Solon was gracious as he greeted us, and we mentioned to him that we’d like to come visit him in Anthonyville two days from now on our next stop downriver. He seemed to think that was a good idea, and we made tentative arrangements for an afternoon call at the house.
From there the three of us wandered over to some empty pews to sit down and talk a bit. Fred’s not originally from West Memphis. He moved here in February 2017 and joined Old Saint Paul shortly thereafter in March. Before coming to West Memphis, Fred was working and living in Nashville for some years—he’s “still trying to figure that out” about what brought him to West Memphis…
Fred says he’s originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, but born in a little town in Southeast Arkansas called Warren. He was only there three months, because his parents soon after moved to Little Rock. They were originally from this area Southeast near the Mississippi River.
He’s worked with State Farm Insurance for nearly 25 years, and his journey with the company lead him to an executive position in Nashville. But when Fred turned 55, he decided to go back into personal production. He wanted to have a personal touch with the community again. His work as an executive used to be in public affairs, always doing community and non-profit work, and he could have gone anywhere he wanted after this. He thinks he was just directed by god to West Memphis.
Did he know what he was getting into? No, he didn’t know all the dynamics. He had driven through several times on his way from Little Rock to Nashville. A year before he decided to move, he started taking the exit and driving around some of the more blighted and struggling parts of the community. His granddaughter would ask, “Why we driving around here?” Fred would say, “Just looking.” She’d ask, “Are we moving here or something?” He’d say, “You never know….” A lot of people don’t understand it, Fred says, and while he understands it, he also doesn’t….
Fred is on a lot of different boards—state and local—he even had to turn some down because he does have a regular job. He’s president of the Athletic Booster Club at the School with explanation, “when I see the need for leadership I just jump in. There’s a lot of things that can be done with good leadership.” With Fred’s support, there’s been an entire makeover for the booster club. They’d been trying to get a 501c3 for the club for 4 years, and now within 3 weeks were able to get it done. Other challenges like raising money—they had $1300 in the bank—but after revamped leadership in four weeks they $12,000. As Fred says, “they have the people, they just need the leadership to move them in the right direction.”
According to Fred, “sometimes you gotta look beyond the data to really see what’s going on and the challenges, and not necessarily just challenges, because I look at the opportunities, there’s a lot of opportunities, so we just need people that are willing to give back and help others, and I’m all about results as opposed to just talking the game.”
In the Delta, there is mostly white leadership. Fred has experienced that he is one of the few blacks serving on boards and in leadership roles. One of his goals is to expose more African Americans, to encourage white counterparts to allow them the opportunity to serve, because you never know what type of skill set or value they can bring into a given opportunity.
Our conversation got waylaid for a moment, when Fred saw an opportunity to introduce us to Pastor Frederick Anthony… There was a lot said, but a few key thoughts from the Pastor, especially about the worship that day, is that “they call us baptist, but we are really just bible believing people.” He says, “I don’t like to just make people say “hallelujah” … if you don’t want to say it, you don’t have to say it, you know what I’m sayin? But don’t try to stop me from sayin it, don’t try to judge me cause I do say it. You see…. god is the same god, but he may be a little bit different to me…”
Fred then pointed out that we were planning to talk to Pastor Anthony’s father Solon in a couple of days when we reached Anthonyville. Frederick started in on a brief history of his father and grandfather, painting a picture of how the community began, but I’ll save the details on that for the report on Anthonyville. As this was “Friends and Family” day at Old Saint Paul MB Church, we had the great fortune to meet yet another couple of generations of the Anthony family, as Frederick’s son Darrell and his son Mason were waiting in the wings as we all spoke. For a few brief moments we were all introduced and we learned about Darrell’s ambitious work in the local community, starting a non-profit organization with his wife called POP (Producing Outstanding People) http://popuplift.weebly.com to lift up the black community of West Memphis. Darrell along with his siblings and cousins has also recently organized the production of a documentary about his grandfather Solon Anthony and their family history, which should be released this coming October.
We couldn’t keep the Anthony’s all afternoon, the Cowboy kickoff was on the horizon as it were(!). But as we walked out of the church, we asked Fred the two questions we ask everyone on this journey. Number one, What makes this place home? His response—the work that’s needed in the community, that he’s willing to give of himself and try to make it a better place and not just for himself but for everybody. There’s a lot of work to do in this community, according to Fred. “If you’re looking to help people, then West Memphis is a good place to be.”
Fred can’t say that he doesn’t have to work. But all the money he makes today in his business, he’s giving it back because he made some good decisions early on in his career and he’s been a saver since he was a child. It’s stuck with him. There was time, when he was growing up, when his parents were stressing about paying a certain bill, and it turns out he had the money saved that they could use. He’s just thinking ahead. And The City of West Memphis is lucky that he is thinking ahead for them.
So then we get to the second question we ask. What is the one thing you would change about your community? According to Fred he’s already working on this. To expose and teach, and train others to be leaders in the community. This work is in every board Fred is on, in every word that comes out of his mouth, in the Church he worships at, in the relationships he builds with his business. He ran for Mayor this last year, didn’t win, but said god told him to do it, and he had to follow the path to see where it led. He’s on god’s path, from all accounts, and he sure is doing good. This is the first time someone has told us something they wanted to change and they were already working on changing it. I’d say Fred is right, West Memphis is the place to be if you are looking to help people, if you are looking to be a part of change.