The thermometer offered a 103-degree “Welcome Home” recently to Mississippi native Jason Coker, returning to his roots after 14 years of church leadership in Wilton, Conn.
A Baptist from the South with a drawl, Coker arrived in the affluent Connecticut town not far from New York City as an outsider. He returns to Mississippi also as an outsider, to coordinate a small network of 16 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship churches in the state.
He also will be undergirding the work of Delta Hands for Hope, an advocacy group for school-aged children in the Delta which he started in 2013 in his hometown of Shaw, Miss., while pastor at Wilton Baptist Church. Both the national CBF and its Mississippi affiliate are sponsors of the organization.
“It’s great to be back,” he said, while maneuvering through rural Mississippi roads. “It’s exciting to be here, exciting to think about the work ahead of us.”
Even though Coker and his wife, Pamela, grew up in Mississipppi, they spent the last third of their lives in the New York bedroom community, living and ministering in “a whole town of leaders” who “run the financial institutions of the world.”
In Wilton Baptist Church he found “an incredible group of people from all over world who put their faith into action,” he said. “Their faith influenced the business they do and the way they do business. It was a blessing to be there.”
Coker doesn’t return as the same person who left. He said he is “substantially changed, theologically, personally, professionally and in every kind of way. You can’t life in a different culture and not be changed.”
His accent told everyone in Connecticut, “You’re not from around here.” Now, his linguistic immersion in New England tells his childhood acquaintances in Mississippi he is no longer from around there, either.
“I belong in both places,” he said. “And, it’s true I don’t belong in either.”
His first order of business is to visit the pastors of churches that relate to CBF Mississippi and let them and their church members know he is available as a resource.
He is anxious to get started on concrete ways to accomplish racial reconciliation “in ways that are life giving for everybody.”
Coker, 39, intends to build relationships “and forge partnerships” with other church bodies in the state and is already in conversation with the New Baptist Covenant, formed to build bridges across the racial divide.
“Mississippi is full of really incredible people, good people who want to do good work,” Coker said. “We’re going to access that. We’re going to unlock that in ways we haven’t done before. That’s what excites me most.
“We want to leverage the good will and desire for change in Mississippi, and we will.”
Coker wants to see Delta Hands for Hope grow into the mission arm of CBF Mississippi. He credits director Lane Riley with building his idea into a model. Delta Hands for Hope works with school-aged children and youth in education, recreation, health and spiritual development. A USDA grant last year helped provide 10,000 summer meals for children.
Coker is a graduate of William Carey University in Hattiesburg, Miss., and Yale Divinity School and earned a doctorate from Drew University. He writes a monthly column for Baptist News Global.
“I’ve always felt the most noble thing I could ever do would be to go back to Mississippi, but I never thought it would be like this,” he said. “I come here with a deep sense of calling, but I feel it’s the right time for this.”