Five years into his pastorship of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood, the Rev. Melvin D. Watkins Jr. is reflective about “precarious and unsafe shifts in the culture” that don’t “bode well for the generations coming up behind us.”
Fresh off Mt. Vernon’s recognition of his fifth pastoral anniversary, Watkins warily takes stock of “rampant gun violence and a rising trend of crime among our youth.”
He concludes that “the church of Jesus must be ready to speak a word of hope to a dying world.
“If ever there was a need to shift vision from conventional church programs, now is certainly the time.”
Watkins grew up in the church that pegged him (in 2008) to succeed his lifelong pastor, the Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Sr. That transition point came in 2018 when Netters stepped down from the senior pastor’s office.
“So many of my life experiences have prepared me for the challenges of this moment,” said Watkins during a recent interview.
“After spending eight years in the United States Air Force and the Air Force Reserve, I went to Sierra Leone and Mali in West Africa on the mission field. The pandemic of lawlessness and the scourge of young people killing each other is Mt. Vernon’s new mission field, not only in Westwood, but all over our city.”
Mindful that the Rev. Dr. Netters and others blazed trails of service and ministry amid the civil rights movement, Watkins said with certainty, “We must ask in this very critical hour, ‘What is God calling us to do?”
The answer that Watkins hears echoes from the past.
“Back in 2002, when I returned home from the mission field, I offered my assistance to Pastor Netters,” said Watkins. “I told him I was returning to the mission field in Africa, and that my stay in Memphis was only temporary. He asked me to work with the Children’s and Teen Ministries. Also, he told me that Memphis had a mission field, and willing workers were needed.
“Two decades later, that mission field has grown exponentially in the need for Godly men and women to pour into the lives of our young people,” said Watkins.
“This cultural shift endangers the future of our children, and we as Christians must meet the challenges with renewed vision and a restored determination to fight back the tide of destruction engulfing our community here in Memphis.”
The need for Christians to “be the change they want to see,” keeps evidencing itself in painful ways that have Watkins’ attention.
“Just Tuesday (May 2), there was a shooting over on Highland,” he said, referencing a shooter who fired into the WHBQ TV station after failing to force his way inside.
“Thank God, no one was injured, and the situation was quickly contained.”
With lawlessness rampant and his eyes especially trained on the precarious future facing children, Watkins said, “This is very much our fight. If we are to be agents of change, we must be involved in shifting the culture back to a time when communities were villages and safe havens for our children.
“That means that we must reach out to youngsters in the community who do not belong to us. … In the African village, all children belong to everyone,” said Watkins.
“Our challenge is to broaden our vision beyond our own success and accomplishments. Vision must shift from selfish desires to selfless work. Our constant prayer must be, ‘May all who come behind us find that we were faithful.’
“Our children are depending on us – all of our children.”