Dr. James Anthony Jackson Sr. has a window overlooking the parking lot in his office at New Beginnings Fellowship Church. As he sits at his desk on Sunday mornings looking over his sermon, if he wants to people-watch, all he has to do is peek through the curtain to see the cars pulling into parking spaces, or mothers navigating their children through the lot. However, he never looks out the window.
“I’m always afraid the parking lot will be empty,” he said.
It’s hard to imagine that a 5th generation preacher from Mobile, Ala., whose congregation has exceeded 4,000 members in seven years would have such insecurities.
“He’s very sincere,” said his wife Tara. “After (Sunday) service he always calls and asks, ‘Did you enjoy service?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes.’ And he’ll ask, ‘If you were a visitor would you come back?’ and I’ll say, ‘Yes.’ I don’t say it because I’m his wife; I say it because it’s the truth.”
Jackson, 37, is a huggable preacher. He has the remarkable ability to connect with people on all levels, but understands with such a large church, he can’t physically hug everyone – even though he wants to. Most recently he invited all members to join Tara and him on a conference call at 6 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays to listen in on their devotion. The couple also hosts a meet and greet one Saturday a month to introduce themselves to new members.
“He makes it easy to come to church and to serve God,” said Brian Carpenter, who serves as one of Jackson’s armor bearers. “You can relate to Pastor Jackson because he’s not afraid to share his trials and tribulations. He let’s you know that if God helped him, he can help you.”
Jackson is a success today; married to Tara for seven years with a 1-year-old son to carry on his name. However, the journey wasn’t easy. He’s survived several bumps and bruises, and learned invaluable lessons along the way.
It began when Jackson was taking classes at junior college in Alabama.
“I was living with my parents, making a mess of my life,” he said. “I wasn’t taking school seriously at all.”
Then his parents got involved.
“I remember like it was yesterday,” Jackson said. “I was playing Sega Genesis and my mom and dad came in and said, ‘We have good news for you.'”
The good news was that they were kicking him out of the house.
“I stopped the game and was like, ‘What?’ They proceeded to tell me that I wasn’t doing anything with my life. I told them that I didn’t think school was for me,” he continued. “My mom says, ‘you don’t have to go to school, but you have four other choices: Army, Navy, Air Force or the Marines.'”
Realizing he wasn’t built for the military, Jackson decided to give school one more shot and enrolled in Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Ala., on academic probation.
“I graduated high school with a 1.9 grade point average,” he said. “Tuskegee didn’t take students like me, but they did.”
It didn’t take long for Jackson to revert back to his old ways when God began tugging on his heart. He began waking up every morning at 4:59. He called his father who pastors a church in Mobile to seek advice.
“Instead of going back to sleep,” his father advised, “read the Bible and ask God to speak to you.”
Weeks passed by and Jackson began to get frustrated.
“I said to God ‘if you don’t have anything to say to me, let me stay asleep’ and I closed the Bible. I said ‘if you have something to say to me through your word, please tell me,'” he said. “I took the Bible and I opened it up and the first three words I saw was, ‘preach the word.'”
Jackson slammed the Bible shut and called his father.
“He called me crying at 2 in the morning saying that God is calling him to preach. I wasn’t surprised,” said Jackson’s father, Michael. “I wanted to break the tension of the moment so I asked him ‘do you think God can call you about 7 in the morning?’ I still get goose bumps when I hear him preach because that’s my baby.”
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Michael knew his son was going to be a preacher when he was 3-years-old.
“His brother Michael was pretending he was playing the guitar with a broom and James jumped on the coffee table and took the broom and began using it like it was a microphone,” he said. “We were laughing because we thought they were pretending they were in church until we saw the seriousness on James’ face and we thought ‘this kid ain’t playing.’ We knew something special was in him.”
It’s that something special that draws people to New Beginnings. Jackson’s friendly demeanor, easy going personality and clear Bible teaching is what members say are his best qualities. It’s also what caught the eye of Jeffrey Johnson, senior pastor of Eastern Star Church.
Jackson was serving as an assistant pastor in Tampa, Fla., when he received an invitation to preach at Eastern Star. He didn’t know it at the time but Johnson was searching for a preaching assistant and the request would also serve as a job interview.
It was perfect timing for Jackson, who says he wasn’t in a good spiritual place. He says the pastor of the church in Florida often talked down to him, was discouraging and oftentimes embarrassed him in front of other ministers.
“I was broken,” he said. “I had never been treated that way in my life. I began to question if I was called to preach at all.”
Then Johnson called.
“I was so broken when I came here and God used Eastern Star Church and that ministry to restore me. My level of loyalty to (God) went through the roof,” Jackson said.
Jackson served at Eastern Star for two years when Johnson approached him about starting a church.
New Beginnings opened its doors in March 2004, utilizing the auditorium at Fall Creek Valley Middle School. At Johnson’s request, nearly 500 members at Eastern Star dedicated a year to help Jackson grow the church. The growth spurt happened quickly.
“I thought we were going to be in the school at least eight years,” said Jackson. “Things were growing in such a way that we started looking for land.”
In 2007, New Beginnings opened the doors to a new 42,000 square foot building on the far Eastside. What began as a church with seven ministries now has 24 and three Sunday worship services at 8:30, 10:30 and 12:30.
“I think church growth is based on God’s grace and favor. God certainly has his hands on New Beginnings and Pastor Jackson,” said Johnson. “The fact that so many souls are being saved, lives are being changed and communities are better because of Pastor Jackson indicates God’s favor.”
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Twenty-nine-year-old Miles Carter didn’t join the church when he visited New Beginnings recently. It was his third visit, but he said he’s still nervous about joining the church.
“Every Sunday morning I tell myself that I’m not going to church,” he said. “But I come back to hear Pastor Jackson. It’s like he’s talking to me. He doesn’t talk over my head. I never thought a lot about how having God in my life can improve my life. I do now.”
Carter isn’t alone in his praise of Jackson. His younger brother Tim moved from Houston to help him start New Beginnings.
“I got the best of both worlds. I have the pastor and the brother,” he said. “He’s a man of God. He doesn’t do anything on his own, everything he does he hears from God.”
Such praise humbles Jackson. He’s still amazed people come to hear him preach even if he won’t watch them walk through the doors.
“When I walk out to the pulpit and see the people of God, I can’t help but to smile and thank God,” he said. “We’ve come far but I know God has so much more planned for us.”