Baptist layman Jerry Clower, top country comic, dies at 71
JACKSON, Miss. (BP)--Jerry Clower, a Mississippi Baptist layman who, as a fertilizer salesman in his 40s, "backed into" a career as a country comedian, died Aug. 24 at Mississippi Baptist Medical Center in Jackson after undergoing heart bypass surgery five days earlier. He was 71.
Clower, known for his clean humor, was the best-selling country comedian of all time, recording 31 albums, with sales stretching beyond 8 million, all with MCA/Decca records in Nashville, Tenn.
He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, three years after the release of his first album, "Jerry Clower from Yazoo, Mississippi, Talkin'." That album and two others, "Jerry Clower's Greatest Hits" and "Jerry Clower, Mouth Of Mississippi," reached gold status, each topping 500,000 in sales. He was named country comic of the year by various publications from 1973-81. His last album, "Peaches & Possums to Clanton, Alabama, with love, Jerry Clower," is scheduled for release this fall.
He also penned "Ain't God Good!" and three other books. He did up to 200 performances a year, regularly concluding with a testimony of his faith in Christ. He fell ill Aug. 4 at the Georgia Mountain State Fair in Hiwassee -- the first show he missed in 32 years.
Clower, of Liberty, Miss., was a member of East Fork Baptist Church, a 100-member congregation in the Amite County, Miss., community of Smithdale -- the church where he trusted Christ at age 13 during a July 1939 revival meeting and was baptized -- the same day as his future wife, Homerline.
They were married for 51 years and raised a son and three daughters. "If God gave me the ingredients and told me to make a woman, I'd make her just like my wife," Clower told Georgia Baptists' Christian Index newsjournal before a show at Brewton-Parker College there in January.
Before returning to his boyhood community in 1988; Clower was an active member of First Baptist Church, Yazoo City, Miss., for 34 years.
Clower was the longtime co-host of "Country Crossroads," a Christian-country program heard weekly on 750 radio stations. Now produced by the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, the program was begun in 1969 by the SBC's former Radio and Television Commission. Clower joined the broadcast in the mid-1970s.
Clower relayed his humor at Southern Baptist Convention annual meetings in 1975 and 1979, and he remained a popular speaker in Baptist meetings over the years -- spanning boys' Royal Ambassador groups to senior adults -- as well as in local churches.
In 1970, Clower was one of three incorporators of Agricultural Missions Foundation, now based in Jackson, Miss., a nonprofit organization supporting a range of overseas agricultural missionaries and projects.
"I am convinced that there is only one place where there is no laughter, and that's hell," Clower once said. "I have made arrangements to miss hell. Praise God, I won't ever have to be anywhere that there ain't no laughter."
"I love what I do. What I do is biblical," Clower said in a 1993 interview with Music Row magazine in Nashville. "The wisest man that ever lived, King Solomon, said, 'A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.'"
"I've never made an album you couldn't play in church," he told The Christian Index, while telling Music Row that his success proves "that families want to laugh and share together. A lot of talkers today have to hide their records from the children. My tapes can be played for the whole family."
Clower called himself "a forerunner, an introducer and supporter" for Jesus Christ in a 1997 book of notables' favorite Scripture verses, "Lamp Unto My Feet."
Quoting John the Baptist's words from John 3:30, "He must increase, but I must decrease," Clower wrote: "In show business you have advance people who make all the plans and preparation. John the Baptist was such a person. His main objective was to point people to the Lamb of God. In all things if you conduct yourself to make sure Jesus increases and you decrease, you will always be doing what will honor God."
"I realize I'm in the fourth quarter of my life," Clower told The Christian Index. "But I am not a long-range planner. I live one day at a time. … First thing I do every morning is pray. … Worry is a sin."
Clower played a leading role in the integration of Yazoo City's public schools during the latter 1960s, recounted Gene Triggs, a longtime friend and fellow member of First Baptist Church there.
"He took a strong stand" and encouraged city residents to remain committed to public education, Triggs said, adding, "He had a unique way of expressing himself on all kinds of secular as well as Christian topics."
Clower recounted opposition from "the Ku Klux" over the years in a 1995 article in The Tennessean in Nashville. "I've gotten ugly letters. And that bothers me." But he said he faced such concerns "through growing in grace as a Christian."
While being a top-selling artist in truck stops across the country, Clower also was the country artist who held that spot among African Americans, and a number of black radio stations were playing his humor, the newspaper reported.
"It makes sense," Clower said. "If you grew up in the South, you remember hog-killin' time whether you're white or black."
A fertilizer salesman for 17 years with Mississippi Chemical Corporation, Clower got his start in the entertainment business by tapping his knack for humorous storytelling to keep people awake during sales talks on agricultural chemicals. A friend taped one of his talks in Lubbock, Texas, and sent it MCA, and Clower soon had a recording contract.
At Mississippi Chemical Corporation, Clower worked under the late Owen Cooper, the last layman to serve as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Clower, who gave Cooper's nominating address in 1973, described Cooper as "the most moral man I've known," in The Christian Index interview earlier this year.
Clower's trademark "Whoooooooooooh!" exclamation was described by a writer in The Tennessean as "uttered with tent-revival fervor in a falsetto tone that falls somewhere between a broken locomotive whistle and a championship hog call."
While his stories regularly featured the fictional Ledbetters of Mississippi in such settings as church revivals, county fairs, crappie fishing or cotton farming, Clower maintained that "just about all of my stuff is all almost true," Music Row quoted him as saying. As long as he continues traveling and meeting people, he said he will always have material for new recordings. "It's not things that creative minds sit down and write. The only ability I have is the talent to remember and the talent to tell it" -- and "embellish" it just a bit at times.
"We were standing on a street corner in Liberty, Miss., the other day," he told The Tennessean, "and a funeral came by. Everyone in front of the Liberty Drug Store got reverent. They pass by. And this one ol' boy leans over to his buddy and says, 'Who died?' He said, 'The one in the first car.'
"Now you can't think that up," Clower said.
Reared in a single-parent home with few material blessings after his father deserted the family, Clower shared chores with an older brother and credited his Christian mother, Mable, for being a pivotal influence in his life. "I thank God for my mamma who taught me high moral standards, right from wrong and that you gave a hard day's work for a full day's pay," he told a Baptist conference for 2,000 senior adults in Arkansas in 1996. "I am afraid in today's society our moral standards are so low that animals care more for their young'uns than the human race does."
Joining the Navy at age 16 in World War II, Clower served aboard the USS Bennington, earning three battle stars and a presidential citation. "I love this country because I know what it took to keep it free," he told the Arkansas seniors. It was in the war that "I learned about God's provision of guardian angels for those who love and serve him."
Following his military service, Clower determined he would gain a college education and work as a 4-H Club leader because of the influence a 4-H leader had on his life while growing up. He first attended a junior college in Summit, Miss., then transferred to Mississippi State University in Starkville. Although he had never played football before, he became the team's left tackle and gained a football scholarship. Following his graduation with a degree in agriculture, Clower worked for two years as an assistant county agent with 4-H clubs before Cooper recruited him for Mississippi Chemical Corporation.
"He lived his life strictly according to Christian principles," Tandy Rice, Clower's only manager, who worked with the comic on only a handshake for nearly 30 years, told The Tennessean Aug. 24.
Underscoring gratitude for his religious heritage, Clower told the Arkansas seniors that he researched the history of East Fork Baptist Church for the 150th anniversary of its founding in 1810 and had learned "about my forefathers being posted as guards to keep the Indians from interrupting services. This is the background that allowed me to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ."
"I am an heir to a mansion, a robe and a crown and you are, too," Clower told the seniors. "There are enough of you in this auditorium to turn the state of Arkansas upside down for him if you will only tell others of his saving grace."
Urging Christians to quit worrying and to lean on God, Clower said, "I am so appreciative of what God has done for me that wherever I am I let the blood of Calvary speak for me. You, too, should let his blood speak for you rather than tarnishing your witness with personal worries."
The surviving children of Clower and his wife, Homerline, of Liberty, Miss., are son Ray of Gulfport, Miss., and daughters Amy of Clinton, Miss.; Jerri Sue of Columbus, Miss.; and Katy of East Fork, Miss. Other survivors include seven grandchildren and his brother, W.E. "Sonny" Clower of East Fork, and sister, Linda Clower of Chester, Vt.
The funeral will be at 11 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 26, at East Fork Baptist Church, with burial in East Fork Cemetery. Funeral arrangements are being handled by Hartman Funeral Home, McComb, Miss.
(BP) photo posted in SBCNet BP Photos Library. Reporting by Millie Gill and John D. Pierce was incorporated into this article.
Harold Branch, retired Texas pastor,
receives SBC black heritage award
By Linda Lawson
RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP)--In 1954, when Harold T. Branch led East 19th Street Baptist Church, Austin, Texas, to affiliate with the local Southern Baptist association, he became only the third African American pastor to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 20th century.
Seven years later, after becoming pastor of St. John Baptist Church in Corpus Christi, Branch led that church to affiliate with the Corpus Christi Baptist Association.
Also in 1961, when a black student sought to enroll at the then-segregated University of Corpus Christi after being given a scholarship based on the assumption he was white, Branch's influence was a major factor in allowing that student, Sid Smith, to begin classes.
Four years later, when Smith graduated, the university awarded Branch an honorary doctorate.
Smith, who now serves as director of African American ministries for the Florida Baptist Convention, introduced Branch Aug. 19 during the Black Church Leadership Conference where he was presented the 1998 Black SBC Heritage Award.
Branch, 79, retired in 1988 from St. John Baptist Church after also serving in numerous leadership roles in the association, Baptist General Convention of Texas and SBC. He was the first African American to serve as moderator of the Corpus Christi Baptist Association, the first to serve as second vice president of the BGCT and the first to serve as a trustee of an SBC agency, the Foreign Mission Board (now International Mission Board). Immediately after his retirement, he served as a contract consultant for the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay Christian Resources) and started 102 Sunday schools in African American churches in six months.
Branch said after graduating from Howard University in Washington, and Andover-Newton Theological School in Newton, Mass., he followed the advice of African American professors to go to the South and help to open doors of service and ministry for blacks.
"I came back to Texas in '47, possessed by a divine desire to be a midwife, to assist in any kind of way possible to give birth to a new day," he said. He immediately began participating in an interracial Bible study attended by students from several local schools, including the University of Texas.
Reflecting on his 44 years as a Southern Baptist, Branch said, "I know that the seed of effort sown in 1954 was not in vain."
When he retired from the pastorate, Branch said he told people he was "going to pull up my anchor, hoist my sails and let the wind of the Spirit blow. Wherever the wind of the Spirit blows and wherever I land, I'll do my best to bloom for the glory of God."
Approaching 80, Branch said he is now "practicing the presence of God. If I'm going to be with him eternally, I need to get started practicing now."
In another matter, LeRoy Fountain, manager of member services at the Annuity Board, received the 1998 African American Denominational Servant Award.
A total of 1,154 people from 26 states attended the Black Church Leadership Conference, a record. Virginia led all states with 145 registrants followed by Tennessee, 128, and Florida, 102. Spring Hill Baptist Church, Detroit, which is considering affiliation with the SBC, brought the most people to the conference, 86.
Participants were told 2,678 predominantly African American churches are affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, an increase of 12 percent over 1997.
Robert Wilson, manager of the African American church planting unit at the North American Mission Board, said the SBC "began in 1989 to assign responsibility for intentionally planting churches in the African American community."
African American church planters are now working in 11 states, Wilson said, with unfilled positions in seven others.
"Don't hear us say we're planting black churches in the African American community. We're planting churches in the African American community," Wilson said.
The Black Church Leadership Conference was sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention's LifeWay Christian Resources, North American Mission Board, International Mission Board and Annuity Board.
The 1999 conference will be held June 28-July 2 at Glorieta (N.M.) Conference Center.
Midwestern faculty, Ill. leaders
discuss focus on urban ministry
By Tammi Ledbetter
CHICAGO (BP)--Intent on gaining a better understanding of ministry throughout Illinois, the faculty of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary held their annual retreat in Chicago, Aug. 17-19. They toured Uptown Baptist Church and heard from associational and state Baptist leaders, as well as students in the seminary's Chicago extension.
Speaking to the group of 55 seminary faculty, administrators and their spouses, Chicago Metro Baptist Association missions director Jim Queen expressed gratitude for the partnership he and Midwestern's president, Mark Coppenger, had developed to provide seminary students with training in an urban context.
Queen expressed his frustration that Southern Baptists are "still training pastors in a rural mind-set to come into urban areas," resulting in failed ministries. "It might work if they go to the urban South, but they're not making it in New York, Boston, Chicago and L.A." After approaching Coppenger about developing the extension in Chicago, Queen is now hopeful that Midwestern has entered "a new paradigm."
The master of divinity in urban ministry is a specialized three-year program of study offered by Midwestern. It includes a year of field education in cooperation with the state conventions, associations and local churches. The seminary partners with the field-based urban ministry to provide the education.
In the M.Div. urban ministry emphasis, a student will complete approximately 68 semester hours at a Midwestern campus, then relocate to a supervised area of service. During the last year, the curriculum is composed of mentoring by veteran urban ministers, specialized seminars and supervised readings.
The student who completes the M.Div. in urban ministries degree is equipped to apply for mission appointment by the North American Mission Board or a state convention.
"With a seminary extension center in Chicago, the Lord has provided us with a living laboratory in our own Midwestern 'parish' where we can place students for a year of intensive, on-the-job training in urban ministry," stated Ron Rogers, associate professor of missions at Midwestern.
For a veteran of inner-city ministry like Jim Queen, training in an urban setting makes all the difference in effectiveness in ministry. "It's not that the principles are different. The context is different," Queen said of urban ministry. He believes the most effective ministers will be those who come out of an urban setting or develop an understanding through contextualized training such as that now offered by Midwestern.
By offering the specialized M.Div., Queen expects Midwestern will attract attention from many prospective students. Other seminaries in the Chicago area are more likely to offer "sensitivity training, sociology and Gestalt counseling," Queen said. They fail to "prepare pastors to be pastors" and "lack a spirit of evangelism."
Brad Traywick of Broadview, Ill., who is planting a church northwest of Chicago and is pursuing the master of divinity degree at the extension, shared his concern about a lack of doctrinal teaching in many churches. "A lot of people raised under a lot of foolishness tolerate a lot of error. When you say, 'The Word says,' they don't want to hear it."
As a result, many preachers use theatrics combined with heretical teaching to give people what they want to hear, Traywick said. "We need to have more places where people can come and hear rock solid doctrinal teaching." He thanked Midwestern faculty for providing an extension in Chicago, stating, "I want to know what I'm talking about when I stand up to preach."
Special projects implementer Bill Seitz of the local association echoed that sentiment, thanking Midwestern for providing the only opportunity for seminary level training from a conservative theological perspective and a missions mind-set.
As the local contact for the seminary extension, Seitz wants to "set up an environment for students to have a three- or four-month experience and find out if they can handle urban ministry." He, too, said it will attract people from all over the country.
"If we're to go out and preach to all the world," Seitz said Christians need to know "the world happens to be in the cities." By getting a part of their seminary training in the third-largest city in America, Seitz said seminary students will study in a context that will help them plant churches at home and abroad. "If it will work in Chicago, it can work anywhere. Our goal is that we train people to have an impact in the urban community."
Bob Wiley, executive director of Illinois Baptist State Association, shared the plan of Southern Baptists in his state to "mobilize churches in order to harvest a large number of folks in 15 years." Without immediate attention, Wiley said the future is dim. "We're looking at closing our doors, one church at a time, if we don't refocus our world."
By thinking more in terms of reaching people groups, Wiley said more people will be changed by the gospel through the efforts of Southern Baptists. Several IBSA staff members shared how the new emphasis had changed the work of their departments, including Rafael Murillo, Hispanic catalyst missionary; Glenn Akins, research and consulting services director; Edd Hancock, Sunday school and discipleship director; and Sylvan Knobloch, church-minister relations director.
Just over 30 percent of Illinois Baptist pastors are seminary-trained, staff members related. Wiley expressed his hope "the Midwestern Seminary connection not just take root in Chicago." He insisted, "I don't think we can succeed without the strategy training alongside" the church-planting focus. "We want it to be a good partnership."
Coppenger said, "We're happy when grads go to Jackson, Miss., and Lynchburg, Tenn., but we're going to focus on going to Galena, McComb and Downers Grove, Ill.," reiterating the school's focus on reaching the Midwest/Great Plains region of America.
Urban transit experience in Chicago
part of Midwestern faculty retreat
By Tammi Ledbetter
CHICAGO (BP)--As faculty members of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary enter their classrooms for another year of training ministers to take the gospel to the nation's heartland and beyond, they will speak with a greater familiarity of the region. The entire faculty and administration traveled Aug. 17-19 along with spouses to Chicago, the largest city in the Midwest and home of one of the seminary's newest extensions.
Midwestern's president, Mark Coppenger, sought to offer an "urban transit experience" that took in planes, trains and busses. After being bussed to an Amtrak station in Kansas City, Mo., the group took an eight-hour train ride to Chicago, passing by cornfields and villages until they finally arrived in the metropolitan region that 8 million people call home.
After three years, it's become a tradition to use the annual faculty retreat to acclimate the professors and administrators to the Midwestern experience beyond the seminary's Kansas City campus. First, it was nearby Lawrence, Kan., a university town at the edge of the prairie. The next year the destination was Minneapolis, with its cosmopolitan composition.
With two-thirds of the students they teach coming from the Midwest, faculty members gain a greater understanding of the culture as they visit different parts of the region from year to year. Many had never eaten an authentic deep-dish pizza, cheered a Cubs baseball team to victory or listened to street musicians while making connections to an elevated train.
Some, like spiritual formation assistant professor Don Whitney, returned to the ministry setting in which he pastored for 15 years before joining Midwestern's faculty. The former pastor of Glenfield Baptist Church in Glen Ellyn, Ill., practiced on the west side of Chicago what he now preaches to students.
"I can't imagine now training men to be pastors without those (and other) years of pastoral experience," Whitney said. "Moreover, it is a great help to have a feel for pastoring in a pioneer missions area for Southern Baptists since many of those I am helping to train will themselves turn northward or westward from Kansas City to serve in pioneer missions areas."
Raised in Arkansas, Whitney was used to an area with a Southern Baptist church for every 1,000 people. He noted a different dynamic when ministering in a place where there is one SBC church for every 50,000-70,000 people. "There was one tiny Catholic church and no Lutheran churches in my hometown. The Midwestern county where I pastored was more than 90 percent Catholic and Lutheran in terms of denominational preference. Ministering in this milieu has made a world of difference in preparing me to prepare others to serve in the Midwest and the world beyond."
Paul Carlisle, professor of pastoral counseling, served as a summer missionary from East Texas Baptist University to the neighborhood that Chicago's Uptown Baptist Church was seeking to reach. With the eight students coming from a rural background, Carlisle said it was "kind of a Gomer Pyle 'gawleee' experience" as they lived and worked amidst drug addicts and prostitutes.
"It had a phenomenal impact on my life," Carlisle said, "forever infecting me with the whole concept of incarnational ministry. You have got to be willing to get out of your frame and cross those barriers to share the gospel."
In spite of the apparent danger, Carlisle said, "The neighborhood took care of us because we weren't giving them drugs." He helped with Bible studies, evangelism and social ministry. "It was a faith step in that I didn't know how to do it. They looked and acted differently, but God had such a heart for them. Just being back was so nostalgic."
Over the course of three days, the Midwestern group heard Illinois State Baptist Association staffers describe a far-reaching effort to increase church-planting efforts, toured Uptown Baptist Church which is known for its effectiveness in inner-city ministry and heard from local pastors who have benefited as students of the new Chicago extension classes offered by the seminary.
Sidney Logwood of Riverdale, Ill. and moderator of the Chicago Baptist Association, told the Midwestern delegation that the type of growth that had occurred among African American churches in the inner city illustrates God's goodness and grace. He pastors Rain or Shine Baptist Church in Chicago.
"Unfortunately, by not having seminary training, many of us are not sound in doctrine," Logwood said. "I came out of a group of ministers who felt that God would teach you what you needed to know in order to get the job done. But I'm concerned that our preaching impact the quality of our lives and living, and a lot of us are not adequately prepared to do that."
While his members "get excited when the organ plays, the choir comes and starts to rock," Logwood acknowledged, "When you really start to talk about the Word of God, that doesn't excite them." He sees the answer in "getting rooted and grounded in the faith and becoming more solid in our doctrine."
For Logwood, seminary training at Midwestern's Chicago extension has met that need. "Had I known some of the things I've learned in the past two years when I first began at Rain or Shine Baptist Church, I'm sure our church would have been a lot farther along. I appreciate the knowledge you brothers are sharing," he stated.
Coppenger said, "We're happy when grads go to Jackson, Miss., and Lynchburg, Tenn., but we're going to focus on going to Galena, McComb, and Downers Grove, Ill.," reiterating the school's focus on reaching the Midwest/Great Plains region of America.
Coppenger previously lived near Chicago when he taught philosophy and ethics at Wheaton College. Just before they boarded a plane to fly home to Kansas City, Coppenger told the Midwestern group that he hoped they would leave Chicago frustrated enough by the limited travel schedule to make plans for a return visit on their own. Some won't have to wait long. In September, a new contingent of professors will deliver seminary training to eager students intent on reaching Chicago with the gospel.
Inner-city ministry's creative witness
includes air conditioners, backpacks
By Steve Achord
NEW ORLEANS (BP)--As the temperature inched its way to a record high of 99 degrees in New Orleans, Barbara Boyd faced just another hot August day without air conditioning. Why should this day be any different? At 51, Barbara has never lived in a home with air conditioning. Until now.
On a sultry Monday afternoon, Perry Hancock, an associate professor of Christian education at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Bonnie Peters, a member of New Orleans' Desire Housing Development resident council, knocked at Boyd's Desire apartment, delivering not only an air conditioner, but also the good news that Jesus loves and cares for her.
As the air conditioner was brought up the steps to her second-floor apartment, Boyd sat in awe on the front steps not knowing what to say at first.
"This makes me feel, well, ... wow! There is a Lord above," Boyd said.
Stories like this began circulating around New Orleans in June 1997 after Hancock and his wife, Tonya, founded Creative Ministries. Their passion for meeting the personal needs of people and telling them about Jesus began 12 years ago when he first became a pastor.
What started with giving out 10,000 cups of cold water and 500 Bibles at a county fair has matured into a year-round ministry through which love, care and a positive Christian witness are displayed in unique social ministries.
For instance, last year Creative Ministries contacted an elementary school near one of the poorest and most dangerous housing developments in New Orleans about providing school supplies to every child in the school. Aware beforehand that in Orleans Parish more than 62,000 children under age 18 live in poverty, Hancock knew most of the children in this school would go through the entire academic year without the basic essentials needed to learn.
Hancock obtained the recommended list of school supplies and met with the principal, telling him Creative Ministries wanted to obtain the supplies, put them in a new backpack and deliver them to each student at the beginning of school. The principal seemed a little confused at first, Hancock said, and seemed to pause for Hancock to supply a "however" or a "but" to the rest of the sentence.
"There's no catch," Hancock explained, just a backpack full of school supplies, a note telling parents where the supplies came from, a list of churches in the area where their family could worship and a tract offering the plan of salvation.
The principal responded with amazement, excitement and a simple sentence: "But we have close to 500 children."
Hancock replied, "Not a problem. I will see you at the beginning of school."
Following that successful back-to-school event, a team from a local church was in the housing development near the school doing follow-up work. The mother of one of the children who had received the backpack invit