KILGORE—Talk to James Bell even for a few minutes, and the subject of “vision” will arise.
“My vision is equipping people to see God’s love,” said Bell, bivocational pastor of Greater St. John Baptist Church in Laird Hill, an unincorporated community southwest of Kilgore. “God is with us always, but we don’t always focus on that. God had a vision for this church, even when nobody saw it.”
‘God has allowed me to see his power’
Since Bell became the congregation’s pastor 12 years ago, he has seen the rural church grow from three or four worshippers on a typical Sunday to more than 200, and he gives God all the glory.
“The Lord has been here the whole time,” Bell said, referring both to his personal testimony and the life of the church. “God has allowed me to see his power.”
About 15 years ago, God used Bell’s concern for a seriously ill friend to help begin the process of discerning his call to ministry.
“The Lord put him on my heart, to try to get him into church,” Bell recalled. “It took me and the Lord about a year and a half, but he ended up in church, and I found a calling.”
Later, God used a request from his sister to confirm that calling both to him and members of Greater St. John Baptist Church.
His sister had been diagnosed with what appeared to be a potentially life-threatening thyroid disease requiring multiple medications that created other health concerns. So, Bell prayed with his sister, asking God to heal her.
Later, his sister called him to say her doctor pronounced her completely free from the disease and took her off all the medicine she had been taking for three years.
At her request, he preached the Mother’s Day sermon at Greater St. John Baptist, where he had been teaching a Sunday school class. In time, he was licensed and ordained to the ministry, and the church called him as pastor.
“When God began calling me to the ministry, the Lord let me see some tremendous things,” Bell said, recalling multiple instances of answered prayers and changed lives. “I was eager to tell the story and let people know how good God is.”
‘Help the kids see there is a better future’
Early in his pastorate, Bell particularly found success in reaching children, teenagers and young adults with the gospel, including many who would have been considered at-risk.
“I wanted to help the kids see there is a better future—a better day ahead,” he said.
However, he realized, he could not provide the kind of discipleship opportunities they needed and fulfill God’s vision for making an impact on the community alone.
About that time, he attended a Christmas program at First Baptist Church in Kilgore, and received a follow-up call from a church representative. Bell told the caller he was pastor of a small, rural church, and he needed help.
“I need tools to help build up the church,” Bell recalled telling him.
‘Unlocking the door to so many opportunities’
The caller introduced Bell to the staff at Gregg Baptist Association, and he learned about the advantages of working cooperatively in missions. Bell subsequently led Greater St. John Baptist to affiliate both with Gregg Baptist Association and the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
“The BGCT and the association have been like locksmiths to me, unlocking the door to so many opportunities,” Bell said.
When the church outgrew its sanctuary, the BGCT helped the congregation secure a low-interest loan and—with the help of volunteer builders and the sponsorship of First Baptist in Kilgore—construct a new facility.
Bell anticipates Greater St. John Baptist will pay off the 10-year note within a few months—about six years after obtaining the loan.
Greater St. John Baptist led Gregg Association in baptisms several years ago, based on percentage increases, and the congregation has been a statewide leader among African-American churches of its size in giving to the Cooperative Program unified budget.
Meanwhile, the church has increased its involvement in community ministry. Greater St. John Baptist provides food boxes to families in need at Thanksgiving and bicycles for children at Christmas.
“We’ve also been able to help people within the church who have almost lost a house after they lost their job,” Bell said.
Through good times and bad
As young people in the church have grown, the congregation celebrates their achievement, displaying their graduation photos on its “wall of honor.”
When some have strayed, Bell and his congregation have walked with them through their difficult times.
He recalled one young woman, a former leader among the youth, who made bad choices and entered into a relationship with a boyfriend who got her pregnant and physically abused her.
Her life took an even more drastic turn when he forced her to drive the car while he and another man committed an armed robbery, shooting and killing someone.
After the young woman was arrested and charged as an accomplice, Bell continued to visit her. He assured her even though she had turned her back on God, he had not forsaken her. They prayed together, asking God to use her even behind bars, and to open doors for a fresh start.
Eventually, her former boyfriend confessed he had forced her to participate in the crime against her will. She was released and returned to church. Now she holds down a steady job, and when she recently bought a small house, she asked Bell to say a prayer of blessing over it, committing her household to God.
“When I tell our church, ‘God is good all the time,’ they know it’s true, because they have seen it,” Bell said.
In the coming years, he trusts God to continue to “keep pouring blessings through the window,” as the church remains obedient to Christ’s call to love.
“If we keep showing love, we’ll continue to grow,” he said. “Jesus showed love. We need to love people the same way Jesus loves us. … People are watching to see how much love you have. What God pours into us, we need to pour off to others.”
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