HELENA-WEST HELENA, Ark. – Located in Phillips County, this Delta community is home to Second Baptist Park Street and West Helena Baptist churches. Jarvis Smith is the pastor of the Second Baptist Church on Park Street, where he has served for over 30 years. Second Baptist became affiliated with the Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) in 2013.
John Harrison has been serving as interim and full-time pastor of West Helena Baptist Church since 2018. At age 88, he has pastored six churches in Arkansas and Missouri including Immanuel in Pine Bluff and St. John Baptist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. He currently resides in Memphis,Tennessee and makes the 75 mile drive each weekend.
Harrison said that when he first began serving as pastor in West Helena the church was “not doing great.” Recently however the church is doing better and seeing consistent growth. He says they are “building back and doing well with the Lord’s blessing.” Harrison says they have built a good youth service on Wednesday nights with over 25 teenagers in attendance
The church has also begun to minister to many in the community who suffer with drug and alcohol addiction. Many of these have turned their lives around and become active members of the church. Harrison said they recently had a Sunday morning service in which 18 individuals walked the aisle in response to a Gospel invitation. So far 12 of these have been baptized.
In addition to his role as pastor at Second Baptist, Smith has served as a juvenile probation officer in the Helena-West Helena area for 12 years. In that time, he has built a strong relationship with the community and become a pastor to many, even those who don’t attend the church. He has experienced first-hand the results of the violence and brokenness of many of those living in this Delta town. As a result, Smith has taken an active role in ministering to the needs of people young and old in the community. In turn, he has led the church to serve through various community outreach efforts. These have included block parties, evangelism crusades, Thanksgiving revivals, food distribution, providing backpacks with school supplies and much more.
Smith and Harrison met through some mutual friends in Helena. They began to talk on a regular basis and soon developed a growing friendship. As they talked about ministry, the two friends realized that they shared a vision and a passion for reaching the lost and meeting the needs of the community. Both men had been doing their part to serve and lead their churches to serve as well. But they knew that there was still something missing.
With a population made up of 65% African American residents and 35% White residents, Smith and Harrison knew that unity among the churches was needed to effectively reach the community. Smith says that at the beginning of his ministry there was a certain fellowship enjoyed among the various churches in the community. He said that hasn’t been the case for many years, however.
The two pastors determined that they needed to set the example and do what they could to help begin the process of moving towards racial reconciliation. They wanted to do something different that would make an immediate impact and they wanted to do it sooner rather than later. They came up with a plan to join the two churches together in a unity service.
And so, on Sunday October 4, at 1:00 PM, the congregations of Second Baptist and West Helena Baptist came together for what many in attendance called a historic event. For the first time that any of those present could remember, the two groups joined together for a worship service in the sanctuary of West Helena Baptist.
Members of Second Baptist led in worship and Smith preached a message from Ephesians 4 titled “One Unit, One Unity.” “We can’t be Christians and not be unified,” Smith said. “There is no such thing as a Christian who is for division or is a racist.” He stressed the need for oneness. Smith also shared from John 17 and talked about how Jesus had prayed for this oneness in verse 21 “that they may all be one; even as You , Father are in Me and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You sent Me.”
Neither pastor knew what to expect, but both knew that God had given them clear direction to lead the churches to come together. The initial reaction to the planned unity service was mixed as many from both groups expressed uncertainty. No one really knew what to expect. Some were even pessimistic, wondering if anything good could really come from this. But Smith said once God stepped in, what happened was beyond anything they could have ever expected.
Harrison said two individuals approached him immediately following the service and said, “We want to tell you that you were right, and we were wrong. We opposed this at first, but it was great.”
Smith said the service helped stir up a “unique energy” among the congregation. He said everyone was fired up, that the service had ignited a spirit of unity. “I expected joy, but our joy was elevated,” Smith said. “There was more spiritual energy, people were more excited about doing the work. It felt like we were growing and moving into territory that normally belonged to the devil and we were taking it in the name of Jesus.”
Harrison and Smith are encouraged by the service and the response from both congregations. They say they are going to take things one step at a time. Both agree this experience was not an ending event but the beginning of a new journey as West Helena Baptist plans to reciprocate and attend a unity service hosted by Second Baptist sometime in January or February. On November 19th, Second Baptist will be hosting a Thanksgiving Revival where they will hand out 400 turkeys to families in the community. Smith says Harrison and others from the church are planning to join them in this ministry opportunity. The two friends agree that change is coming. Smith says you can tell that people have been revitalized. “They don’t feel forbidden to cross these invisible boundaries any longer.”