Minister brings a city together in peace

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published November 8, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 7, 2012 at 10:45 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

The Rev. Nathaniel McCollum has been the pastor at First Missionary Baptist Church Rockport for 40 years.

— The Rev. James Nathaniel McCollum loves to tell the story of when he was the arms of Jesus.

“It was evening, and I was working in the church above the entrance in our big window,” the pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church Rockport began.

He pointed to the large glass front that supports a cross, and just a few feet behind the glass is a larger-than-life portrait of Jesus with his arms outstretched.

“I was working up there in front of the painting when I saw a man walking down the street that was obviously drunk,” McCollum continued. “He looked up, and I motioned for him to come in.

“The man stopped and stared. I didn’t realize what he was seeing yet.”

The man, who lived in the neighborhood, later told McCollum that as he staggered home, he thought the image of Jesus was beckoning him in.

“He took a few steps toward the church and then stopped. As he was about to leave, I motioned again for him to come in. He bent over and looked harder. I motioned once more. He stopped, but finally walked on.”

Having been in the community for years, McCollum knew the man, but he thought he had lost him to the haze of drunkenness. A few days later, the man called and began a spiritual conversation with the pastor that has lasted for years.

McCollum sees his work in Malvern in much the same way. He invited all to come, and while not everyone came, communications were established, and things improved in the lives of others — all the while attracting people not as himself, but making the motions for a higher power.

The leaders of the church on Moline Street first called McCollum to be pastor of their church in 1970, but it was two years later before he stepped into the pulpit as pastor. He has remained there for almost 41 years.

Before taking on the leadership of the church, he had been a member, serving as an usher, clerk and deacon, as well as singing in the choir.

“In February, it will be 41 years,” he said, talking a seat at his desk just outside the church sanctuary. “They kept asking, and I guess that the Lord kept putting it on their minds.”

He said that in the years between the formation of the church in 1948 and his being named to lead the church in 1972, there had been six pastors, each lasting about four years.

“I put a stop to that,” he said with a smile. “It was a tough church then. Some of the people didn’t want leadership; they wanted to run things from the pew.”

As leader of the church, he moved beyond the spiritual needs of his members to a concern for the whole community.

“Moline Street was not paved, and neither was Banks Street,” he said. “Two cars could hardly pass on the street, and the road was lined with big deep ditches, ditches you could drown in.”

McCollum went to the city government in Malvern and asked if it could help, and many of the homes of his parishioners were “not fit to live in,” he said.

“They still had outdoor toilets and no heat and a lot of other problems that could be fixed with a little work,” he said. “This was in 1975 and 1976.

“No one had ever asked to use city money in a black neighborhood before. People were not even asking. They didn’t want to challenge the community.”

McCollum said he did not mind the challenge, and when he asked, he found that the city was willing to help with block grants and roadwork.

“The city was not opposed,” he said. “And I didn’t demand; I just asked and showed them what was needed.”

McCollum worked with then Malvern Mayor Bill Scrimshire, now the Hot Spring County judge.

“I told him I didn’t want credit for anything, just to get things done,” McCollum said.

Working with other ministers, he got the main road into town renamed for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and created the MLK Committee to honor King’s birthday and legacy.

“It was tough for some of the ministers in town who worked with us,” McCollum said.

McCollum might have learned to work within his community successfully by moving away from it for a while.

Born in 1935 in Prattsville, he left Arkansas when he joined the Army at the age of 20 and lived in Chicago for a while afterward.

“I moved there seeking work and a better life,” McCollum said. “It wasn’t there. It wasn’t what I thought it would be.”

He returned, and he and his wife, Maude, were married in 1953. She died in 2006 after the couple had been married 47 years.

During the early years, he worked for Reynolds Aluminum for 19 years in Malvern, where he was active in the church.

He remained on the job after becoming pastor of First Missionary Baptist Rockport and stayed until the plant closed in 1985.

In his years as the head of the church, it grew. In 1979, the church started a building fund. It wasn’t until March 2, 1985, that a new church was built, just a few blocks away on Moline.

“We marched from the old building to the new one for our first service,” he said.

There is no talk of McCollum retiring, or of even slowing down. In January, McCollum said, he will meet with members of the Arkansas Department of Correction. He and Chris Williams, judge of the 7th Circuit Court covering Grant and Hot Spring counties, are working together to find ways to find jobs for people who have been convicted of a felony but have completed their sentence.

“The judge and I have had some success, and he said meeting with the Correction Department could help these people,” McCollum said. “That is all I am trying to do.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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