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‘Living Legend’ marks 55 years in ministry

  • Written by Dr. Sybill C. Mitchell

The Rev. Dr. James L. Netters – a trailblazing former City Councilman, is swimming in memories this week as hundreds prepare to join him in celebration of 55 years as pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood. The Rev. Dr. James L. Netters – a trailblazing former City Councilman, is swimming in memories this week as hundreds prepare to join him in celebration of 55 years as pastor of Mt. Vernon Baptist Church-Westwood.

 “I’m satisfied with doing just what I’m doing now,” said the Rev. Dr. James L. Netters Sr. (Photos by Tyrone P. Easley)

 An intimate talk with the pastor, the Rev. J.L. Netters Sr. of Mt. Vernon-Westwood Baptist Church, was held last Friday (Oct. 21) at the church. The panelists included Texas, The Rev. C. L. Berryhill Jr., Pastor Netters, the Rev. Dr. Melvin Charles Smith, Dr. Willie W. Herenton, and the Rev. Melvin Watkins Jr., Mt. Vernon’s co-pastor.

The pastoral anniversary celebration is set for 7 p.m. Friday (Nov. 4) at the Holiday Inn-University of Memphis at 3700 Central Ave. The theme statement reads “A Man of Wisdom, Knowledge and Joy.”

Netters, 84, is a realist who has no trouble acknowledging that there are more years behind him that lay ahead. Retirement? Well, that’s not really in the cards right now.

“I’m satisfied with doing just what I’m doing now,” said Dr. Netters told the New Tri-State Defender this week. “I do plan to take some time off to write. When you’re a pastor, there just never seems to be enough time to do some other things you’d like to do. I have staff (to) help carry the responsibilities of my office. I don’t fool myself. I can’t do all I was able to do in my younger days.

“I’ll continue to do as much as I can for as long as I can until the Lord calls me home.”

The ‘right thing to do’

Among the first African-Americans elected to the City Council, Netters recalls embracing what he interpreted as a call to serve.

The year was 1968. City of Memphis sanitation workers went on strike, citing low wages and few benefits. Young pastor Netters joined the ranks of those willing to openly challenge the racist Jim Crow system. He fought the status quo on two fronts: as a spiritual leader representing the needs of Memphis’ African-American community, and as a City Council member.

“While we were marching with the sanitation workers,…rocks were thrown, and police moved in to gas the marchers,” Netters recalled. “I fell to the ground when marchers began to stampede, and two high school kids threw their bodies over mine to shield me from the stampeding crowds and tear gas. Laying there on that ground with the fear of being killed by police or trampled by the crowds was probably the most terrifying moments of my life.”

Netters said he felt compelled to stand with the striking city workers.

“It was just the right thing to do. I never had a desire to be involved in politics, but I knew that the Lord had put me there for His own purposes.”

The strike, said Netters, helped him to more clearly understand that his purpose was not in the Council chambers but rather “on the street where the people needed a voice.”

“I was their voice, speaking for them when they couldn’t speak for themselves. I was called to be an advocate for those who needed me. My role was to get things done. This is why God had me serving on the council at that time,” said Netters.

“I helped hundreds of Memphians secure jobs during my tenure. It was incumbent upon me to do as much good as I could for those who had a need. That’s how I defined my role – to be a blessing and help in every position God had entrusted me with.”

Those with whom Netters served on the City Council included Wyeth Chandler, who was Mayor of Memphis from 1972 to 1982. Chandler tapped Netters as his administrative assistant.

Through the years Netters, born Sept., 10, 1927, has wielded considerable power at Memphis Light Gas & Water (MLGW), serving as a commissioner, interim president and CEO, and presently, chairman of the board.

‘Revelations that revolutionize’

Rev. Netters was ordained in 1955 and the next year he became associated with Mt. Vernon. He took on the task of shepherding a 300-member congregation and within a matter of months, Mt. Vernon had grown to an astonishing 2,000-plus membership.

“One of the things that has brought us great success in our ministry is the contemporary gospel music element, presented along side the traditional music we all know and love,” said Netters. “My son and some of his other high school friends formed a band with a guitar, drums, and bass. And my son asked me if the band could play during service.

“I told him, ‘What are you trying to do, get me thrown out this church?’ That was a time when church people did not have drums or guitar,” netters recalled.

“It was almost sacrilegious to even do such a thing. But this one evening, I was being featured in a concert. I was classically trained by Madame Florence McCleave, a black opera singer. So I was going upstairs to change during an intermission, and my son asked again if his band could play while I was changing. I said they could.”

 After the group began to play, Netters could hear clapping and foot stomping.

 “Needless to say, my son was grinning from ear to ear when I came back up. After that night, I allowed the band to play for our church.”

Young people from everywhere would come in and bring their instruments into the music box and play at Mt. Vernon, said Netters.

“We were one of the first churches in Memphis to have drums and other instruments in church. It was just not done in the traditional Baptist church. But God gives us revelations that revolutionize. This was such a revelation.”

Personal growth in the valley experience

“This next birthday on September 10, I will be 85 years old, if the Lord allows me to see it,” said Dr. Netters.

“Good wisdom has come from experiences of great suffering.”

One of the most devastating times of his life was “when I had lost all three of my children to drugs,” he said.

“For 25 years, my wife, Leona, prayed that the Lord would deliver them. And we just kept on loving them and doing what we could. People left the church because of my children’s drug use. That was a very painful and difficult time. But the Lord brought us through,” said Netters.

“Today, two of my children serve here at the church: a daughter who trains teachers at our school, and my son who directs our sound ministry. I really believe the Bible: ‘Train up a child in the way you would have him to go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ We just kept praying and believing that God would deliver them and bring them back to us,” said Netters.

“And that’s just what He did.”

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