TUPELO • At nearly 6 1/2 feet tall, the Rev. Dr. Embra Jackson may be the tallest man ever to grace the pulpit at First United Methodist Church in downtown Tupelo. He is also that venerable congregation’s first African-American pastor.
The 66-year-old Jackson is regal and soft-spoken, with the modest comportment typical of taller men. He said in spite of his height, he was never a gifted athlete.
“I can tell you stories about trying to play sports,” he said with a chuckle. “It was not my cup of tea. I went to schools where athletics were top-notch, and being tall was not enough.”
A native of Jackson, he’s the son of educators.
Jackson holds degrees from Tougaloo College, The University of Mississippi, International Theological Seminary, and Memphis Theological Seminary. A ‘cradle’ United Methodist, he said he entered the ministry in his 30s.
“I was searching for fulfillment,” he said. “I wanted to make a difference in the world. I thought about being a lawyer. I worked for a while as a paralegal and I had lots of relatives who were attorneys, but I saw that wasn’t a good fit for me.”
Jackson pastored in several Mississippi United Methodist congregations before becoming the administrative assistant to the bishop in Jackson.
Just before his appointment at FUMC Tupelo, Jackson spent eight years in Starkville, where he served as district superintendent for the Starkville UMC district. He said being back in the pulpit after many years of administrative work was an adjustment.
“I’ve been out of the pulpit 14 years,” he said. “Some of the ministers in my district in Starkville teased me and said, ‘Now you’ll remember how it is to write sermons every week.’ It’s a challenge to find that rhythm again. It’s taking a little while.”
Jackson said while being back in the pulpit has been a challenge, he and his wife, Rosie, have enjoyed being in Tupelo.
“We’re loving it,” he said. “Tupelo is bigger than most places we’ve lived. There are more stores here and my wife loves that. And the people in the stores are so nice. There’s lots of culture and all kinds of people here.”
Jackson said his first weeks at FUMC Tupelo have been positive and encouraging.
“It feels like a whirlwind,” he said. “People have been so kind; I’ve never been so well-received. I told them, ‘I hope you keep it up when we have to make some hard decisions.’”
Jackson said while the United Methodist Church is struggling nationally to hold together around the issue of human sexuality, he sees FUMC Tupelo as a potential model for the denomination.
“I’ve never been in a church so blessed,” he said. “We have so many talented and accomplished people from all walks of life. I told this church, ‘It’s like a marriage. If we can love each other and stick together, we can be a model, not just for Mississippi, but for the whole country.’”
Jackson said while passions run high on both sides of the issue, he sees himself, and most of his fellow United Methodists, as being nearer the center.
“It’s not easy because some people are so passionate on both sides,” he said. “The challenge is to hold those two extremes and live with that tension. The vast majority of our people are centrists and I consider myself a centrist. The love of Christ and other people should be what holds us together.”
Jackson said his background, both as a United Methodist and as a church administrator, helped prepare him for his role as the minister in a predominantly white congregation.
“It’s nothing new for me,” he said. “As an assistant to the bishop, I preached in white congregations all over the state. And I grew up in a typical United Methodist church, which is a predominantly white denomination. My experience in all kinds of churches has made me a more eclectic preacher.”
Jackson said over the years he’s occasionally had to debunk some racial stereotypes regarding preaching style.
“There are some stereotypes about black preachers,” he said. “But those stereotypes are not true in the more mainline denominations. The African-American churches in those denominations are often more formal and liturgical and Eurocentric that many white denominations.”
As a self-diagnosed “type-A” personality used to making decisions quickly, Jackson his new role at FUMC is pushing him toward a more holistic approach to ministry.
“I’m having to back off and respond more prayerfully,” he said.”It’s hard for a guy with my personality, but I need to be reminded and brought back. You can’t have action without contemplation. I’m being pushed to strike a balance between the two spheres.”