Vincent Jackson the Marine, the Vietnam veteran, the guy with the bachelor’s degree in business management, never would have guessed he’d be Rev. Jackson, pastor of Ewing’s St. John’s Baptist Church for 40 years.
But here we are, just a few months past his official anniversary as the pastor of this 108-year-old congregation. And the first thing Jackson learned over all these years at the helm of a church is this: “Church is politics.”
It’s also business. But first and foremost, a church is a political entity in its community.
“If you don’t think a church is political,” Jackson says, “just try to get elected to something around here.”
He understands there’s a lot to unpack in that statement. In essence, what he means is that a church is a major social institution in a community.
It’s a gathering place for large numbers of people who talk about what’s going on in that community. So if you’re looking to get voted into a public office in a town that has a lot of gathering places, you’d better be aware that those people gathering are talking about you.
“I’ve always tried to forge strong relationships with politicians,” he says. “We’re working together.”
This, of course, was not something Jackson was taught in seminary. Rather, he says, “it’s something God has allowed me to see.” Over the decades, Jackson has been allowed to see how communities intersect and cross-pollinate and grow together on what he calls the “three pegs” that secular society hinges on—politics, economics, and education.
“A church has to embrace and understand that,” he says.
And this is not coming from just the pulpit. Jackson is one of those rare people who’s been attached to all three of those pegs. He’s piloted his church since 1978, following some time in the business world, and he also once served on the Ewing Township School Board.
All of which begs an inescapable question: how did he get here? What turned a Marine into a pastor with such standing that Ewing just named a street after him? A section of Oregon Avenue was renamed “ Vincent H. Jackson Way” in October.
Jackson was born and raised in Chester, Pennsylvania, in a working class—and politically active—family. His mother stayed home and father was “a first-class pipefitter” in the steel industry for 45 years. The elder Jackson was also the first black president of the local steelworkers union.
“He used to go to Pittsburgh to help negotiate contracts,” Jackson says. When his father died in 1996, his funeral was held at a black church. “And I look up and see eight or 10 white men in business suits,” he says. “They flew in from Pittsburgh with a proclamation about how he helped with contract negotiations.”
His father also did income taxes for neighbors and coworkers, for free.
“He got me involved too,” he says. “That’s how I remember him—he would give rather than take.”
Jackson got his spiritual grounding from his parents too. His mother’s family were African Methodist Episcopalian and his father’s family were Baptist.
“They were definitely religious,” he says. “And when I was coming up, nobody asked you if you wanted to go to church. They said, ‘You’re going.’”
‘Ministry is a challenge, but challenges need to be undertaken. I can do all things through Christ.’
The spiritual path of the young is something Jackson has a lot to say about. But first there’s the matter of his own young adulthood, which kicked off with a four-year stretch in the Marine Corps. He joined, in part, because he’s always been someone who likes a challenge, he says.
After leaving Vietnam, he considered himself “the last person to ever be in ministry,” he says. He took his GI Bill and got a bachelor’s in business management from Cheyney University of Pennsylvania while he worked for Westinghouse. He’d pretty much planned to be some kind of business exec, making business exec decisions and pulling in business exec money.
God, however, had other plans. “In my third year in undergraduate school, the Lord tapped me on the shoulder,” Jackson says. “I didn’t want to acknowledge it.”
But given that God can be kind of persuasive, Jackson decided to give seminary a try and see if it really was for him.
“I said, ‘I’ll go to seminary school and see what the Lord is up to,’” he says. “After my first year in seminary, the Lord made it clear that he wanted me to preach.”
So a career in business was out, but by the end of his second year at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary (now Palmer Theological Seminary), he’d gotten some interest from churches in Pottstown and Bethlehem, as well as St. John’s. Unsurprisingly, he decided to pray on it and let God tell him where he should go. That was the late 70s, and considering he’s never left Ewing, Jackson feels God made a pretty good pick.
Also unsurprisingly, Jackson has come to view most members of his congregation as a family. It’s a large reason he’s stayed at St. John’s for 40 years. By comparison, most ministers stay at a church five, maybe six years, he says. For him, the member’s of St. John’s “are difficult to separate” from. Like a family. So he doesn’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon.
In the 1990s, Jackson landed a seat on the Ewing school board. Actually, he considers it one of his greatest spiritual achievements. Though he’s never married and has no children of his own, he says he has “a profound love for kids” that he wanted to translate into doing something to directly help the district’s students. It was, he says, his way of giving to the community through its youth.
Now, about that youth …. You know, the future. Well, as maligned as young people always tend to be, Jackson says there is some truth to the idea that today’s young people are different from those in his teen or young adult years.
“Millennials are before us in a big way,” he says. “They’re very different. And you’ve got to understand them.”
In church terms, that means speaking the language of the young and paying attention to how they live. On the one hand, there is not the family approach to church the way there used to be. Remember that thing he said about nobody asking him if he wanted to go to church as a kid?
“Today, parents ask,” he says. “When I was growing up, everyone in the house went to church on Sunday.”
So getting through to the young via their families is not quite the way to do it, he says. You have to get through to them as young individuals who have a few common traits—namely that they’re comfortable with technology and that they don’t want to sit through long, dry (much less fire-and-brimstone) sermons.
“If a Millennial comes in and you get up there with one of those 20-minute prayers,” he says, “they’re not coming back.”
So because a ministry is not static, and because it shouldn’t just be dogma and ritual simply for the reason that that’s how it’s always been, Jackson says, he has tailored his work to be shorter, punchier and more engaging. And off the pulpit, putting together church events that younger people would be interested in has been a big thing for him.
Music is a main avenue for getting through to the young, he says. Young people at St. John’s like to express themselves through music and art and creative enterprises. And rather than shake his fist like an angry old man, Jackson opens his arms and lets the young find their own ways to connect with God and the community—even if he doesn’t like all the music he hears. He doesn’t get why anyone likes hip-hop.
But what keeps a church vibrant, he says, is not about what he likes to listen to—which, for the record, is pretty much anything else—it’s about knowing that churches no longer dictate what a community is. They have to roll with the times, he says, or sink. Just like government. Just like business.
Is he concerned for himself in this process? Of course not. He’s got God on his side, remember?
“Ministry is a challenge,” he says. “But challenges need to be undertaken. I can do all things through Christ.”