It was Sunday, August 13, 1950, and Jasper Williams Jr. stepped up to the pulpit to preach his first sermon. Because of his stature, he stood on a stack of Coca-Cola crates so people could see his face over the podium. He was only seven years old, but he had earnestly shared with his father, Jasper Williams Sr., that he was called to preach.
“Given that Daddy had been telling me for as long as I could remember that I would be a preacher,” Jasper recalls in his autobiography, It Ain’t But One, “I thought he would be excited.”
Instead, the elder Jasper asked his boy a series of questions to gauge his seriousness. Satisfied that his heart was in the right place, Jasper’s father began preparing him for his big night at Lane Avenue Baptist in Memphis, Tennessee, the church where he was the pastor.
Young Jasper preached on Jesus being the Living Waters. He recalls being exhilarated by the experience, and he received an $8.32 honorarium for his efforts. Soon after, his father began taking Jasper on trips for preaching engagements, where they would alternate in the pulpit.
Jasper Sr. was a second-generation preacher himself, his father being a Methodist preacher who died when Jasper Sr. was two years old. In the 30 years he led Lane Avenue, he expanded the church’s ministry to include radio, harnessing the 50,000-watt reach of WDIA, a station that was said to reach a tenth of America’s black population.
While in Memphis Jasper Sr. became close with other local church leaders, including C.L. Franklin, father of the late soul singer, Aretha. Franklin inspired the younger Jasper with his unconventional preaching style and dress, which drew on the colorful showmanship of James Brown rather than the black-and-white suits and staid demeanor of most Black preachers.
“As a boy, I did not know Rev. Franklin personally, but I spent countless hours in my room listening to his recorded sermons over and over again, trying to absorb his style,” Jasper recalls. “He could bring a Bible story to life like no one else.”
THE ROAD TO ATLANTA
Jasper continued to preach into his teens, and his father directed his path toward a career in ministry, even as his son graduated high school and left for Atlanta to attend Morehouse College.
“When I came to Atlanta, the plan was for me to come to Morehouse, be educated, go back home to Memphis and assume the co-pastor role with my father,” Jasper recalls. “That was his dream for me. Of course, life took its course, and I never made it back home.”
During his time at Morehouse, he studied sociology and religion, as the school did not have a formal seminary. Jasper continued to fill pulpits for churches without a pastor, hoping he would land a position when they heard him preach. But his youthfulness gave him few advantages, and most churches were looking for someone with more experience. Then, in the spring of 1963, the deacons at Salem Baptist, south of downtown Atlanta, reached out to him asking if he would fill the pulpit for Easter Sunday.
He would preach regularly through the fall, as the church was hoping to find a pastor by their November convention. Sure enough, at the convention, Jasper Jr. now only 19 years old, was officially elected pastor.
“Despite the fact I had more preaching experience than the average man considerably older than me, I still looked like a fresh-faced kid,” Jasper notes. “People who appreciated me in the pulpit may not have had much time for me in the pastor’s office.”
What the young preacher lacked in experience, he made up for in diligent preparation and in sensitivity toward the needs of the congregation. The previous pastor had stepped down due to failing health, and Jasper insisted that the church continue to help him financially. Although there were inevitable power struggles and conflicts, Jasper persevered, the church outgrew its building and in 1970 Salem moved to a new location on Baker Road, one of the campuses it occupies today.
During the early years Jasper built relationships with the leading pastors in the city, including Martin Luther King Sr. (“Daddy King,” as he was known).
“It was obvious that Daddy King had a deep affection for me, and it was evident that he had taken me under his wings,” Jasper recalls. “He loved my lively preaching, which was very different from his more temperate demeanor.”
After he retired from Ebenezer Baptist, the elder King would frequently visit Salem Baptist, and Jasper would invite him to speak to the congregation, if he wanted to.
Jasper became known for his dynamic and creative preaching style. Like other preachers of his generation, he used whooping to dramatically drive his points home. He also experimented with illustrated sermons, dressing up in biblical garb and acting out a story from Scripture. One well-known such sermon was “I Married a Prostitute,” which told the story of the prophet Hosea to illustrate God’s love for His wayward people. Later, the sermon was turned into a play that was presented at the Atlanta Civic Center.
As Salem Baptist grew, Jasper’s platform grew along with it. He supported civil rights causes in Atlanta and around the country and became acquainted with Martin Luther King Jr., their paths crossing periodically. (The elder Jasper was in the crowd for King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis the night before he was gunned down.) Later, he supported Jesse Jackson in his 1984 and 1988 runs for the White House.
THE VALLEY LOW
When he’d been pastoring for almost eight years, Jasper married in 1971, a relationship that gave him two sons: Jasper W. Williams III (who pastors The Church in south Atlanta) and Joseph Williams (who leads alongside his father at Salem). In spite of the couple’s best efforts, the marriage did not endure, and they divorced in the early ’80s. Soon after, Jasper spiraled into drug addiction, going through the motions of ministry, while living a double life on the side.
“I falsely believed I was preparing for my sermons as diligently as ever, but in my heart I knew I wasn’t. I was putting less effort into the messages. Many times I recycled old sermons that had been received well,” he recalls. “In this way, I didn’t have to apply myself, and I hoped that the anointing that was on the sermon the first time I preached it would be there when I preached it again.”
Jasper realized how low he’d sunk when a member of the congregation came in with her son to ask the pastor to “talk straight to him” about drug use. Realizing his own hypocrisy, Jasper decided to check himself into Ridgeview Institute, a drug rehab hospital in northwest Atlanta. While in rehab he unraveled the patterns that led to his drug use—including the deeply held desire to live up to his father’s exacting expectations.
When he left rehab after 28 days, no one asked him where he had been, and he didn’t share his story publicly until 30 years later in 2018, when he spoke at the Issachar Church Growth & Development Conference in Houston. Choking back tears, he recounted his battle with addiction and how God had rescued him. Jasper concluded by offering his phone number and inviting any of the attending pastors who were struggling as he had to reach out to him. When he returned home, he began to receive calls from pastors in need of help.
“The more transparent you can be, the more you can help people coming along. I think my having come that route puts me in a position where I can minister to preachers who are doing some of the same things, to be an inspiration to them as to how they ought to change,” he notes. “I’m grateful that I was able to be an instrument to help do that.”
Even so, he does not recommend leaders in crisis wait as long as he did to get help.
“I often wonder how much Salem would have thrived, if it had not been for my waywardness. I don’t want anyone to ever hear my story and think because I wandered for the better part of ten years, they can afford to procrastinate in making a change,” he advises in his book. “If you are hiding an addiction as you are reading this, I want to urge you with everything in my being, to deal with it now, today!”
A COMMUNITY IN NEED
Over the years, Jasper led Salem to become increasingly involved in meeting the needs of the Atlanta community. The church paid teachers to tutor struggling students in the nearby Bowen Homes housing project. They opened a home to care for children whose mothers were in drug rehab. The Alice Williams Towers, named in honor of Jasper’s mother, were opened in 1999 and 2002, and the Johnnie B. Moore Towers were opened in 2006 and 2010, with a total of with 210 apartments serving low-income seniors.
For many of these community outreach programs, Jasper has leveraged government grants and funding, something he is not ashamed to do.
“I believe that if we can use something to provide assistance to people in need, let’s do it—even if it comes from the devil himself! After all, God can use the enemy to do His work,” he explains. “Now, I am not saying that the government is the devil, let’s be clear! My point is that when the favor of God is on your life, He will use whomever He chooses to bless you. The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it belongs to Him as well.”
Recognizing they were drawing attendees from all 26 counties in metropolitan Atlanta, in 2003 Salem opened another campus in Lithonia—one which can accommodate twice as many people as the Baker Road building.
In recent years, Jasper has become increasingly concerned with the plight of the Black community. In 2014, when Michael Brown was killed by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, Jasper felt the time had come to leverage his influence and connections to make a difference. He formed AACTS, African American Churches Transforming Society, and convened chairmen and CEOs, school administrators and the chiefs of police of the six counties of metro Atlanta to a meeting in November, 2014.
The two questions he posed the group were: What are the two major problems that you have in the African-American community that you lead? And what do you think that the church can do about it?
“We gave the answers to researchers at Morehouse School of Medicine to create a qualitative analysis,” Jasper explains. “The qualitative analysis said that in order to turn Black America around, that we needed to address the parenting situation, that the only way that Black America could be changed is to address parenting.”
While he knew that parents were struggling and that the Black family was in crisis, Jasper was still taken aback by the definitive results of the research.
“It was a revelation for me. I had no idea that parenting would be the No. 1 thing that these answers would lead to,” he notes. “But let’s face it, when you don't have parents in the proper place calling for their home to come up to certain standards, it hampers not only that home, but it hampers the whole world. And I say that because as the home goes, so goes the street. As the street goes, so goes the neighborhood. As the neighborhood goes, so goes the city, you carry it to the county, the state, the nation, so goes the world.”
Jasper specifically narrows the family problem in the Black community to missing fathers.
“So, if we have too many homes in the African American community where fathers are missing, and fathers are not allowed to instill the principles that need to be in our children, then we are starting off at a negative,” he contends. “Martin Luther King’s dream can never be anything but a nightmare because the home situation will never rise to where we need to be as a race, as a people. It all roots back to the home, which was God’s intent from the very beginning in the Garden of Eden.”
A DREAM FOR TRANSFORMATION
In response to the research findings, Jasper gathered a team of educators to create a curriculum called Parenting God’s Way that is currently being used by churches to provide parents and guardians with practical guidance for raising children, specifically focused on the unique challenges of the African American community.
Even has he works to spread his message of family restoration in his circles of influence, Jasper recognizes the challenges are complex. He sometimes receives pushback from those who argue that the problems in the Black community have their roots in systemic racism, economic inequality, bad schools and a justice system that unfairly targets people of color.
“A lot of times we as a race may want to blame the white man for our demise, and all of that is fine. I don’t fight any of that, but I think that we have made that our excuse too long,” Jasper argues. “When someone has knocked you down, you don’t stay down just because you’re waiting on them to pick you up. You get yourself up first, and then you try to better yourself and move on. That’s just the way I see it.”
One area in which he has seen an unintended downside of advances in civil rights has been the decline in Blacks patronizing Black-owned businesses. In his book, Slaves Without Chains, Jasper notes that segregation forced Blacks to build a parallel economy of businesses that encouraged patronage by people of color. From restaurants and hotels to barbers and drycleaners, he argues that Black businesses thrived. With desegregation, Black families were allowed to patronize white businesses, and the dollars flowed out of the Black community.
“We’ve got to learn to support each other,” Jasper argues. “I think there is no better way than through the church. Our churches should take people, help them educate their children and help put those children into businesses. This is the greatest, best thing that I see on the surface now that the African American community through the church can be doing.”
This message of empowerment and personal responsibility was at the heart of one his mostly widely-heard sermons, the eulogy for the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, August 31, 2018. Jasper was chosen for the task due to his family’s relationship with the Franklins. He had given the eulogy for Aretha’s father, C.L. Franklin, in 1984, and had maintained periodic contact with Aretha in the intervening years.
At more than nine hours long, the funeral, broadcast live on CNN, was held at Greater Grace Temple in Detroit and featured a lineup of luminaries from the entertainment industry, politics and the church, including Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Tyler Perry and others.
In his remarks, Jasper spoke about black-on-black crime, fatherless homes and how Black America has lost its soul. He challenged his listeners to “turn around and get our soul back,” calling for pastors and leaders to refocus efforts on rebuilding the family and focusing again on the gospel of Jesus Christ to do so. “We can turn Black America around,” he proclaimed.
Jasper is now celebrating 60 years of service at Salem. In 2017, he passed the baton of senior pastoral leadership formally to his son, Joseph, allowing the church to vote formally for the transition in leadership. At 80, Jasper keeps up a regular schedule of racquetball three to four times a week, along with visits to the Georgia Pool Checker Association, a game he’s been regularly playing for most of his adult life. he remains on staff at Salem as pastor emeritus and alternates preaching at one of the two Salem campuses each week.
“I’m not in the office a lot. My son handles it quite well, and the people love and respect him very well. That has lightened my load in terms of that part more than I had ever thought it would,” Jasper explains. “The preaching is still on me to do, but I don't look upon that as a job. It is more of a joy.”
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