First African-Amrican senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Tupelo retires

Embra flanked by wife Rosia (left) and Polly and Joe Bailey (right), FUMC members

By Gail Gettis,

Guest Writer,

Embra flanked by wife Rosia (left) and Polly and Joe Bailey (right), FUMC members
Rev. Dr. Embra K. Jackson

On Sunday, June 26, First United Methodist Church (FUMC) in Tupelo, Mississippi recognized the retirement of Rev. Dr. Embra K. Jackson, Jr., ordained elder serving as senior pastor. It was a bittersweet time for Jackson, who came to FUMC Tupelo on July 17, 2019 as its first African-American pastor, marking one of its more notable historical moments in 150 years.

The reaction from members of his congregation as he was installed was far better than he expected. “After Embra Jackson, Jr.’s first Sunday as the first black senior pastor of a predominantly white church, many of us knew and felt that we had a gifted preacher, a caring pastor, and a healing leader who would change lives. We were never disappointed,” said Joe Edd Morris, retired Methodist pastor, psychologist and author. 

In an interview with WCBI-TV (Columbus) in 2019, Jackson said, “I was overwhelmed by the reaction I received not only my first Sunday, but when the announcement was made about me being senior pastor here, I got phone calls, letters…food, kind words and the reception Sunday was just overwhelming.” The many ways the congregation showed their appreciation for him and the job he did never ceased, right up to the retirement reception they hosted on the last Sunday in June inviting church members, family and friends. 

FUMC members had nothing but positive things to say about Jackson through cards, notes, gifts and personal thanks and well wishes.

“Embra, you have been a superstar for our congregation….We will cherish these three years with you. There is no way to ever thank you for all you have done,” said Raymond Jourdan, staff pastor parish relations chairperson. 

According to Neville Vanderburg, “Over the years I have known him, Embra consistently demonstrates the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I am proud to call him my friend.” 

Joe and Polly Baily recognized that Jackson arrived just before the most trying time for The United Methodist Church in the last 50 years. The Baileys went on to say, “The pandemic was about to begin and the larger church was threatening to fracture over theological issues. Embra navigated these and other issues with wisdom and grace, all the while preaching that trust in God and following Jesus’ teachings would free us from many of life’s problems.” They credit his daily devotionals and use of social media for keeping the church together when the members were unable to meet in person. “Embra is a marvelously gifted pastor, an unequalled orator, and in every sense a Christian gentleman who is a true servant of the Lord.” 

Jack Reed, Jr. recounted that in 1963 the front page of The Wall Street Journal ran a story of FUMC Tupelo welcoming black worshippers as being one of the most significant events in the history of the country’s unfolding opening up of traditional white churches to black citizens. Reed went on to say that it was not surprising that FUMC Tupelo was a congregation Bishop James Swanson felt confident in appointing Rev. Dr. Embra Jackson to serve. “Thank God he did. Our congregation benefitted so much from Embra’s leadership these past years….We were disappointed to learn of his retirement, but we certainly respect his wishes to spend more time with his family.”

What really makes it personally significant for Jackson to have been selected to serve at FUMC was his background beginning with his matriculation at Tougaloo College (Jackson, Mississippi), known for its civil rights activism during a turbulent era in Mississippi where the emphasis according to Jackson “was on lifting people up.” 

After graduating in 1974 from Tougaloo College with a bachelor’s in political science, Jackson earned graduate degrees and teacher certification. He earned a Master of Public Administration from the University of Mississippi (Jackson) and a M. DIV. from the International Theological Center (Atlanta, Georgia). In 2003 he received a Doctor of Ministry (D. Min) from Memphis Theological Seminary (Memphis, Tennessee). He went on to serve the United Methodist Church (UMC) in several capacities throughout Mississippi as pastor of several churches and, from 2005 to 2011, he served as administrative assistant to Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Southeastern Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church. Additionally, Jackson served as the executive director of the United Methodist Metro Ministers (Jackson) and as a Chaplain of Hospice Ministries, Inc. (Ridgeland). Just prior to his appointment at FUMC from 2011 to 2019, Jackson served as UMC District Superintendent of the Starkville District. 

Jackson possesses an ecclesiastical endorsement from the Board of Higher Education and Ministry. He is a certified coach in the International Coach Federation and CoachNet, and most recently penned his first book. Inspired by his church members, especially Joe Edd Morris, Jackson published Forty Days in the Covid Wilderness: Meditations of Hope (2022) after it was brought to his attention that the devotionals he shared during the early days of the pandemic were so meaningful to many people struggling with isolation and fear. He is already planning his second book that chronicles his journey as the first African American senior pastor of the predominantly white FUMC Tupelo.  

Jackson is not the first clergyman in his family. He is the grandson of a Baptist preacher, Reverend Harrison P. Jackson, who lived and pastored for several years in the West Jackson community and surrounding rural towns. He is the son of Embra K. Jackson, Sr. and Allie D. Foster Jackson, both deceased, of Jackson, Mississippi. He and his wife Rosia are the parents to four adult children and six grandchildren all residing in Brandon, Mississippi where they will retire to be closer to family.

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