The third of a three-part series on historic Jackson Ward’s pivotal past and its future.
The Rev. Tyrone Nelson leads Sunday worship. (Photo by Chet Strange)
Inside the cavernous sanctuary of the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, a sundial motif within a richly hued stained glass window hints at the lasting legacy of the church’s founder.
The Rev. John Jasper was born into slavery on a Fluvanna County plantation on July 4, 1812. After moving to Richmond as a teen, he worked in various tobacco factories around the city, but his true calling was preaching. For years, he traveled Central Virginia, preaching at slave funerals and speaking before black and white congregations.
In 1867, he formed the Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in an abandoned Confederate horse stable on Brown’s Island. In 1869, Jasper moved his small congregation to its present location on Duval Street in Jackson Ward. The first — but certainly not last — time he delivered his trademark sermon, “De Sun Do Move,” was in 1871 at the church. He preached that sermon countless times over the years, appealing for equality and peace between blacks and whites in Richmond, a city still recovering from the Civil War. “Jasper reasoned that if God could move the sun, then surely He could move the hearts of men,” says the church’s historian of 32 years, Benjamin Ross.
“Jasper reasoned that if God could move the sun, then surely He could move the hearts of men.” —Benjamin Ross, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church historian
Jasper died in 1901, but his church lived on. The building escaped demolition in the 1950s, when state officials urged church leadership to tear it down so they could construct Interstate 95 straight through Jackson Ward; the church now stands proudly in its own, 3-acre historic district within a historic district, a destination of note on both the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register.
Its history is old, but the present congregation is young and evolving. The Rev. Tyrone Nelson leads them in not only weekly worship, but in demonstrating their care for Jackson Ward residents and the entire city, through action. “We ask our members to tithe, but we as a church body tithe, too,” says Nelson, a Richmond native and chairman of the Henrico Board of Supervisors. He assumed leadership at the church in 2005. “Ten percent of what we take in, we give back to the community, whether it’s to food pantries, social service organizations or other programs that help people.”
Nelson ushered in an age of transformation at the church, implementing initiatives like “Don’t go to Church, be the Church” Sundays, during which members go out and fellowship with the community instead of attending regular service. The Mount Market, held regularly on the church grounds, allows those in need to come and “shop” for whatever they lack. The market draws 700 to 1,000 people each time it’s open. “Food, clothes, household cleaning supplies — just about anything you need, you can come and get it for free, no judgment,” Nelson says. The church serves the spiritual — and physical — needs of the Jackson Ward community, from its Friday Feedings food drives to its annual back-to-school event. “We gave out hundreds of pairs of shoes to kids this year,” Ross says.
An expansion in the early 1920s under architect Charles T. Russell and general contractor I. Lincoln Bailey (Photo courtesy Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church)
The church’s membership demographics also reflect its relevance. “Almost 50 percent of our members are under 40,” says Ross, who notes that they live tweet each service and have a thriving youth ministry. Sixth Mount Zion also offers activities of interest to its younger audience, such as social justice forums and the annual “Holistic Hurt, Wholistic Healing” conference, which shares money management lessons.
In the church’s basement museum, a stack of decades-old tambourines sits adjacent to gleaming silver communion trays, retired after years of presenting sacraments to worshippers. The 100-year-old deacons’ chairs grace the space; several of these chairs are on permanent display at the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History & Culture. Amid it all, there’s a sepia photograph of the Rev. John Jasper, his eyes peering through time. His church and its people still live out their mission, serving God by serving His people. As the classic gospel song says, Jasper’s living was not in vain.