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New Hope’s new pastor was mentored by his father and predecessor

James Watkins, who will be installed March 4, with his wife, Shawn.

Pastor Happy Watkins will pass the mantle of pastor of the New Hope Baptist church to his youngest son, the Rev. James Watkins, on Sunday, March 4, at the church, 9021 E. Boone. Happy will be pastor emeritus, continuing his work in the community. James will take over the  duties as full-time pastor of the church.

Since he was ordained in 2012, James has been assistant pastor—trained and mentored by Happy and other pastors. James also works 40 hours a week at Airway Heights Correction Center.

In recent years, James filled in when Happy struggled with health issues. 

James doesn’t have a knack for memorizing speeches, so he likely won’t recite Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but he is involved with the Ministers’ Fellowship Union and the NAACP Spokane Chapter.  He was recently emcee for this year’s MLK Commemoration Service.

“The challenge of ministry is to reach people who have disconnected from and lack respect for churches and ministers,” James said. “To reach them, we need to change some of our ideas about ministry, church and Christ.

“People who are not in church will not suddenly start coming in the unchurched Northwest, where only 20 percent of 18- to 30-year-olds go to church,” he said.

James believes it’s possible to counteract low interest by meeting people where they are, even on social media.  New Hope Baptist is on Facebook and has a website.

“Some churches are afraid to go on social media, but we must take Christ’s message to the four corners of the world, so the church will look different than it has in the past,” he said.

As it was for Happy, New Hope’s call to be its minister includes serving the community, as well as the church.

While James attended Rogers High School, he played football and was a champion wrestler, leading to a scholarship to North Idaho College. He has also competed in judo and now coaches.

“I went to school to teach and coach,” James said.

He worked as a youth counselor at a community center before he began working with the Washington State Department of Corrections as a corrections officer at the Airway Heights Correction Center when he was 24. 

Now a custody unit supervisor, overseeing programs for 300 offenders, James sees that experience as part of his training for ministry. He oversees GED classes, chemical dependency and sex offender treatment, employment opportunities and job training, parenting classes, the fathers program and counseling.

In 2012, James started a pilot project, “Thinking for a Change,” a cognitive behavior program to build self-awareness, problem solving and awareness of feelings among inmates to reduce recidivism after they are released.

“It’s effective.  I have seen offenders change,” said James, aware that for many of the 2,300 inmates, the prison has a revolving door and many return.

While James felt called to ministry when he was 17, he put it on the back burner.  In 2000, his wife Shawn’s aunt asked when he was going to be a minister.

He had no plans to be a minister.  He could serve the church as a lay person, but in the prison, he gained skills for dealing with people in positive ways, hearing their needs and cries for help. 

“It prepared me for what I do in the community and as pastor,”

 James said. “I see the worst in the men there, but I know God can redeem them. Most people see those who go to jail as throwaways.”

Over the years, James has learned from Scripture and life that God can save even those who commit crimes.

“Our challenge is to love people and love humanity, not judge,” he said. “It’s easy to love those who look like us, but can we love others?  The Gospel is about treating others with love, dignity and respect,” he said.  “We can ‘preach God’ by living the Gospel. We can’t preach Christ without showing Christ.”

As he grew older, after serving faithfully in many local and state church positions, he knew God was calling him to be a minister.

In 2007, he was ordained a deacon and taught Sunday school to further his study of Scripture.

James still hesitated, because he knew the challenges of people’s perceptions and expectations of ministers. He knew that, even though his father was loved, some were unkind if they disagreed with a decision or stand he made.

“I also did not feel prepared to give of myself personally and financially as he has done,” he continued. 

From 2010 to 2011, James was ill, and doctors didn’t know what was wrong.

“God needed me to be separate from everything to figure what God wanted me to do.  I cried out, and God answered,” James said.

When he regained his health, he announced his call to ministry and was ordained. So James was able to fill in when Happy was ill and needed time off.

“It was great training for me to preach most Sundays, make decisions, help people in need find resources, do weddings and funerals, visit people, attend meetings, deal with church conflicts, go to events in the community and fill his big shoes. My dad has always been busy,” James said.

Along with full-time work, being pastor and serving in the community, James spends time with his family—Shawn, a stepson who is 30 and two sons, 10 and 13.

“I can do it because I have family support,” he said.  “My mother and father are caregivers for our boys after school.  My brothers take them to sporting events. With that support, I can address church and community needs.”

James’ brother John is a worship leader, preparing to be ordained as a deacon. Percy III, the oldest, is a minister, but works Sundays. Paul, a singer, also works Sundays. Their children are involved in the church.

James knows the church needs new approaches. While he knows of many programs, counseling approaches and self-help efforts to effect change in prison, he believes the most powerful is to be Christ’s presence through how he lives, because few are open to preaching or evangelizing.

“We need to show love so the Holy Spirit changes lives,” he said. “We need to step out of our comfort zones.” 

One step was for New Hope Baptist to move from the converted pool hall where they worshiped for 25 years at 409 E. Greene.

Last year, a member saw a for sale sign between a house and church at 9021 E. Boone along N. Argonne.  She asked the pastor if the church was for sale.  It wasn’t, but later the pastor was interested.

New Hope raised $20,000 for a nonrefundable deposit toward the price of $275,000.  New Hope sold their buildings for about half that amount.  They needed $150,000 more.  Two banks turned them down. They prayed.  Then one bank granted a mortgage.

They moved out of the old church in March 2017, and worshiped six months at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church until moving into the new-to-them building in September.

Both James and Happy sense excitement among the 40 to 60 worshipping on Sundays.  One woman raised $50 per chair and bought 150 chairs.

Last July at the Annual General Baptist Convention in Portland, they shared the church’s story.  The General President offered to match money churches gave there.  They collected $2,600, but he decided to give New Hope $10,000.

Victory Faith Church north of New Hope Baptist on Argonne gave the church $5,000 and the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane raised another $5,000.

“God is blessing us,” said James.  “We are now focusing on how the church can serve the community in our new facility. We want to be a church that has impact on its community.”

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