When James and Vivian Henley met and married in 1988, both were certified public accountants with what looked like predictable career paths ahead. James and Vivian were believers, but neither imagined that God would call them to a ministry that would change an entire community.
A graduate of Millsaps College, James Henley was working in the U.S. Trustees Office as a bankruptcy analyst when he felt the call to enroll in law school.
“I had a wife, kids, and a mortgage,” James Henley recalls. “I had never even thought about becoming an attorney. All I knew was that I was being called by God to go to law school.”
James Henley enrolled in Mississippi College School of Law, graduating in 1994 and practicing with Butler, Snow, O’Mara, Stevens & Cannada, PLLC in Jackson before opening a private practice in bankruptcy law. Vivian Henley, an accounting graduate of Delta State University, had already earned her M.B.A. from Mississippi College at night while working full-time at BellSouth. Three years after James graduated from law school, Vivian left BellSouth and enrolled at MC Law, earning her own J.D. in 2000. Both Henleys were outstanding law students; James and Vivian both made Law Review and James finished second in his class. In the years following their graduations, James went to work as a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee and Vivian practiced with the law firm of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP.
In 2001, just as the Henleys were settling into their new careers as attorneys, James Henley heard the voice of God calling him to take another, even more unexpected leap of faith.
“I realized I was being led to the ministry,” James Henley says. “I had felt a stirring for a couple of years and I’d been ignoring it, telling God, ‘You must be talking to someone else.’ But that pull toward ministry kept getting stronger, and finally, I prayed to God, ‘If this is what You want, You need to make it clear to me.’ A couple of days later, I was leaving choir practice at church and a girl in the choir told all of us to stop moving. She said, ‘God just told me He is calling someone in this room to ministry.’ It couldn’t get much clearer than that.”
James Henley answered the call on December 28, 2001, and began studying at Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The last Sunday in February of 2002, Rev. James Henley preached his first sermon as an associate minister at Stronger Hope Baptist Church.
Vivian Henley was supportive, but cautious.
“When he first told me he’d been called, I said, ‘Okay,’ but honestly, I hoped it was a passing fancy,” Vivian Henley says. “I didn’t want to change my life. I thought if he wanted to stay at church all day, that was fine, but I wasn’t going to stay there with him.”
In January of 2004, God once again asked James Henley to step out in faith, this time by starting a new church. After discussing it with his wife and his pastor, Rev. Henley made the leap. He began organizing Fresh Start Christian Church in June of 2004. In November of that year, with a whole-heartedly supportive Vivian by his side, Rev. Henley preached his first sermon as Fresh Start’s pastor to a group of 15 friends and family members in the den of the Henleys’ home.
Fresh Start continued to meet at the Henleys’ house for one month; the church’s first baptism took place in the family’s backyard swimming pool. As the fledgling church’s membership grew, Rev. Henley began looking for additional space. Fresh Start moved into 600 square feet in an office building in late 2004, then into a freestanding building the church purchased on Manhattan Drive in North Jackson in 2005. In 2007, Fresh Start moved into its current location in the spacious former YMCA building, also on Manhattan Drive in North Jackson. Each time the church needed to expand, Rev. Henley confined the search to the Northside Drive area, the neighborhood where he felt God intended the church to operate.
In Fresh Start’s early days, others were not so easily convinced that God would have chosen that particular neighborhood. When Rev. Henley contacted Dorothy Thompson, a local realtor, for assistance in finding the first church building, Thompson’s suggestion was that he look elsewhere.
“I tried to discourage him from buying in that area because I knew the neighborhood was in transition and I didn’t think it was a sound investment,” Thompson recalls. “But James was adamant. He just kept saying, ‘God wants us to be there.’”
When she couldn’t talk him out of it, Thompson sold James Henley the church’s first building on Manhattan Drive. Rev. Henley invited Thompson to attend a worship service in the new building, and she agreed, bringing along her teenaged son, Matthew. When they left the service that day, Matthew told his mother that he wanted to go back.
“We kept visiting, and eventually, we became members,” Thompson says. “Before too long, Fresh Start had become so much a part of that community that we became a part of the community, too. I ended up relocating my business into that neighborhood, and then I bought a house and moved there. When my older son was looking for a place of his own, I found him a condo in that neighborhood – the same neighborhood that I advised James Henley not to buy property in. Now I tell people that neighborhood is definitely in transition. It’s in transition for the better.”
Fresh Start Christian Church has become a center of help, hope, and support in the community. The church runs an Angel Food program that allows families in need to buy groceries at lower prices. Fresh Start stages neighborhood health fairs and conducts seminars on how to manage finances and work toward home ownership – seminars that draw upon Rev. and Mrs. Henley’s experiences as accountants and attorneys. The Henleys and Fresh Start members see the additional space the former YMCA location offers as an opportunity to develop even more programs, activities, and services for the community.
“The more we give, the more we are blessed in that neighborhood,” Dorothy Thompson says. “God put us there to help the community and the community has helped us. Through Fresh Start, I am giving back. I am spending my time doing what God wants me to do.”
Since moving into their new facility, Fresh Start has added a second service, a necessary step to accommodate the church’s growing membership and frequent visitors. Fresh Start members represent a mix of ages, races, and income levels, and include traditional families, families led by single mothers, and hundreds of children and teenagers from the neighborhood surrounding the church. The active youth ministry includes a monthly teen night and a parents’ night out with activities for younger children.
“When we first started Fresh Start, I’d open the doors and yell, ‘We’ve got free food!’ I was doing everything but grabbing kids off the street to get them in here,” Rev. Henley recalls. “We’d tell them to take as much pizza as they wanted, and for some of the kids, that was a very big thing. We used something as simple as a pizza to show them that God’s love is abundant.”
During those first few months, Rev. Henley was happy when five or 10 children showed up for pizza. Today, as many as 200 children and teenagers show up for parents’ night out and teen night, many of whom go on to introduce their parents to Fresh Start.
“It’s a lot easier to start a person off right than it is to reclaim them,” Vivian Henley says, “and as we’ve seen time and time again, you can reach a family through the children. The parent is thinking, ‘I’ve got to go to work, I’ve got to do laundry, I don’t have any time,’ but the child is saying, ‘I want to go back there ‘cause they gave me potato chips after Sunday school.”
Kenosha Williams is one of the many parents who found Fresh Start through her child. Williams and her then nine-year-old daughter, Monica, and eight-month-old twins Josiah and Jolisa, lived across the street from Fresh Start. When Monica asked to attend parents’ night out, Williams attended a service to “check out the church.” What Williams found was a welcoming, family-like atmosphere and sermons that made a difference in her daily life. That inspection visit was four years ago; Williams and her family have been involved with Fresh Start ever since.
“Fresh Start has had a tremendous impact on our family,” Williams says. “Before, I would get off work, pick up the kids, go home, and we’d all watch TV. Now, there is always something going on at the church for us. My kids are involved in all kinds of youth programs and activities and I’m involved in the women’s ministry and outreach in the neighborhood. We’re not just sitting at home anymore. We’re part of a family, a community, and we’re all growing so much.”
While the church has come a long way since the first year, when, as Vivian puts it, “we were amazed just by the idea that someone besides us might show up,” Rev. Henley does not keep a formal count of his members.
“That’s a game the enemy plays,” Rev. Henley says. “How many people do you have? Oh, that’s not enough, or that’s too many. If you have five, 50, 500, or 5,000 and you’re pastoring them, then you’re doing your job and doing what you’re called to do.”
Fresh Start has a small paid staff (“and they are paid a pittance,” Rev. Henley says with a smile), but volunteers run most of the programs. Leading them is Vivian Henley; the wife who once didn’t want her life to change, serves as the church administrator, church secretary, and minister of music.
“The whole thing has been gradual, but we’ve both been fully involved since the beginning,” Vivian Henley says, adding with a smile, “When your spouse has a calling from God, you can’t just let him fall on his face.”
“James and Vivian complement each other beautifully,” says Fresh Start member Denny Teague. “Vivian does so much behind the scenes that allows James to tend to the flock, and they are both so responsive if you have needs or questions. You can’t help but love them.”
In addition to their ministry, the Henleys have continued to work as attorneys. James still practices as a Chapter 13 Bankruptcy Trustee, operating an office with a staff of 12. Vivian is legal counsel for BankPlus, and both are hands-on parents.
“You have more time in the day than you realize,” Rev. Henley says. “I used to watch every football game on TV. It didn’t matter who was playing, I was watching. Then I realized we have time to do what God calls us to do. It’s just a matter of what we’re willing to give up to do it. And I don’t know of anything else I’d rather be doing.”
While others marvel at the leaps of faith that took them from accounting to the law to the ministry, the Henleys focus instead on the little steps of faith they take every day.
“Every time the church doors open, that’s a leap of faith,” Vivian Henley says. “I think we all tend to think of faith as what gets us through the big things, but just look at all the challenges each of us faces on a regular basis. Yes, faith is for the big things, but faith is also what gets us through everyday life.”