By Ashley Benkarski
ANTIOCH, TN — Mt. Zion’s Bishop Joseph Walker, III has led his congregation to the service of Nashville and beyond, guided by a deep passion to restore and unite the ever-changing community.
He’s led the historic church for nearly three decades, he said, growing its membership from 175 to over 30,000 people. “Thirty-two years I’ve been in ministry,” he said of his calling to preach. “Isn’t that something? I started when I was two. Just kidding,” he joked.
It may sound like an anomalous achievement but an open mind, empathetic drive and a keen eye for opportunity and needs has brought the church into the global community and invigorated an already-impassioned congregation.
Walker, a Louisiana native, found his way to Music City while on a journey to law school. He attended Divinity school at Vanderbilt and was soon called to Mt. Zion to pastor after finishing. “A call to preach is a call to preparation,” he said, noting he was ordained between being called to the church and his installment as pastor. He continued his education at Princeton, traveling back and forth to New Jersey for four years while earning his doctorate, which he described as “trial by fire academically and trial by fire in the church itself.” But he’s remained humble about the experience, never losing sight of the path set before him. “To be called to be licensed and ordained within a 12-month period and then to be on this academic journey trying to make sense out of it all … to me was just a whirlwind. But it’s something that I never will forget.”
He was also elected as the service presiding bishop of the Full Gospel of Fellowship that encompasses hundreds of churches across the nation and the world. He’s held that position since the retirement of Bishop Paul Morton in 2015, he recalled, and is currently the only presider in Nashville. “I preside over the reformation of churches that has as its core theme four pillars: faith, family, fitness and finance … They, I think, impact church and community and so that’s the work I do there, being the presiding Bishop … It’s a humbling thing to lead pastors and churches around the country.”
His mission is to build bridges within the evolving Nashville community by “being able to create […] a spiritual compass […] of what this community needs in terms of believing what is possible in this amazing city that we have with so much difference,” he said. “There is a centralized theme that makes us all come around each other, and that is love and respect and hope.”
Mt. Zion is one of the oldest congregations in Nashville, having been organized in 1866
during Reconstruction by Reverend Jordan Bransford and eventually finding its first permanent home on historic Jefferson Street in 1905. Now, the church can be found in three locations across the greater Nashville area as well as online via mtzionanywhere.org. The Jefferson St. church sits next to the overpass that now bears Walker’s name.
“Mt. Zion has always been an incredible beacon of light in the community,” Walker said. “If you go back in the history of Mt. Zion you’ll discover that a lot of business owners and African American scholars, they were a part of this church early on.”
Recalling that era Walker pointed out the often ignored success of African Americans prior to Jim Crow, when Fisk University was established and many were lawmakers, practiced medicine and held public office. “Before Jim Crow came and turned that clock back… there was a time in which the brilliance of African Americans was at its height, and Mt. Zion was at the epicenter of that right here in Nashville. And Mt. Zion has remained resilient.”
“The history of Mt. Zion is robust,” Walker continued. “The thing that I would say about this church and it’s certainly not about me, it’s about the incredible people and the history of this church, is that Mt. Zion’s legacy is one of continued sustainability and viability [that] impacted this community spiritually, economically, educationally because we have balance, because there are folks who are four generations deep still in this church.” Sister Mary Cole was a founding member of the church who provided space for the congregation in her home before the building of the Jefferson St. location, and some of her descendants are still members of the church to this day.
“That’s the kind of people we are,” Walker said. “And then we have all these young people that are coming, so […] five generations are here all at one time, serving God, finding space.”
While many churches have struggled to fill the pews in this era of constant technological advancement, Mt. Zion has thrived.
The key to Mt. Zion’s continued growth, Walker said, is “because of an intentional effort to remain relational and relevant, and to be able to have our finger on the pulse of culture to know how to make this antiquated text called the Bible live in the lives of people who are searching and looking for hope in all those things.”
The church’s outreach takes many forms. Philanthropy and ministry are investments into the community with the larger goal of working to alleviate economic barriers to social mobility that take the form of disparities in education and incarceration.
“One of the things that I’m very proud of is that Mt. Zion has always been outward thinking in terms of our engagement,” Walker said, noting examples of partnerships with Soles 4 Soles, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, Habitat for Humanity, Red Cross, and Second
Harvest Food Bank. He added that Meharry Medical College and St. Thomas Hospital join with Mt. Zion to provide mammograms and other health screenings. Health is important to Walker and his wife, Stephanie, with whom he shares two children, Jovanni, 7, and Joseph IV, 21 months. Mt. Zion even offers a program, The Church Fit, that allows underserved individuals to partake in entertaining exercise activities.
“A lot of these health concerns are ground zero– diabetes and all these things, so we have partnerships in those areas, he said. “If you name it Mt. Zion probably is connected with it, […] Even down to hospice and other agencies who do great work in the community.”
For Walker, bringing hope into the community is more than ambition–it’s a God-given assignment that involves reaching the youth through “a unique anointing to reach a generation that’s been somewhat elusive for many. […] Mt. Zion has for many, many years been able to attract that demographic.”
Remaining relational means looking at ministry in creative and out-of-the-box ways. Since 2009 the church has provided an interactive virtual space that allows people to explore the ministry without ever having to step into the church. Visitors can view live sermons, engage with ministry, learn about the church and view kid-centered Bible lessons from the site. It also features access to the You Version Bible app and will soon be offering an online Discipleship Institute that gives users a Christian based educational guide to explore the faith on their own time. The stated purpose of the site is geared toward “reaching the unchurched and dechurched” where people can connect and belong before establishing and committing to the faith.
“Church membership is changing. Church culture is changing and as you know, we’re not just looking at footprints, we’re looking at fingerprints,” Walker said of the online approach. “And the church has to be a viable force in that space. It’s just like in the banking world–
banking is changing. People aren’t going into their branches because they can bank on their phone, so why not make church available like that?” Walker’s calling to minister young people also takes form in the work he does as a board member of Tennessee State University and Meharry Medical College.
Walker has served as a trustee for TSU for years. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to the tution to make certain that it continues to thrive under the leadership of Dr. Glover, who we support and who we feel is leading the institution in the correct direction,” he said. “There are challenges at most HBCUs but the board is made up of this incredible combination of influences all around the world in various aspects of real estate, financiers, educators–people that lead a variety of different areas and are able to really have not only a bird’s-eye view but a microscopic view of the infrastructure of the university and to kind of hold the institution to the grind in terms of what those deliverables are based on her vision and making sure those things continue to move forward.”
“Meharry’s board is a blessing because I’m so passionate about health […] and working with that school and those students,” he said. “I’m concerned about professional student loan debt. That’s a passion of mine, to try to figure out creative ways to help eradicate the amount of debt that these kids have when they come out.”
For Walker, it just makes social and economic sense to invest in students for their potential. “I realize what students need while they’re in school and a part of that for me is making certain that the institution understands at a higher level that the student is your customer, and that customer service has to be key if the university is going to survive.” Walker is also on the board of Citizens Bank, another topic close to his heart. “That’s the oldest African
American bank in the United States and Citizens has a great history as a community bank,” he expressed, noting the bank’s mission to provide opportunities for local denizens and organizations. “And for me, my goal in that is economic empowerment and education for our communities and access to capital that I think so many of our businesses and people need.”
He pointed out that the largest influx of students to Mt. Zion comes from those who attend TSU, a testament to his advocacy and outreach. Mt. Zion meets the students where they are by sending buses to the campus every Sunday to transport them to the congregation.
“This is what I believe God wants me to do, is to kind of carve out this unique space for college stu- dents,” he said. “At the time I started it nobody was doing it. I really focused in on picking students up, we started feeding the students and once the word got out we were giving them free meals, then it just grew and grew and grew, and so that’s gone from just Fisk and TSU to now all the institutions in this area.” The buses transport students from eight Nashville-area universities as well as Austin Peay and Western Kentucky.
“Busloads of kids come every Sunday and they have small groups, they have counselors on campus,” he added. “We have programs meant to provide opportunities for them and feed them in after service and we have a variety of ministry engagement that they are Involved in, even a program that helps them get job training skills and that kind of thing, so it’s really a robust program and something that we’re very proud of. And so it kind of leads into this college weekend, which is a crescendo for us.”
The College and Young Adult Week event is based around a specific theme, and this year’s theme is The Recovery. “That obviously speaks to a lot with these kids, having lost a lot, experienced a lot of loss personally,” Walker said. “To be able to recover your identity, recover your destiny, to be able to recover your momentum and your morale to push forward […] We just believe there’s a lot of challenges these kids deal with–mental health issues, depression, all these kinds of things.” Bishop Walker was joined by Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant, comedian Kevon Carter and musical guests Mike Hicks and Ron Poindexter. “College Sunday has been kind of the north star, if you will, of college engagement for churches around the country who have looked at Mt. Zion as a model for how to do it, because we’ve been able to track literally between eight- to 10,000 college students at one service,” he said. “And it’s something to behold to see that many students in one space, and we’ve been going to Tennessee State Gentry Center for years doing it because it had outgrown our physical location. Now we’re bringing it back home this year and we broke it down to a week’s worth of services to kind of ease some of the crowd.”
Walker divulged the church’s new benevolent ambition for College Week. “We plan to now take our focus into the philanthropic space by providing 20 $1,000 scholarships to students who so desperately need them. We’re discovering that these kids just need a shot some- times it can be a $1200, $2500 decision to cause them to go home or stay pursuing their education so we feel like it’s our responsibility to make a dent in that. And that’s just the beginning of it.”
He continued, “We plan on developing an endowment, a multimillion dollar endowment in our ministry to be the church in the United States that undergirds students so that from that endowment no student who’s involved in our ministry and actively serving,” Walker said. The only requirement for a student to get that aid is that they must serve by way of mentoring or community outreach. “When they do those things, there’s no way you’re not going to have your tuition paid. If there’s a gap, Mt. Zion’s going to cover that because we believe in you finishing and we’re going to hold you accountable to that. And there’s gonna be a lot of things around that, but that’s really a part of a larger vision of that and I’m just really excited about that part of it.”
Mt. Zion’s outreach also treads in the realm of prison ministry and avoidance, providing mentorship and other preventative strategies to inmates as well as students that begin and last far beyond the jail walls. They’re crucial programs, especially in Nashville’s 37208 area where incarceration rates are highest.
Walker noted that Men of Valor, a prison ministry group, works with Mt. Zion’s prison outreach efforts. “I minister and often when those inmates come out, they come right to Mt. Zion,” he said, adding that many become involved in the ministry and receive job training skills. He pointed to the story of Robert Sherrill, “a young man who’d gone to federal prison and spent time having sold drugs, gets out, connects with Mt. Zion Church, [and] now is a very faithful family man and has one of the most thriving minority businesses in this community,” he shared. “Nashville Business Journal recognized him because he is a classic example of what is possible when you look at this idea of people being restored out of those situations, and he goes back and he pours in and he helps me with … how to talk to these kids.”
He expressed concern when speaking on administrative justice, noting the founding of Nashville Unites, a fund of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. “Nashville Unites was founded to have that conversation … After the Ferguson events happened, there was a lot of tension in the community and we had the first town hall in Nashville. It was huge,” he said of the event that took place at the Jefferson St. location. “That was the beginning of the conversation about what’s possible in Nashville. I think what it really comes down to really having conversations that really matter about how we police, how we profile, how we help these kids make different choices and decisions, how we are in the schools, how we work with these schools that are struggling, how we provide support,” he remarked. “These teachers are not just teachers, they’re social workers too. And there’s a variety of oth- er things that these kids are dealing with. The kids are just not in trouble because they’re trouble; sometimes they’re just hungry, and if you’re hungry enough you’ll do whatever to eat and you have to solve that problem. So we’re learning while we’re doing and to me, I think that’s the biggest blessing of all.”
Walker’s newest book, Restored at the Root, speaks to the spiritual pain which afflicts so many. “So Restored at the Root is a book that goes into a space that, I think, it was just aligned providentially by God at the right time,” he said. “We’re dealing with mental health emerging as an issue that now is getting a sense of traction around the church and community to address … People are hopeless and looking for help and nobody wants to talk about it. And now I think because we are seeing so much, it is affecting so many people, it is something that we have to deal with.” He spoke to the issues of suicide and depression, noting that neither discriminate due to wealth or religiosity. “I wrote the book because I felt like the core issue that we deal with is not behavioral per se, it is root. And roots give rise to behavior. And we can study behavior all day long, categorize it, label it, do whatever we wanna do, put people in categories … but until you get at the core root, the cause that creates the effect, you’ll never get it. So this book is really challenging the faith community and the clinical community to work together.”
Doing so means creating stronger bonds and understanding through merging the two perspectives “to help people come to a place of wholeness,” he affirmed. “And if your roots are not healthy, your fruit will not be healthy. So we’re seeing people who are producing fruit, but it’s tainted fruit because it’s coming out of unreconciled issues they’ve had to deal with for many, many years that nobody has given them the permission to deal with. The book allows you to walk through that,
gives you questions– we call it ‘root work’– that you actually work through, go back, identify, own it, read through it, work through it, come out of it in a place of wholeness and take control of your life again and know that what’s possible is not going to happen until you’re courageous enough to undo your work, and you’ve got to be courageous and confront it, because what you do not confront you do not change.”
While Walker’s pastoral calling is often at the fore of conversation surrounding him, it works in tandem with who he is as Joseph Walker outside of the church. He’s a family man devoted to his wife and children, who he describes as “both full of energy, wit, and rambunctious,” and “is a man who enjoys driving his daughter to school, having conversations and picking his son up and playing ball,” he said. He spoke at length in support of his wife, who he describes as “an entrepreneur who’s an amazing physician … She’s doing her thing with Beauty Counter now; she’s about healthy beauty and getting these women and men to start using organic stuff on their skin and all that and also empowering women economically in terms of entrepreneurship.” He also describes himself as a poet, athlete, comic, musician and “an unapologetic nerd” when it comes to literature and philosophy. He harbors a specific passion for literature that was borne of the Harlem Renaissance, and he listed the works of Chaucer, Aristophanes, Machiavelli and Nietzsche as pastime enjoyments. His study of Greek and Egyptian philosophers has influenced his life and his preaching, he added. “I pick up things that other folks might find boring,” he said. “W.E.B DuBois’ piece and studying the Talented Tenth debate between he and Booker T. Washington, for me, is the most fascinating for a lot of reasons and that gives rise, I think, to my philosophy of leadership.” He complements his academic philosophy with emotional intelligence to foster an understanding of people he connects with. “I interact with people based on what I perceive about their emotional environment and it’s kind of helped me be more sensitive to how to approach people, how to deal with people,” he said. “It’s not like I’m analyzing or diagnosing a person…you walk into a room, you have to have a sense of situational awareness to be effective.”
Mt. Zion is in the midst of Project 1866, a seven month fundraising initiative in place to help the church continue its outreach mission. Although the stated goal is to receive $1,866 from 1,866 sources, any donations are accepted. The funds will cover not only the various outreach efforts, partnerships and philanthropic pursuits but also aid the church’s maintenance and restoration needs to “pay off the debt” and remain financially secure.
“The economic impact from Mt. Zion in 2020 is going to be so incredible. We’re in a debt-free campaign,” Walker proudly stated. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. We are planning to pour so much into this community that all I can say is expect the ‘wow’ factor. We will be the church that really gives back, that shows this is what the church was on the planet to do, to bring hope, to be an oasis of hope in the Nashville community.”
For more information on Mt. Zion and its various projects and programs, visit www.mtzionnashville.org.