A LONG ROAD: Grace Methodist pastor describes path to ministry

Published 11:10 am Friday, December 1, 2023

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NATCHEZ — On the surface, the newest pastor of Grace Methodist Church is the class clown and a 58-year-old, Harley Davidson-driving dog owner.

He has two canine companions, including, “A yorkie who thinks she’s a drill sergeant and runs the house and tells our five-month-old goofy golden retriever how to behave.”

But like most people, the Rev. Jesse Long III has many layers, beginning with his early childhood.

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After he came into the world prematurely, he spent the first few years of his life being cared for by doctors and nurses.

He lived in a preventorium – a state run hospital for sickly children – from two and a half to three years old until age 5, he said.

A defining moment

At the state-run preventorium, Long felt abandoned. He had traded his nice big boy bed and toys at home for a large crib and a white linen set of bloomers and a v-neck shirt to wear, he said.

“It was a defining moment in my life,” he said. “Within 30 minutes, I’d lost everything. A home, my friends, mom and dad and my extended family … I thought I was an orphan, just old enough to remember my parents signing papers and a nurse leading me away.”

Long said it was one of the hardest decisions his parents ever made, but they had a choice between him going to the preventorium or the morgue. He suffered from colic, bronchitis and double pneumonia among severe allergies and other health problems.

Long said there was a point at which he knew he was “fighting for his life and mental wellness.” He had been given penicillin shots every day for two and a half weeks straight when God showed up.

“A presence manifested,” he said. “I tried to touch it through the boards of the crib but could never touch it. I felt a deep conviction that I was not completely abandoned. Somebody I couldn’t see was looking out for me. … God showed up and said I wasn’t alone. I knew it was God. It wasn’t an angel. I could feel his presence. And God has been with me ever since.”

At age 5, Long returned home to his parents healthy with the smell of bleach permeating his clothing and skin, but he would have another close encounter with death before he finished high school.

His father

Long’s family moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, where his father had been involved in a civil engineering company, but “the mob” bought more than 51 percent of that company and set practices that shorted their customers, he said.

At a board meeting of the shareholders, Long’s father threatened to disband the company if they continued these practices, “and they responded by putting a bounty on his head,” Long said. This forced his family to run back to Hattiesburg where his dad began working for L&A Construction in the 1970s. Their neighborhood was dangerous, laden with racial tension between Black and white residents.

Long said he continued to look for the good in people and as a high-school sophomore carried a study Bible in his backpack. His peers would come to him with questions that he often knew the answers to because he had studied the scriptures better than most adults. If he didn’t know the answers, he could easily pull out his Bible and find the answers they were looking for in the glossary section. He and his peers would learn about it together, he said.

“I was learning how to bridge gaps and change people’s thinking,” he said. “I knew there are jerks in every color and wonderful people in every color. … God taught me how to teach by trial and error and that was amazing.”

By his senior year, 1983, Long lost his dad, his best friend, in a tragic accident.

They lived in a raised house in a historic neighborhood with above-ground metal piping which had complications during freezing weather. Lighting struck a transformer connected to the house just while he and his dad were underneath the house trying to break the frozen joints in the pipes.

“Every breaker melted into the open position before they had a chance to flip,” Long said. “The electricity was grounded to the water pipes. I was on the side of the lighting strike pushing hard with a monkey wrench. … Lightning hit and knocked me back four or five feet.”

Long tried to warn his dad before he put his hand on the pipes but was on the ground and couldn’t talk. His dad was electrocuted right in front of him.

Long said he felt pressure on his shoulders holding him down while he thought he saw his dad wrestling with what appeared to be two giant men with a light coming from their heads, but then he couldn’t see the men anymore and his dad wrestled by himself.

Long said it was as if his dad had been resisting help from angels and directed them to save him instead, and they held him down so that he couldn’t get to his father.

“The ambulance got lost on the way to the house,” he said. When they reached the hospital, his dad was pronounced dead on arrival.

Long said he felt both angry at God and scared.

His dad had been the one to take care of his mother who was bipolar and anxiety-laden, and Long said he didn’t know how he would take care of her on his own.

“That was the most terrifying moment of my life since the preventorium,” he said.

Long’s father had an impact on the people in their community in a way that his death made them reevaluate their own lives, he said. He knew that because many people told him so.

The great physician

After high school, Long said he went to the University of Southern Mississippi “to escape” and “crammed four years of education into 12,” making some bad choices along the way.

Long met his ex-wife while in college and while their relationship didn’t last, she made him a proud father of a daughter, Jessica.

Before answering the call to ministry, Long was a civilian medic for AAA and was in line to join the military as an aviation operation specialist amid Operation Desert Storm.

“I’d joined ROTC and evaluated in the top 15 percent in the nation,” he said “I was just about to go into active duty as a lieutenant. God said, ‘I’ve been telling you since you were 18 to go to the pulpit and you haven’t done it, so here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to remove my hand of protection from you.’ … The idea of going to the battlefield without God’s protection terrified me. I resigned before I’d even made the bar and signed into ministry with the United Methodist Church.”

Long has been behind the pulpit for 28 years now.

He had been in the United Methodist Church since he was 12, but in recent years Long disaffiliated from UMC alongside many throughout the denomination, broken-hearted at the decisions of leadership on the conference, state and district levels, he said.

He joined the Global Methodist Church, a denomination that splintered off of UMC over differences in theological beliefs pertaining to human sexuality, particularly the ordination of homosexual clergy.

The focus of the Global Methodist Church, Long said, is global discipleship.

“America needs that now,” he said. “What happened to the value of life, honor and the traditional values that made America so strong?”

Long said while he disagrees with the lifestyle of transexual men and women, he does not judge them.

“They are to be taken under the wing and loved and loved fiercely to make peace with who they are and not what they were led to believe,” he said. “It’s not a judgment. I screwed up and have done a lot of screwing up. I’m not a person who passes judgment. I feel their pain and a lot of it comes from confusion. If we can sort that pain out, we can return to the old ways.”

Long said of two churches he considered joining, there was something more special about Grace Methodist, which he signed on to lead on July 1.

“Grace Methodist Church has got to be the warmest fellowship I’ve been a part of since Court Street UMC in Hattiesburg where I grew up,” he said. “Everyone knows and loves each other and they want to grow and expand the fellowship. They’re focused on evangelism, inviting people to the church, expanding the church and expanding the family. This particular church has a very high ability in spiritual discernment, spiritual growth and discipleship. When you become affiliated with Grace, immediately you start learning.”

While he declined service as a military officer and burned out as a medic, Long said his career now is, to “meet people in trenches, encourage, strengthen and help stop the bleeding so that when they get to the great physician, the healing can start.”