Rev. Dr. Leonard T. King, the 66-year-old pastor of Glenville’s First Zion Baptist Church, streams his Sunday morning worship on Facebook Live, oversees a physically distanced community food giveaway at his church, and has otherwise been cautious during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet a news commentary he heard on Rickey Smiley’s syndicated radio show on one of his commutes to Cleveland from Canton where he lives with his wife, April, and their three children, spurred the pastor to skirt the pandemic and embark upon a Deep South mission trip.
Smiley indicated that while the nation was horrified by the deadly ice storm that crippled Texas, few were discussing how that same storm left the capital city of Jackson, Mississippi without potable water for more than a week.
Jackson, where 82% of its 166,000 plus population is Black, suffered 80 water main breaks, damage to its water system fitted with some parts that were a century old and too brittle equipment necessary for its water treatment plants. Residents were forced to use rainwater to flush toilets and boiled water for drinking and other necessities.
After hearing this, Rev. King, whose church, bordered by the landmark Strowder’s Funeral Home and the B & M Bar-b-Que eatery, is located down a Southeast corner of the East 105th Street corridor once cheerfully known as the Gold Coast, knew something had to be done.
“My family had some concerns, but I had taken my first Covid shot and just put my faith in God,” he said.
Strength in numbers
Wasting no time looking for resources, Rev. King was able to raise $2,500 from the United Pastors in Mission, the Baptist Ministers Council, his own ministerial group and the National Football League Hall of Fame, an affiliation knitted since 2016 when he began chaperoning busloads of Cleveland inner-city youth to participate in Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
First thinking he would purchase packs of bottled water in Cleveland, rent a van and drive down to Jackson, he thought it would be less costly to make the drive to Jackson, with two other clergy colleagues, and buy the water there. That Rev. King would extend himself this way came as no surprise to his Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell.
“Rev. King always seems to have an upfront view of the needs of our community,” Conwell said.
With his travel mates and donations in tow, the missing link was a destination point. For that, Rev. King called a Baptist layman associate in Chicago, with a relative in Jackson, who steered the pastor and his cohorts to Mt. Nebo, a well-respected Baptist church that had set up a drive-through water distribution center.
With $2,500 in cash locked in his briefcase, Rev. King, Rev. Raiman A. Prince, owner of the R.A. Prince Funeral Home, who supplied one of his vans, and Rev. Donald Newsome, pastor of East Cleveland’s Greater Mt. Zion Baptist Church, set out to tackle the nearly 1,000-mile trek through Cincinnati and Nashville before heading West on I-40 to Jackson.
Helping those in need
Arriving the next morning, the trio passed on sleep, dropped their bags and immediately went to work distributing bottles of water from flatbed pallets alongside Mt. Nebo volunteers.
The Cleveland money bought 9,600 bottles of water purchased at the local Home Depot — 400 packets of 24 bottles each — enough to aid approximately 600 residents.
“It was quite a sight,” Rev. Newsome said, “seeing all the cars and even some elderly persons walking to the church on canes and walkers.”
Additional bottles were delivered to nearby Jackson State University where Rev. King reasoned the students would have no way of boiling water.
The presence of the Cleveland minister created a media stir. To a local CBS television reporter, Rev. King said, “We are doing the Lord’s work, helping our brothers and sisters in need. Today it’s Jackson, but tomorrow it could be Cleveland.”
Ronald Kisner is a retired administrator from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. He is the former West Coast Bureau Chief of Jet/Ebony magazines and CEO/Creative Director of TDA Group, Inc., a local public relations/advertising firm. His freelance writing has appeared in GQ, Cleveland Magazine, and the SHAD Connection.
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