Hundreds Flock to Bronx Church for Rev. Wenzell Jackson's Memorial Service
HIGHBRIDGE — Pastors, politicians, police officers, religious and lay people, young and old, streamed by the hundreds Tuesday into Mount Hermon Baptist Church to recall the Rev. Wenzell Jackson, reflecting the boundary-crossing imprint he left on his Bronx church and the world around it.
The 46-year-old senior pastor of Mount Hermon and chairman of Bronx Community Board 4 died of a heart attack last week.
He is survived by his wife of 24 years, Tamra Holman Jackson, as well as his parents and four brothers. He will be buried in California.
With hundreds of people cramming into the church’s pews and against its walls and overflowing into the lobby and onto the sidewalk, while hundreds more watched a live video feed in a packed church backroom and online, Jackson’s many admirers shared their recollections in a more than three-hour service that combined somber memorial with jubilant home-going.
They recalled the power of Jackson’s baritone to summon the faithful to their feet and advocates into action, his humor that melted tensions, and his drive, which often pushed him to work into the early morning hours and inspired churchgoers and community leaders alike.
“Many are called, but few are chosen. Bishop Jackson was chosen,” State Assemblywoman Vanessa Gibson said at the service. “He committed to his community like Moses leading the Israelites out of the desert.”
Born in Louisiana but raised in San Francisco, Jackson first excelled in the business world, landing a job at Merrill Lynch as a teenager and later rising to the management level at Chevron Corporation, according to a biography distributed by his family.
Still, he remained tethered to the church, serving as a Sunday school and bible study instructor, usher, choir director and, beginning when he was 18, a preacher.
Jackson and his wife married nearly a quarter-century ago in California when both were in the their early twenties. Together they moved to The Bronx in 2003.
Holman Jackson recently encouraged her husband as he shed more than 80 pounds in a bid to improve his physical health.
“You have been an excellent husband, Pastor and best friend,” Holman Jackson wrote in a program printed for the service. “You were truly the Priest of the home, the Provider and the Protector.”
After Jackson took the helm of Mount Hermon at 1170 Nelson Ave., his presence proved transformative.
“He said, ‘I want everybody off the street. Bring me your thugs, your gangsters — bring everybody,’” said David Hall, a Mount Hermon deacon and a former church aide for Jackson. “He didn’t want it to be a selective club.”
Hall estimated that Jackson more than tripled the church’s membership during his decade there, from about 800 to 2,700 people.
“A young pastor, he was on fire; he drew people in,” Hall said. “He acted real.”
His striking singing voice inspired many, especially his renditions of "My Soul Has Been Anchored in The Lord" and “Amazing Grace,” which he sang at his final service, on Sunday Feb. 3.
“When he would sing, I would break down and cry,” Hall said.
Other clergy considered Jackson an especially charismatic preacher, said the Rev. Franklin Simpson of nearby Resurrection Lutheran Church, who invited Jackson to address thousands of listeners on his Spanish-language Christian radio show.
“People called in and said, ‘That’s a great preacher!’” Simpson said, even though Jackson had sermonized in English. “He was that inspiring.”
Jackson’s sway extended beyond his church.
He was voted chairman of Community Board 4 in 2009, not long after the board failed to block the construction of the new Yankee Stadium atop local parkland, which many residents opposed.
When he assumed the top spot, his first order of business was to restore calm to the fractured board, said Llinet Beltre-Rosado, a former member and current Bronx family court judge.
“We may not have liked each other, but we all listened to Pastor Jackson,” she said.
At board meetings he often recited his signature call for kindness, which he also issued at church, according to Mount Hermon clerk, Lucille Robin.
“I can still hear him tell me, ‘Take the high road. Be a bigger person. Because it’s just nice to be nice,” Robin said at the service.
With his own youthful vigor, Jackson was known for his attention to the challenges facing young people.
The vice chairman of the 44th Precinct Clergy Council, he would personally visit blocks with rising gang activity to try to minister to the young crew members, said the precinct’s commanding officer, Inspector Kevin Catalina.
“He was always a voice of reason,” Catalina said.
He also founded the Highbridge Clergy Coalition, which met at Mount Hermon to discuss urgent neighborhood concerns.
As the church began filling for the 7 p.m. service Tuesday, Yvonne Rivera, a new member, waited outside.
She has lived in the neighborhood for nearly two decades, but only ventured into Mount Hermon recently after a half-dozen friends insisted that she see the preacher there, she said.
His singing, his warmth, his passion — “as if he were born to do this” — overcame her, she said, and she joined the congregation. Though Jackson is gone, Rivera intends to remain a member.
“His spirit is still there,” she said.