Father’s Day Spotlight on Dr. James Johnson-Hill
If you live in the Laurel area, chances are you’ve heard the name James Johnson-Hill. As a pastor of Agape Church, a thriving church in the heart of our city, James has always been an outside-of-the-box thinker, leaving everything he touches better than he found it. For example, take the two buildings in Downtown Laurel now occupied by Agape Church. The main building sits at the roundabout in the center of town, and the newly-renovated Agape Midtown campus is just up the street. At both locations, you’ll see examples of how, under his leadership and God’s provision, old, dilapidated buildings became flourishing beautiful spaces where life-change happens.
James was raised in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of 14, he moved to Los Angeles. With both parents originally from the Jones County area, James remembers spending much of his childhood in Mississippi visiting his grandmother. “Once I got out of school each year, I would come to Ellisville for the summer,” says James. “It was a huge part of my upbringing.”
James and his wife, Nece, met at church in California when she was 17 and he was 21. On her 18th birthday, James asked her on a date. They stayed in touch but Nece soon left for Spelman College in Atlanta while he stayed in California. When she moved back from college, James knew he wanted her in his life forever. “It took the Lord seven years after we met to get her ready for me,” James jokes.
As a married couple, James and Nece continued the tradition of regular visits to Mississippi. In 2009, when they made the drive back from Mississippi, Nece asked James, “Are you happy?” James was in a time of transition, and it was a question that marked the beginning of a life change for the couple. She told James, “I feel like God’s calling us to build something together, and I think we’re supposed to do it in Laurel.”
From there, the rest is history. Literally. James and Nece brought a vision to Laurel that has made an impact extending far beyond even what they’ll see in their lifetime. What began as a team from California moving to Mississippi to plant a church has become a place where people of all backgrounds and ethnicities come to know Christ and are discipled.
After a decade in Laurel, Agape Church not only hosts Sunday services but also spearheads events like Downtown Movie Night and the Laurel Farmers Market, which present a great opportunity for people in the church to make a big impact on the entire community. As pastors and Christ-followers, James and Nece have poured out their hearts to meet needs in the community. And sometimes it surfaces in unconventional ways like showing a movie on the back side of a building.
Leading a Church and Home
Leadership isn’t something James does; it’s who he is. He not only is a pastor, but he also serves as president of the Laurel School District Board of Trustees and in many other local organizations. James believes it is important for his children to see the same father at home that they see speaking at church or leading a meeting. “I lead because I care for them,” he says. “Finding the balance of leading a church and leading in my community comes from the support my wife and my family give.” James sees every accomplishment of his as a way to encourage his children to go higher and accomplish bigger things.
Leaving a Legacy of Leadership
James believes it is also important for his children is to see him modeling how to overcome failure. “I’m the first person to ask them to forgive me,” James says. His desire is to make sure his home is a safe place where his children know forgiveness and where the enemy has no room to bring hostility.
James also prioritizes prayer and believes the most important thing as a father is teach his children to pray. He understands that while they may not always have access to their Bible, they always have access to God. His leadership style overflows into every part of their day-to-day, even the drive to school. James says that from the car, they pray and ask for the Lord’s favor and protection over them for that day, then each child takes their turn doing a faith confession before they step out to start their day.
A scripture that James keeps top of mind as a parent is Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” Even when James is upset with his children, he feels it’s important not to provoke them. He ultimately wants them to understand that the Lord charges his children to honor their parents.
An easy way to identify one of the Hill children is by their confidence. “We raised them be confident people who genuinely care for others” says James. “One of my proudest memories as a parent was to see my son, Samuel, work with disabled children when he was young,” James says. “At the end of the week, the director said he was so kind and good with the children that they wanted him back for another week.” James believes it’s the moments in life that show the development of character in his children that are the most important.
And we feel this might just be what the Lord believes of us, too.