“I told my wife, we were swinging for a double at New Haven and we hit a home run.” 

That’s how James Roberts sums up his experience after three months in Scott County, pastoring New Haven Baptist Church. 

But it’s not like Roberts, who preached his first sermon as the West Oneida church on Sunday, July 1, went looking for New Haven. In fact, he was dead-set against Oneida when he was first contacted by a deacon on New Haven’s pulpit committee. God’s plans often contradict man’s plans, however, and the Roberts — James and his wife, Donna — eventually did wind up making the transition from the Greeneville area to the northern Cumberland Plateau.

Long before he received his first call from New Haven — even long before he accepted the pastorate at First Baptist Church of Baileyton, which is where he was for 10 years before making the move to Oneida — Roberts was just a “rural mountain boy,” as he frequently describes himself, with a start to life that might’ve made him seem an unlikely candidate to be called into the ministry. That was a little more than 35 years ago, in the tiny town of Spring Creek in western North Carolina, about 15 miles outside Hot Springs.

An Abandoned Teen

“You guys think Oneida is a rural place. You should see Spring Creek,” James Roberts says of his childhood home. “There were no stoplights. We did have a caution light that flashed all the time but some guys got tired of it, and someone climbed a pole one night and shut her down. I don’t think they ever fixed it.”

Roberts may have never entered  the ministry if not for a major change in his life just as he was entering high school. He was abandoned by his family.

“My father was the town drunk,” he said. “My mother was addicted to prescription drugs back before it was a thing.”

One day, he came home from school to find that his parents had moved to Georgia without him.

Roberts had been attending worship functions at a church near his home, simply because the church had a van that ran by his house and provided transportation. There, a young minister who was just about 10 years older than Roberts — Mike McDaniel — took a liking to Roberts. So when Roberts came home that day to find that his parents had abandoned him, he called McDaniel. His request was a simple one: he just needed a place to sleep.

“He came and picked me up, and the rest is history,” Roberts said. “That began a whole new world for me.” 

It was a major life change — and for the better.

“I tell people all the time, I’d be in hell or jail today if the Lord hadn’t placed someone in my life that cared, someone that cared about me,” Roberts said. “They didn’t care about my social or my economic situation. They cared about me. They looked through my tattered clothes, my dirty face, my long hair, and they cared about me, genuinely, as a human being.” 

Feeling the Tug

It was about a year into his new life as a “preacher’s kid” that James Roberts first felt what he calls an inkling — a thought that the ministry might be for him. But he was just 16 at the time, and it would be a long time before he surrendered to the call.

“I would pray every morning, and I was just praying at the bus stop one morning and I just had this strong inclination, ‘Hey, you know what? What if the Lord called me to preach?’” he said. “I just kinda chuckled. But from that morning, it was planted in my heart. And it stuck.”

The desire to preach, Roberts says, is an unnatural thing. In fact, it’s the most unnatural thing he can think of.

“Nobody I know of says, ‘You know what, I’d like to study 40 hours a week — at least — and stand up in front of 200 people and preach,’” he said. “And here I am, a poor mountain kid with no formal training, but I wanted to preach. It made no sense to me.” 

It made no sense because man’s ways are not God’s ways. And 12 years after he felt that original inkling at the bus stop, Roberts — who at that time was operating a digging business — went home and told his wife that it was time to enter the ministry.

“I had a good job, made good money, we were doing well,” he said. “It was just the simple fact that there was this insatiable gnawing, an uneasy feeling that God had something bigger for me to do and I wasn’t going to be completely content and happy until I did it.”

And so he did.

From Greeneville to Oneida

Fast-forward 22 years, and James Roberts is settling in at New Haven Baptist Church. It’s his third church; he was at First Baptist of Baileyton for 10 years and at Sunny Point Baptist Church in North Carolina for six years before that. Prior to becoming a pastor, he was a youth evangelist. 

At no point in that span did moving to the northern Cumberland Plateau factor into Roberts’ plans. He recalls sitting in a Red Lobster on a Monday morning, months ago, when he received a call from Tim Smith. 

“He introduced himself and said they were looking for a pastor,” Roberts said. “We talked a long time. I told him I’d pray about it. I hung up the phone, got on my phone and looked up Oneida, and I told my wife there ain’t no way.” 

Out of curiosity, Roberts looked up New Haven’s website when he got home. But he still didn’t feel a draw, and thought little else about it until another of the church’s deacons, Greg Jeffers, called him a few days later.

“He said, ‘Before you turn us down outright, how about coming up and meeting with us?’” Roberts said. “I thought, why not.” 

The following Saturday, Roberts met with several of the church’s leaders inside Patrick Sexton’s Oneida law office. They asked him plenty of questions, then showed him the church and the community. But back in his car afterward?

“I called my wife and said there ain’t no way we’re going to New Haven,” he said.

Another two weeks passed, and yet another church deacon — John V. Thompson — called.

“He’s a straight talker,” Roberts said. “We had an honest conversation on the phone. I still thought there was no way, but a week later, Tim called again. He asked me to bring Donna up for dinner, and their wives would be there as well. By this time, I had been praying about it and when it got right down to it, I forgot where the church was, I forgot the concerns I had. God gave me a heart for the guys I had met with the first time I was up here.”

Following that couples’ meeting on a cold and snowy late winter day, Donna Roberts was starting to have the same feelings as her husband. “Who are we to tell God we aren’t coming?” she told him. So, three days later, Roberts called Smith and said he was ready to take the next step. 

That next step was a three-day church service, which Roberts preached. Following the Sunday service, he had a thought in his mind as he and his wife hit the road back home to Greeneville: maybe it’s time to put the house on the market.

Before they had reached Knoxville, he said, Donna turned to him and said what he was thinking: “We need to put our house on the market and start packing.

“Those were the exact words that were in my mouth to say to her and she beat me to the punch,” he said. “Of the three churches we’ve been to, this was the first time my wife said, ‘This is where I think God wants you to be.’”

The Church's Role

Three months later, the Roberts have immersed themselves in the community. He has gotten involved with the Scott Christian Center, and visited the Manna House before sitting down for a newspaper interview on Monday. Donna is still in Greeneville through the week, as the couple prepare for grandkids No. 4 and 5 — due two days apart, on October 19 and 21. After that, she’ll transition to Oneida full time to join her husband and their youngest son, 11-year-old Harley (they also have four adult children). 

As Roberts has familiarized himself with Scott County, he’s discovered things about the local community, and has begun to realize the role the church can play in making the community stronger. That’s part of the purpose of a church, he says — it’s to “grow the kingdom,” but it’s also to strengthen the community, to bridge the gap between the socioeconomic classes. 

“There are a lot of things I’m not,” he says. “I’m not an evangelist anymore. But God has given me a pastor’s heart and I care about these people (of the community). I want to know how we can strategically bridge the gap. I don’t have an answer for that right now, but I am praying about it.”

In the meantime, the Roberts have gotten settled into the church, and it’s as good a fit as they could’ve hoped for.

“This church has some of the nicest people,” he said. “I know that’s cliche, but these folks are genuine and kind and they love the community. They also love this church. It’s a testimony to them that they’re as solid as they are even though they’ve had some turnover with pastors in recent years. One of their interims (Dr. Jerry Burgess) told me, ‘These people genuinely like each other.’ And they do. Their love for each other is the epitome of what a church is supposed to be.” 

The community fit is just as strong. 

“I’m a rural Appalachian guy, I really am,” Roberts said. “I’m just a mountain boy. I love hiking and fishing, and I didn’t even know about the Big South Fork when we came up here. That was like the cherry on top of the ice cream when I got up here and hiked Angel Falls for the first time.

“I can see this being the place where we finish,” he added. “I don’t think preachers ever retire; they just recharge. But I can see this as a place where we could put down roots and finish. And I’m not just saying that for a newspaper story. I really feel that way, and I’ve never said that before.”

This story is the September 2018 installment of Focus On: Religion, presented by Huntsville Manor on the fourth week of each month as part of the Independent Herald's Focus On series. A print edition of this article can be found on Page A3 of the September 27, 2018 edition of the Independent Herald.