Apparently, no one told Telsa DeBerry that you can’t fight City Hall. The pastor of Opulent Life Church in Holly Springs is doing just that — and winning.
From the beginning, Opulent Life Church has had to deal with significant obstacles thrown in their path by the local political power structure, which has cast itself as a determined foe of the new church plant. The City of Holly Springs and its mayor — DeBerry’s uncle — have made finding worship and meeting space as difficult as possible.
Part One of a Two-Part Series
DeBerry says Opulent Life Church has a vision for an urban ministry in downtown Holly Springs. He further says the city has attempted to erect significant barriers against the establishment of the church in the downtown area, to the extent that DeBerry has had to resort to the federal courts to tutor the city fathers on the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
DeBerry graduated from Holly Springs High School in 1985. He spent four years in military service, attended college in Irving, Texas, and landed a job in the secular arena. “I was churched, but not saved,” DeBerry says.
In 1993, DeBerry totally surrendered to the Lord. “What He captured was my desire to be married to a godly woman,” DeBerry said. “I met her at Cornerstone Church in Arlington, Texas, perhaps one of the first black Southern Baptist churches in the area, which got me started in Southern Baptist life. In 2005, I yielded to the call to preach and joined the staff as the minister of mentoring and evangelism. I served at Cornerstone for five years.”
DeBerry attended a family reunion in Texas in 2009 and preached at Cornerstone Church that weekend. DeBerry said his younger sister in Mississippi called later and asked if he had ever considered starting a church. That same weekend, his sister’s husband asked her the same question without knowing she had already asked.
The following Monday afternoon, his pastor asked if he’d ever considered going back to Holly Springs to start a church. “I was floored,” DeBerry says. “This was three people in the span of three days and none of the others knew… It was like a conspiracy. At that point, I had to consider it.”
DeBerry came home to Holly Springs and evaluated the situation for a week. “It was like a darkness covered the city,” he says, so DeBerry asked God to open doors for opportunities to meet with the appropriate people.
“I met with Jim Burke, who was the associational missions director. I met with the mayor of Holly Springs, who just happened to be my uncle. I wanted to make sure I went through proper channels with him, going through his office. I wanted to meet with the pastor of First Church, and I wanted to meet with someone at the state level, who at the time was Ed Deuschle [director of church planting at the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board in Jackson].
“Each one of these people was able to see me. Everyone was warm and receptive to the idea.”
DeBerry and his family faced some initial personal challenges after accepting the call, including dealing with his wife’s breast cancer and an automobile accident involving his family. “But I was able to come to Holly Springs debt-free. God graced me with faith that I didn’t even know I had.”
The DeBerry family relocated to Holly Springs. There were limited housing options but they were able to move into his cousin’s house in town, as his cousin was relocating.
Opulent Life Church began on the first Sunday of February 2011. The congregation met in the Marshall Association building. “We had over 88 in Vacation Bible School that first year,” DeBerry says. “We had a Friends in the Park event that first year. We do a lot of outdoor activities just because we don’t have space.”
Then the challenges began. “The mayor had told us that there wouldn’t be any problems in us securing our own facility for worship,” DeBerry notes. “We learned there was an ordinance in the city stating that all churches had to secure permission from property owners in the vicinity to have a church — basically, 60% of property owners within a quarter mile had to okay it.
“Off the cuff, I recognized that this wasn’t right, that only churches had to be subjected to that standard. I notified the city that this wasn’t fair or appropriate, that only churches should have this burden. How was it ever right for me, as an entity of the Lord, to ask pagans for the right to exist? What sense does that make?
“The city said I could seek a variance. Did this mean that as a church planting church, we would have to seek a variance every time we wanted to plant a church? Secondly, I didn’t want to give the appearance that we were seeking some sort of special consideration because my uncle was the mayor. I didn’t think that was a Kingdom approach. I felt inclined to challenge this, because it wasn’t spiritually healthy for the city.”
The church appealed to the city in a public forum, to no avail. The mayor and the city board seemed to be in favor with the ordinance. “We then decided to take legal action,” says DeBerry.
Next week: The battle with the City of Holly Springs for the future of Opulent Life Church reaches a critical crossroads.