Haley Jones-Wells is the Pastor of Community Engagement at First Methodist Church in Downtown Little Rock. We spoke on Zoom because everyone here was snowed in. She was home with her husband and children and I enjoyed the pitter-patter of her family moving in and out of the room while she talked about doing something she loves so much. It was such a beautiful picture of a woman who knows who she is and what she’s here to do!
Pastor Jones-Wells is originally from Jackson, Mississippi and grew up in the Methodist tradition. She says, “The reason I’m a pastor is because of Mississippi,” referring to the need for spiritual leaders in racial reconciliation and social justice in her home state. After graduating from high school, she went to Birmingham Southern College in Alabama with the initial goal of becoming a youth minister. She said, “This did not last long, because that takes a special kind of person.” In her words, she had a “theologically curious mind.” So, she moved to Boston, Massachusetts for seminary. She then moved onto Coventry Cathedral in England to serve as a fellow on their reconciliation team. The history of Coventry taught her what it means to “be people of reconciliation rather than retribution.” In World War II, the Germans bombed the town and it was completely destroyed. The leader of that church and the congregation opened up a ministry of reconciliation out of that story. This continued to feed her passion for reconciliation work in the United States.
Here in Little Rock at First Methodist, she loves doing practical things for the community that can make a big impact. One of their ministries is called “Community Café” where the church opens up a sitting area three days per week, where people can seek help with their basic needs, and they can also relax and have coffee and conversation. She believes regular things like this “can change hearts and minds.”
Jones-Wells feels very good about what she’s doing as a pastor, but there have been a few challenges. After Covid, many in her congregation and others all around the country became more insulated, and have become comfortable not being active in a church community. While taking a long break might be good for the mental health of some, the lack of involvement takes its toll on faith leaders and the programs they feel are good for the community.
As a lifelong Methodist, she hasn’t gotten any major pushback for being a woman within her denomination. Women have been fully affirmed in ministry in the Methodist Church since 1968. But she says sometimes people make assumptions about her because of her young age. Just looking at her, many don’t realize she has many years of education and experience that have taught her well. “I’ve worked very hard for where I am and what I’ve done…” she says. She credits her gentleness of spirit for helping her truly relate to people who are struggling. She clarifies that this isn’t a gift that necessarily stems from her “female-ness,” but it’s a gift she does have and has been able to use for good. But she has noticed that, as a whole, Christians in this part of the country have a long way to go as far as seeing women of all races as equal partners. A few years ago, she participated in an event at Central High School with other clergy members in Central Arkansas. She described the scenario when clergy-members were asked to gather on the stage and all the men automatically took their place in the front. When asked to shift around to make room for the women in the back, Jones-Wells noticed how the white female clergy had an easier time making their way closer to the front. She says, “I thought to myself, ‘something is not right here.’ Why was this the visual assumption?” Then, she describes her discomfort in navigating in the moment, “As a white clergy-person [I was] being moved to the front and very uncomfortable about my sisters who were in the back!” It’s hard work to walk that fine line between realizing your own privilege, and being proud of the obstacles faced to get to where you are. But Jones-Wells does this very well! And it’s exciting to see what she’s doing in the community.
As far as her heroes, she loves the work Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sarah Bessey are doing through their books, podcasts, and general leadership. She loves how “they can articulate in their books that trajectory they have been on.” She describes her reaction to reading their words, “Yes! Thank you for giving me the words that have been stirring in my soul!” In general, she loves the women in her life that taught her to do the hard work of speaking out and doing what God is calling them to do, no matter the cost.
A big thanks to Haley Jones-Wells for sharing her journey with us!
A Benediction for Those Who See Others Stuck in the Back:
You’ve worked hard.
This is your moment to shine!
But they’ve worked hard too, and you are on a platform that isn’t really YOURS
Share it. Elevate those on the back.
You’re actually standing on their shoulders
Love is not a pie, with a fixed amount to divide up.
There is enough for everyone, and it grows.