Dr. Stacy Spencer talks church, social justice and how Hickory Hill will thrive by 2025

High Ground's On the Ground: Hickory Hill embedded neighborhood coverage launched in September. We're committed to uncovering the people, organizations, businesses, and more that make Hickory Hill a great place to live, work, and play. We're also spotlighting those working to address the area's biggest needs and challenges.

Three of the neighborhood's most active organizations are Power Center CDC, New Direction Christian Church, and Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope.

Each is invested in equitable forward growth in Hickory Hill, but what else do they have in common? The Reverend Dr. Stacy Spencer.

Spencer helped launch all three organizations. He's senior pastor of New Direction, chairs MICAH's board of directors, is president of Power Center CDC's board, and has been working in Hickory Hill for nearly 20 years.

He sat down with High Ground for an intimate conversation on his life and work, the organizations he's helping to lead, and their collective vision to see Hickory Hill 'thrive by 2025.'

[Note: Some responses edited for length with minor edits for clarity.]

Tell us about you -- your personal or faith journey, hobbies, family, favorite sports team. Anything you’d like to share.

I am basically at the purest level a country boy. I'm from Route 1, Olmstead, Kentucky. Went to Western Kentucky University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, then Dew University ... I moved to Memphis in 1995.

I love fishing, I love movies. I love spending time with my family and traveling. I love music. I am a hip hop head. Grew up with hip hop in the early 80s, and it's the foundation of who I am.

The values I was raised with — loving people, honesty, integrity, work ethic, spirituality, all of that — are a part of who I am. I'm married for 26 years this year. I met my wife in college in Western Kentucky University. We've known each other since 1988. We have three boys together. She also helped me raise my oldest that I had when I was in college.

Why did New Directions choose to locate in Hickory Hill?

In the year 2000, there was a church called Winchester Heights Christian Church in Hickory Hill who approached Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church where I was a youth pastor. They asked Pastor Frank Thomas if they would help them with a merger.

We considered a merger but realized that what they needed was for someone to come and take over the church. There were about 12 people in the church, older white people, and they said because of the changing demographic, they didn't have the energy or the passion to reach out to the community. So we recommended to them that they send in a younger pastor who reflected the demographic to help this church die with dignity and relaunch its destiny. So they sent me, a 33 year-old youth pastor, to start a church in a rapidly changing community in Hickory Hill.

Not rapidly growing, rapidly changing. Whites were moving out, Blacks and Latinos moving in, particularly young folks. So I reflected the demographic that was moving in. 

What do you love about the neighborhood? 

I love that Hickory Hill is a community that is rich in diversity. There are a lot of people that are still here that bought homes. They never left. Then you have another group of people who were forced into Hickory Hill when they closed down the housing projects. They were pushed out because of gentrification, and they nested here in Hickory Hill. Now you have a blend of an older community and a newer community trying to do life together. I love the fact that there's so many opportunities in Hickory Hill. 

Where do you hope to see it Hickory Hill in the next 10 years?

Great question. Part of my vision for New Direction is 'We Thrive by 2025.' We want to put our community in a position where they prosper and are in good health, even as their souls prosper. We want to see people come out of debt. We're running a campaign now to teach people financial literacy so that they can come out of financial debt. We want to bring down the unemployment rate in Hickory Hill from 12% to single digits through our Workforce Development Program. We want to build 50 more affordable homes through our Power Center Community Development Corporation and build 50 more affordable homes at Eden Square right behind Power Center Academy. We're hoping that this will be a place where people will get their hearts healed. 

Can you speak to journey of New Directions from traditional congregation to igniter for neighborhood redevelopment in Hickory Hill?

One thing is we've never been a traditional congregation. We've been an out of the box congregation since our inception. We were the first African American church in Memphis that dressed down. We wanted people to feel comfortable coming to church and to experience God in a non-threatening, non-judgmental atmosphere. That transition wasn't hard for us because we've always been out of the box.

How did MICAH get started and how and why did you get involved?

[Summarized: MICAH is a coalition of community and faith-based organizations seeking equity across the economy, education, immigration and intercultural relationships in Memphis. It formed in 2016 when NOAH, a similar Nasville-based organization, asked six pastors including Spencer to formalize a partnership with the help of the Gamaliel Foundation.]

There's a lot of groups that are angry about injustice in Memphis, but I didn't see a lot of organization. That word 'organizing' around social justice intrigued me to say, 'I think I can come off the wall for this.' When I got a few more friends in the room, and we started talking about this work, Reverend [Dr. Rosalyn] Nichols bamboozled me into becoming the leader or president of MICAH. She said, 'Stacy we only need you for two years, but we need you.'

So that two years has turned into three years, and those six people have turned into 57 organizations in Memphis that represent 30,000 citizens.

Our whole goal is to make sure that people who have no voice in Memphis have a voice through MICAH so that we can finally actualize equity and fight for what Dr. Martin Luther King died for in Memphis — that is for people to having living wages, for people to have equities and for people to have power. That's what MICAH is about. We build our organization off the verse of Micah 6:8 — What does God require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.

High Ground’s new Faith in Action series explores what it means for faith communities to deeply commit to improving the neighborhoods around them alongside residents. Any thoughts on the distinctions between charity work and community partnership or the role of faith organizations in community development?

Our philosophy is giving people a hand up, not a hand out. We believe that people that struggle economically have a great resource. There is in each and every one of us gifts that the creator has already put inside of us. Gifts and talents. The biggest principal is empowering people with what's already in them, rather than giving them a hand-out.

If you give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he'll eat longer. But if you empower him to buy a lake, he now can bless the next generation. That's the work we're trying to do at New Direction, Power Center CDC and MICAH.

Any big next steps or evolution for yourself, New Directions, MICAH and/or Hickory Hill?

Thrive by 2025 is our five-year vision to really impact the Hickory Hill community — to bring down the unemployment rate, to bring down crime, to increase home ownership, to realize safe, livable communities that are connected. We do this through all the means I just mentioned. We want all of God's children in Memphis, Tennessee to recognize that we're all one, but it only comes when we recognize equity for all.
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Read more articles by A. J. Dugger III.

A.J. Dugger III is an award-winning journalist and native Memphian who joined High Ground as lead writer for its signature series, On the Ground, in August 2019. Previously, he wrote for numerous publications in West Tennessee and authored two books, “Southern Terror” and “The Dealers: Then and Now.” He has also appeared as a guest expert on the true-crime series, “For My Man.” For more information, visit ajdugger.net. (Photo by April Stilwell)