Release date: June 21, 2012
It all started with a dream. Not the life-long ambition kind of dream, although it would become that. But a literal dream. And at the age of 3, no less.
Jontrell Hill of Meridian, now 19, was the son of a deacon. He idolized his father and his position.
“He was the head deacon, and this man was always on the go. And his post stood right by the pulpit and he was there protecting the pastor at all times. I used to ask him all the time ‘When is God going to call me to be a deacon like you? When am I going to be able to stand at your post?’ And he would always say ‘Be patient.’ That was the best advice he ever gave me,” Hill recalls.
Jontrell suffered nightmares as a child, and his mother would often enter his room to calm and comfort her son. But one night she tried a new tactic. She called her 3-year-old son to his knees and told him she would teach him how to pray to help him deal with his nightmares.
“She said ‘If you don’t know what to say, just keep saying Jesus. And one day words will come to you.’ And they did. I started to develop vocabulary at the age of three,” said Hill.
Several weeks later, Jontrell had a dream unlike any before. He found himself in a dark room with marble floors polished to a mirror shine. A large screen hung suspended, its images reflecting in the marble floors. On the screen, Hill saw scenes of himself in the future laying hands on people, healing and ministering to them.
The next morning, he had a message for his parents.
“I told them ‘Momma, Daddy, God told me to repent to y’all for being stiff-necked, disobedient and rebellious and called me to be his preacher and lay hands on people.’ And they looked at this 3-year-old big-head boy like, ‘What are you talking about?’” he said.
Now entering his sophomore year at East Mississippi Community College’s Scooba campus, Hill is every bit as determined to realize his calling as he was that morning. And it hasn’t been an easy road. His parents divorced when he was 10, and Hill took it upon himself to be the man of the house. He often found himself caring for his three younger sisters, the oldest of whom is five years younger than Jontrell, cleaning and cooking them special meals to avoid aggravating their allergies. When their mother would spend days in the hospital struggling with sickle cell anemia and a bout with thyroid cancer, the children would stay with relatives, but it was Jontrell who served as their emotional rock.
Hill speaks with an ease that belies his age. He hasn’t simply learned to replace the usual “ums” and “uhs” and “you know what I means” with silent pauses. He rarely needs time to find the right words. The cadence and rhythm of preaching have equipped him with a multi-tasker’s mind and a sure tongue. He displays the kind of casual confidence at 19 that he must have had at 3, when he followed his church’s ministers one Sunday into the pastor’s study. Jontrell’s mother sent his father to fetch the boy, but the pastor rebuked his father, telling him, “If God said he’s supposed to be a preacher, then I have to respect it.”
That single-minded focus led to Hill’s ordination and licensure as a minister at the age of 7. He grew so fast in the word that a pastor friend who was leaving his church in Hattiesburg to take a new post in Birmingham, Ala., considered turning his Hattiesburg church over to Jontrell at the age of 13, but the Hills passed.
“I still wanted him to be a kid,” said Hill’s mother, Carolyn Powell.
Jontrell’s gift for multi-tasking allowed him to preach while attending school, playing in the band, studying his Bible and helping raise his sisters.
“I don’t feel right if I don’t have a lot on my plate,” Hill said. “As a child, I would rather read my Bible than do my homework. But that’s not wise. As I got older, God gave me wisdom to balance things.”
It was during his time at Meridian High School that Hill, who plays baritone horn, began marching for Steve Stringer, who was then the band director at MHS and is now the band director for EMCC. If Hill ever struggled with humility or publicizing his identity as a minister, he could count on Stringer for help.
“Mr. Stringer called me out in front of 200 people on the practice field. He was on a microphone and he said, ‘Pastor. Can I call you pastor? Your marching sucks,’” Hill said.
Stringer doesn’t recall the incident happening quite like that, but he has always had a good rapport with Hill, whom he recruited to the Mighty Lion Band at EMCC.
“I always try to recruit the kind of kids that will be builders and able to contribute. He was such a strong leader we just had to have him,” Stringer said. “He’s very charismatic and has a way to make kids listen to him when he speaks. He doesn’t waste words.”
Hill is learning everything he can from Stringer and plans to earn a master’s degree in music. He hopes to be a music or band director one day in addition to earning a psychology degree and continuing his preaching career. He’s also learning the vocal side of music as a tenor for EMCC Director of Choral and Vocal Music Wendy Smith.
“Before I came here I had been in choirs, but never performed in chorus. Mrs. Smith threw me in the fire. When I would think, ‘I can’t possibly be singing this right,’ she would always push me to be better than I thought I was,” said Hill.
He’s wasting no time paying his new choral knowledge forward to the students in MHS’s Gospel Choir, which he’s directed for the past two years.
“After watching the way Mrs. Smith worked with us this year, I applied that to the gospel choir and we made noticeable progress in three days,” he said.
Like Stringer, Smith counts Hill as one of her leaders in class and during performance. She says he has a natural talent: “Many times I ask Jontrell to ‘check the voice around him’ to let me know if they are getting the part. Often I have him sing a line for the tenors to help them hear it in the correct male voice range.”
As he navigates through his college years, Hill is regularly reminded that he’s being watched. He does many things one would expect from a young preacher, like working during the summer as a counselor at Waukaway Springs Christian Retreat in Vossburg, preaching at revivals and even preaching to groups overseas via the Internet. But inevitably, he encounters criticism.
“I’ve encountered so much in my life where people say, ‘You can’t do that. You’re a preacher. You can’t play cards. You can’t go to prom.’ And I say this is just a small fry in God’s pot of grease. He didn’t mean for us to be repressed,” he said.
Although Hill draws a clear line at some things, like going to night clubs, he dabbles in secular activities like singing in EMCC’s new rock band ROAR!, handling lead vocals on songs about fast women such as Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” or the ubiquitous “Mustang Sally.”
He maintains an easy-going attitude because he’s tried the opposite and didn’t care for the taste.
“There was a time when I was so cocky and arrogant in what I thought was God’s work that when you said ‘Hey’ to me I would quote scripture back at you and tell you why you were going to hell. I had to learn to mellow out. Being hardcore, sometimes we don’t realize we’re pushing people away,” said Hill.
Jontrell has big plans for his life, even if he doesn’t know exactly what they are yet. He may be pastor of his own church soon. He may return to Scooba as band director for the Mighty Lion Band. He may go into psychology. He even dabbled in politics, serving on a local pastor’s campaign for senate. He’s “placing his irons in the fire,” as he says, to give himself options.
Mom Carolyn Powell understands: “I call him a juggler. He’s a great juggler. Sometimes I tell him ‘You’ve got too many irons in the fire.’ He needs his own life.”
But the juggler never drops the ball. He serves as his mother’s ideal example for his younger sisters, graduating with honors from MHS and pursuing every educational opportunity. But he’s not alone in setting that example. Powell recently graduated from Meridian Community College at the age of 38 with her associate’s degree and plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.
“That is just amazing to me,” said Jontrell. “God is always able.”
Carolyn Powell, Jontrell Hill’s mother, passed
away Sunday, June 24, just days after this
story was written. EMCC extends its deepest condolences and asks everyone to join the Lion
family in praying for Jontrell and his family.
Jontrell Hill behind the pulpit at
EMCC's Chapel in the Pines
Here's a look at Jontrell Hill and ROAR!, EMCC's rock band, performing "Mustang Sally" during the 2012 Pine Grove Arts Festival.
CHECK IT OUT:
The Summer 2nd Intensive Semester at East Mississippi Community College begins July 2,
and the registration deadline is June 29.
The Fall Full-Term Semester begins Aug. 20.
Final registration is Aug. 16-17.
For more information, call the Counseling Center
at EMCC’s Scooba campus at (662) 476-5085, or
at the Golden Triangle campus at (662) 243-2614.
Questions about getting involved in choral music
at EMCC? Call Wendy Smith, (662) 476-5004.
Want to be a member of the Mighty Lion Band?
Call Steve Stringer, (662) 476-5005.