WARNER ROBINS, Ga. (BP) — Jerry Walls has enjoyed three decades of a prosperous and peaceful pastorate of Southside Baptist Church.
The church in Warner Robins, Ga., has grown considerably under Walls’ leadership — from about 125 when he began to about 3,500 now. He loves his people, and they love him. You don’t serve at a church for 30 years without a deep and mutual affection between pastor and people.
But with Alabama and Georgia colliding on Jan. 8 for the College Football Playoff National Championship, Walls and the Southside family are facing a challenge unlike any they’ve encountered together. It’s a challenge some might think could threaten the harmony that has characterized the church.
Walls, a native of Montgomery, Ala., is a diehard Crimson Tide devotee. He’s ministering in the midst of a church full of rabid Georgia Dawgs. And at the center of the brewing church controversy is one of Walls’ church members at Southside — Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm.
“I’m not going to cheer against Jake Fromm, I’m just going to tell you that,” Walls told BP. “Now, I’m not cheering against Alabama, either. I’m cheering for Jake, and I’m cheering for Bama. I’m in a dilemma, brother. I’m in a dilemma.”
Growing up in Montgomery, Walls watched and listened to Alabama football games every week with religious fervor. The Sunday afternoon “The Bear Bryant Show” was required family viewing. To know Walls is to know he bleeds crimson. Not one to hide his light under a bushel, Walls has been aggressively and passionately outspoken about his Alabama zeal ever since arriving in Warner Robins 30 years ago.
It may be a bit of an exaggeration to describe his office as a shrine to the Crimson Tide. Or maybe not.
“If you walk into his office, he has more Alabama stuff than he has concordances on his shelves,” said Philip Lehman, pastor of Discover Point Church in Conyers, Ga., whose home church is Southside. “And I don’t mean that jokingly. I mean that very seriously.
“It’s pretty sickening to a Georgia fan. A lot of people just overlook it and move on, I guess. He makes it difficult, though.”
Lehman joined Southside as a 14-year-old boy on Walls’ first Sunday as pastor. Over the years, Walls has been a father-figure to the younger pastor — although the football loyalty is one thing that didn’t transfer from mentor to protégé.
“Oh, no,” Lehman said. “You almost made me curse there.”
Fromm, the Georgia freshman who took over as quarterback the first game of the season when starter Jacob Eason was injured, began attending Southside with his family in 2006. He was baptized there in 2011.
The relationship between Walls and the Fromm family has deepened over the years. Walls watched Fromm excel in youth baseball and as a quarterback at Houston County High School.
Imagine his delight when Fromm announced that he was going to play college football for the Crimson Tide. His church members don’t have to imagine.
“I have a picture in my office today of Jake shaking hands with Nick Saban as he committed to the University of Alabama,” Walls said. “The next Sunday, I put on the big screens in our church the picture of Jake and Coach Saban. I don’t know that I rubbed it in, but being at a Georgia church, I said, ‘Well, I want to congratulate Jake Fromm for committing to Alabama.’ It was a great day, of course, for me.”
Now imagine that delight melting away when Walls got a late-night text from Fromm a few weeks later. Fromm had changed his mind. After praying about it, he and his family thought God was leading him to Georgia instead.
“Jake, all I want for you is God’s will,” Walls replied. “I’m a Jake Fromm fan.”
That next Sunday, Southside members didn’t hold back in their ribbing. Their star athlete was staying home in Georgia.
The church doesn’t just love Fromm because he’s a Bulldog, however. They appreciate his devotion to the Lord and for the way he is outspoken about his faith.
“If you ever read any of his interviews he always makes reference to it,” said Jeri Willeby, a Southside member. “If you see him during the game, he gives credit to the Lord. He’ll often kiss his hand and point up. After the game you’ll always see him in the circle in prayer.”
Willeby said she always knew there was something special about Fromm. The way he stepped up this season and led his team to the cusp of a national title proved her right.
“One of the things I love about him is he’s not ashamed of his faith in the Lord,” she said. “He shares it. He wants you to know he has it.”
Fromm has regularly spoken at Fellowship of Christian Athletes events in the area, even as a high school student addressing middle schoolers. That was before his days in the spotlight.
With the added acclaim that has come his way, though, Walls has seen Fromm remain faithful.
“He’s very persistent in having his quiet time in the mornings,” Walls said. “He’s just a great example, to me, of what a teenager ought to be in his walk with the Lord.”
A few weeks ago, when the church celebrated his 30th anniversary as pastor, Fromm presented Walls with a Georgia jersey with “Jake Fromm” across the back.
“Put it on!” the congregation urged. “Put it on!”
Ever the Alabama loyalist, Walls shook his head.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said. It still hasn’t. Though he’s happy to display it, wearing it may be asking just a bit too much.
Bruce Goddard, a member at Southside and close friend of Walls, took him to his first Georgia game earlier this season, against Kentucky. Walls had been in the state for 30 years and never had a desire to watch the Bulldogs play in person.
But with Fromm on the field, that changed things. At least a little.
“To convert him to a UGA fan would be a huge task,” Goddard said. “It’d be like taking a lifelong Baptist preacher and turning him into a Methodist. But, as Jerry preaches, ‘With God, anything is possible.'”
Through all the banter, on both sides, Southside is a church that loves its pastor. Lehman described Walls as a personable man, caring and authentic. Willeby pointed to his love for missions and the way he has made it a priority of the church.
“Our church was already mission-minded before he got here, but he’s taken it to the next level, and that’s why the church has succeeded,” she said.
Some from the congregation have suggested to Walls that they should watch the game together on the big TVs at the church. Walls told them they were welcome to do so, but that he wanted no part of it. He figures he’s not sanctified enough to watch the game with them — and he knows they aren’t that sanctified, either.
So he’ll be cheering on Alabama — and Fromm — from the comforts of his home surrounded by his family members. Like him, Walls’ three grown sons and grandchildren all cheer for the Crimson Tide. Walls said he raised them up right.
As for the ideal outcome? The way Walls figures it, he’d be happy to see Fromm throw for 350 yards and six touchdowns and Alabama win by one point.
And if the Crimson Tide can’t pull it out? His friends are pretty sure how he’ll respond.
“Knowing Jerry, and I know him well,” Goddard said, “if Jake Fromm as a freshman leads the University of Georgia to a national championship, I promise you Jerry Walls will not be upset when he goes to bed.”
Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.