When the Rev. Jon Daniel Bennett heard God call him into the ministry he wasn’t at church or summer camp or college. He was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance.
On June 14, 2000, the 36-year-old said he had a dramatic “come to Jesus” experience.
Bennett said he had accepted Jesus as his personal savior at the age of 5, and, when he was 12, an uncle, who was a pastor, prophesied a holy calling on his life. But after graduating from Southern Lab High School in 1997, Bennett pursued a career in secular music, singing rhythm and blues and hip-hop in a band called Stelo, and shared an apartment with Shaun, his twin brother.
“I started having chest palpitations. I thought I was having a heart attack,” Bennett recalled. “My brother called 911 and they put me in an ambulance. And they were working on me as we were riding to the Baton Rouge General.
“I started to pray. I had not prayed for years,” he said. “I was backslidden. I was living like the prodigal son.”
“I said, ‘God’ — and as soon as I called his name I sensed him saying, ‘What have you done for me? Who have you told about me?’” Bennett said with a wide smile. “And, in the back of that ambulance, I said, ‘Lord, whatever you want me to do, if you allow me to live, I’ll do it for you. It was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had in my life.”
By the time he got to the hospital, Bennett said, “I had a knowing that God wanted me to be a preacher.”
Doctors got his accelerated heart beat under control and he was released that same day.
He’d grown up attending Belfair Church but had drifted away, so he returned and submitted to whatever church founder, the Rev. Dr. Alvin Francois, wanted him to do.
When Francois’s failing health meant he could no longer lead the church, he called Bennett and the nine other associate pastors together in 2002, and named Bennett, then 23 years old, as the next pastor. Francois passed away in January.
Bennett was ordained that year, later graduated from the New Orleans Theological Seminary and earned a bachelor’s degree in Christian Education from Andersonville Theological Seminary.
In 2002, he also married his high school sweetheart, Naomi. They have three children — Cameron, 13; Jon Daniel Bennett II, 11; and Sarah, 9.
What’s in a name?
Until recently, Belfair Church has been Belfair Baptist, but Bennett said they dropped “Baptist” to be more of what he calls a community church.
Located at 4444 Fairfields Ave. in Baton Rouge, average attendance is about 250, and they hold two Sunday services, at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.
The church is dually aligned, he said, with two Baptist organizations — one predominantly African-American and the other predominantly white.
Belfair began as a member of the Emmanuel Baptist Aid Association, and is a member of the larger National Baptist Convention of America International, the second largest African-American Missionary Baptist group in the country. The convention is led by the Rev. Samuel C. Tolbert Jr., of the Greater St. Mary Missionary Baptist Church in Lake Charles.
Three years ago Belfair joined the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge, a group of about 100 local Southern Baptist churches and missions.
“It was the best decision we could have made because of their focus on ministry,” he said.
Bennett acknowledges the saying, “Sunday morning at 11 o’clock is the most segregated hour of the week,’ but says that doesn’t mean the church must be segregated and heaven certainly won’t be.
“The Bible says, John wrote in the book of Revelation, ‘I looked and behold there was a great multitude that no man could number from every nation, tribe, people and tongues,” Bennett quoted. “And they were around the throne of God saying ‘behold the Lamb of God’ and they were all dressed in white robes and holding palm branches.”
He said he views the Sunday morning church segregation as “disheartening,” and, to counter that, he occasionally has white pastors, like the Rev. Tommy Middleton, BAGBR’s director, and the Rev. Oren Conner, of First Baptist, preach from his pulpit.
The church also hosts a race-reconciliation Sunday during February’s Black History Month events.
“We believe in our roots and our heritage, but when you look at Dr. (Martin Luther) King, he said, ‘I have a dream that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood,’” Bennett said. “So I believe the greatest way we can honor a dream like that is to actually make it a reality. We strive to do that. We embrace all races and cultures.”
Bennett recently released his second book, “Victorious Secrets: Divine Revelation for Victory in Spiritual Warfare,” an easy-to-read, 112-page paperback comprised of 11 chapters of “secrets” based on fighting the “wiles of the devil,” with the armor of God as described by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians chapter six.
“Spiritual warfare is the reality of walking in God’s plan, while watching for the plot of the enemy,” Bennett said.
He mixes stories of his own physical and spiritual struggles, such as doubting God’s providence when he suffered a detached retina which required surgery, with lots of biblical references to reinforce his points.
Spiritual battles must be fought with spiritual weapons that are only found in the Bible, he writes. “The most important part of your daily growth in Christ is digesting the Word of God, so that when the enemy moves in for the kill, you have a specific ‘word’ to speak to your situation.”
The secrets aren’t really secrets at all, Bennett said with a big grin.
“They are victorious revelations from the Word of God that empower the reader to deal with deception, accusation, confusion, fiery trials and doubts that come from the devil,” he said.
His first book, “The Nehemiah Blueprint,” written in 2013, is a “biblical look at ‘Rebuilding the Rubble’ in urban communities,” based on the rebuilding of Jerusalem by Nehemiah.