Everything could have been different for Rev. James D.S. Vance. He had heard the message before, but he wasn’t willing to hear the it. Finally, in the wee morning hours of December 13, 1988, he opened his heart to the message, and God opened so many doors. There were times he was tempted to give up, but he found the race he was meant to run, and, now, Vance has made it his life’s mission to help others hear the word.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Vance is the product of his family through and through, shaped and sculpted by the influence of his parents.
His mother, the only college graduate in her family, was a lifelong educator.
His biological father served in the military and was a preacher. He had his own issues, and that made Vance question what it meant to be a preacher.
“We can tell our children any message we want, but if we don’t live that message, it’s not going to stick,” said James.
His parents divorced when James was 10, and his mother remarried when he was 12, changing the trajectory of his life. The man she married completed the family. He adopted her children and took on the all of the responsibilities of leading the house, becoming the man James calls his father.
“My mother was always very serious about her faith walk, and she married a very serious Christian man,” said Vance. “We’re his children. He wasn’t a preacher, but he was extremely grounded in his walk with God. I’m looking at this man who adopted up and gives us everything he has.”
His father was his biggest supporter and a steadying influence.
“He said you’re going to be angry because something happened, but channel that anger into something constructive,” said Vance. “The best way to prove what is best about you is to be the best that you can be.”
It took time for James to find what he was best at, and his father was always there. When James played basketball, his father was there. When James ran track, even though most of the time it didn’t end well, his father was there.
“I ran track all of middle school, literally all of middle school, and I never ever won or placed in any race at all. It didn’t matter what event I was in, I didn’t do well,” said Vance.
When even his coach said he should give up, his father was always there standing on the hill watching with his trademark pipe.
“He had this look that said ‘Keep going.’ It wasn’t threatening, I just knew it meant he wanted me to keep going.”
Keep going he did, and by 9th grade he found his forte in cross country, where he progressed to the point of being one of the top distance runners in the area.
“I discovered I liked running through mountains and woods and over terrain.”
Around the same time, he heard a call for another path, but it wasn’t his time to run that race yet.
“At 16, God introduced himself to me, and when He introduced himself to me, I was thoroughly convinced that He had made a mistake, that He had a plan for someone else at the church and I got in the way because I was tall and stood up at the wrong time,” Vance remembered. “I thought it wasn’t really for me. My father said you don’t have to do what people want you to do. He said God has his hand on you and left it at that.”
Living in a home with two educators, he was destined to thrive in the classroom. He skipped the 6th grade and later graduated high school a year early. As advanced as he was in his early schooling, he found he wasn’t mature enough for college, and he didn’t apply himself, dropping out.
“My timing was impeccably bad,” he remembered.
Vance dropped out during the draft lottery for Vietnam and was nearly selected. That led him to make the decision for himself, enlisting in the Air Force before transitioning to the Army. He served from 1974 to 1980 before being honorable discharged.
He went back to school to study banking and finance, working his way up to serving as assistant manager of a bank branch, but there were cracks in his foundation.
Out of the service and trying to find his place in the world, Vance struggled with addiction. From 1980 through most of 1988, he was involved in drugs off and on.
“One of the ways I felt that I could handle everything I’d seen was to medicate.”
He was arrested in 1988 for possession and possession to sell, and he was offered the chance to complete a diversion program and have his record expunged. He completed the 10-week course flawlessly. He was commended for his progress by the judge and dismissed.
“I walked out, got in my car, went straight to the drug dealer, and got high,” he said. “Then God’s presence began. I didn’t know what it was, it was just something inside of me questioning why are you doing this.”
The turmoil came to a head on Tuesday, December 13, 1988. In the early morning hours, Vance was desperate.
“I asked God to either let me die or to take me out of that position, and at 2:30 in the morning the Holy Spirit touched me from the top of my head all the way through my body to the soles of my feet,” said Vance, who immediately threw away more than $200 worth of drugs and never touched drugs again. “I received a healing.”
He moved to join his family in Georgia in 1989 and started searching for a way to share his blessing. In 1992, he got a clear message from God telling him he should be a preacher, but he still was not ready to listen.
“I knew God was calling me to the ministry. He called me when I was 16,” he said. “People said you’re going to be a preacher, and I always said no, I’m not.”
Vance switched through several churches in the coming years, trying to avoid the call, but he wasn’t the only one who could see his calling. After one service, the pastor, who had zero connection to Vance and no way to know his inner battle, asked to speak with him.
“He was just looking at me and then, all of a sudden, he said, ‘When are you going to stop running from your calling?’,” remembered Vance. “I knew right in that moment this is not whoever (the pastor is), this is God. I’m having a conversation with God.”
Vance returned to his parents’ church in 1994 and attended a revival. He doesn’t remember the scripture or verse from the night, but he knows the message he was finally ready to receive.
“I clearly remember God saying, ‘If you love Me, feed My sheep,’” said Vance.
He went home and woke his mother and father and told them about the revelation.
“Tonight God revealed to me what I was made for, what my creative purpose is on this planet. God told me what I am here for,” he told them. “In my soul, I am a gospel pastor-teacher.”
He answered the call, and spent two years sitting on the front pulpit and learning. He preached his first sermon in 1996 and began the ordination process that he finished in 1999.
His faith journey took him around the state, preaching from the pulpit in Atlanta churches and leading the flock in the tiniest of towns.
Come Sept. 2015, he was pastoring his fourth AME church in a small South Georgia town when it was time for a change. He had the vision to build a non-denominational church from the ground up. It was a way to get back to the roots.
“Ministry, for me, is about educating and empowering.”
On Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016, New Direction High Calling Ministries was launched, but it was no sprint champion out of the starting gates. The first services were to be held at Bennett’s Mill Middle School, but the janitorial staff showed up 90 minutes late to let them in. Just two weeks later they moved services to a hotel in Fulton County where they grew until April 2017. Next, the church took up residency in the Vance home from May 2017 until Nov. 2017, where they were able to worship in a traditional church building in Clayton County for the next year. By May of 2019, the flock returned to Fayetteville, where they hold services out of Flat Rock AME, though they have been fully virtual since April 2020 due to COVID-19 precautions.
Through it all, the message remains and the flock grows. They call themselves the home of the Love IPO. Whereas your typical IPO offers up shares of a desirable corporation, it’s more personal for New Directions HCM. The I is intentional, the P is purpose, and the O is out loud.
“We have a product, and the product is love,” said Vance. “We want to love intentionally, love on purpose, and love out loud.”
New Directions HCM believes the work they do is more important than simply a Sunday sermon. It goes to feeding, clothing, housing, nourish, empowering, and transforming the lives of all people. A congregation is only as strong as they are when they are outside of the pews.
“Once you get someone saved, then the purpose is to meet the needs of the people.”
Vance’s belief in serving the whole community has led him to work with many groups, including the Fayette County Branch of the NAACP, where he has served multiple terms at president.
“I believe God is giving us an opportunity to say to the world ‘Yeah, we’re broken, but you should watch us try to work through this and fix it.’”
He’s blunt in his belief of what has to be done. While the civil unrest of 2020 brought tragedy it also brought out the fire for change in many communities.
“Until we get systemic racism out of this country, we’re going to have a problem,” he said. “The original sin of this country is racism. You hated the people you found here, and you hurt them. You brought people here and hurt them.”
It starts in the church, both for good and bad.
“You can’t be Pro Life and not have anything to say about a man being suffocated to death for 8 minutes and 41 seconds,” said Vance. “In my Pro Life, you can’t suffocate a human being. For me, that is an outrage, and I have to stand up in the name of God and declare that’s wrong.
“You can’t remain silent and say you’re Pro Life. You say you’re in defense of police and you say ‘All Lives Matter,’ but if all lives matter, why didn’t George Floyd’s life matter?”
Healing the hate has to start with love.
“It’s not a place where we’re criticizing, it’s a place where we’re exploring how do we love. We must see social issues through the lens of the love of Christ.”
He is heartened by the passion he has seen in the youth of the community. Locally, several peaceful demonstrations were organized, including a march through Fayetteville that drew thousands
“The kids are burning with rage, and they dispelled their rage in the most constructive way,” he said. “The response was ‘Watch us because we’re not going to be those other places.’”
He believes 2020 will be seen as the opening of a platform for change.
“I think that we are now going to find out who are the people who are allies and who are the people who are just talking. Regardless of what they’re saying, they’re just talking,” he said. “I hope alliances can be made between like-minded people for the greater good of our community.”
We need to look past our differences to see how much we have in common. Inclusive conversations will make sure every voice is heard.
“We have to stop trying to look at each other with any kind of pre-judgement, but look with hope and an expectation you’ve found an ally,” he said. “We have to acknowledge there is no universal fix.”
Vance knows healing is possible because he was healed.
“God has made ways out of no ways,” he said. “God opens doors, and the way I know is that I walked through them and I never touched them.”
He yearns to share his story, warts and all, and he encourages an opening of hearts because you never know who your message might resonate with. It might be the time that person in need is finally ready to really hear what they need to hear.
“There’s someone in the midst of turmoil and your story is what they’re going to take away from the sermon,” he said. “Even when you can’t see God, even when you can’t feel Him, He is working on your behalf.”
To learn more about New Direction Higher Calling Ministries, go to newdirectionhcm.org.