Nichols plays and prays to minister to The Bottom
Jacob Allen Nichols, 20, has the war stories of a combat veteran, but the action he sees is just north of the LSU campus.
Two years ago, channeling the spirit of a grandfather he never knew, Nichols began a ministry to the poor and to the children of south Baton Rouge, the neighborhoods some Baton Rougeans began in recent years calling Old South Baton Rouge.
“The black people who live north of LSU don’t call it that,” Nichols said. “They call it ‘The Bottom’ or just South Baton Rouge.”
The Baranco-Clark YMCA parking lot on Thomas H. Delpit is Nichols’ office. He once used the bathroom at Baranco-Clark as a field hospital after he was struck on his bicycle by a hit-and-run driver. “I had a first-aid kit on my bicycle,” he said.
“This old lady, Miss Pearl, made it her business to find the guy who hit me,” Nichols said. “She had the description of his truck. When she found him, she walked up to him with her cane, took him by the arm and said, ‘Are you the one who hit my Jacob?’ Which was kinda funny because I’d never laid eyes on the lady.”
Miss Pearl, the people who live around Baranco-Clark, even the guy who broke into Nichols’ pickup and stole his backpack, wallet and laptop, know the quiet, determined young man for his work with children (Live to Play), his street ministry (Live to Pray) and his work repairing houses and mowing yards (Live to Build).
“Don’t say I do all this by myself,” Nichols said. “I have my friends, students from LSU and the people at University Baptist Church,” which is where Nichols and his parents, Mark Allen Nichols and Nancy Blackwell Nichols, have gone to church since Nichols was a baby.
One day, Nichols got back to the Baranco-Clark parking lot to find his truck broken into and his backpack, with wallet and laptop inside, gone.
“I was calling the police when I got a call from the guy who broke into my truck,” Nichols said.
“He said, ‘Is this the Live to Serve guy?’ He’d found some of our flyers in the backpack. I said, ‘Yeah.’” He said, ‘Stay right there, I’m bringing back your stuff.’”
Nichols and the thief met face to face in the parking lot.
“He said, ‘I knew I’d go to hell for stealing the Live to Serve guy’s laptop.’”
Live to Serve is another branch of Nichols’ street ministry. The children who come out to play with Nichols and his friends call the ministry Live to Play.
Nichols used to stop at a Circle K just north of LSU after his last afternoon class. A 7-year-old boy named Tyler met his truck as Nichols pulled up to the convenience store. A friendship happened over strawberry Icee drinks and Snickers bars.
“One day, he told me, ‘I want to play for the Astros,’ ” said Nichols, an Astros fan.
“I got him a ball and a bat,” Nichols said. “I went to his house to ask his dad if I could sign Tyler up with the Istrouma Sports Organization. His dad refused. I understood. This white kid you don’t know shows up asking to let your son play baseball. I understood.”
“I heard they moved to Houston,” Nichols said. “If they did, I hope Tyler’s caught a few Astros games.”
Born in Baton Rouge, Nichols graduated from Denham Springs High School.
“I spent the majority of my time in Baton Rouge because that’s where my church is. I’ve gone to University Baptist Church my whole entire life,” he said.
Nichols’ first encounter with homeless people made him uncomfortable.
“I think it was talking to them,” he said. “My mind-set was, ‘If you’re homeless, it’s because you don’t work. I was 18. I think I was just ignorant.”
His parents reared him to love Louisiana, Nichols said.
“The Louisiana flag hangs over my bed,” he said.
His parents and his church shaped him as a Christian, but a grandfather who died when Nichols was an infant may have provided the DNA that helps Nichols find the people who need him.
The family of Claude “Sonny” Blackwell, Nichols’ maternal grandfather, was surprised by the number of black people at Sonny’s funeral.
Sonny’s black friends told his family about his helping people with their gardens, bringing them food in Cool Whip tubs from his wife’s kitchen, reading to an invalid, even helping the man get out of bed in the morning and back into bed at night.
“My mother and dad were raised in the country,” Nancy Nichols said. “They took food to people. You can’t make a small pot of mustard greens.”
When her parents moved back to Folsom, Sonny Blackwell continued the walks he’d become accustomed to taking in the city. It was on these walks that Blackwell met and cared for people who needed his help.
“We had no idea until these two black families came to his funeral,” daughter Nancy Nichols said.
Nancy Nichols said she and her husband worry about their son’s calling to neighborhoods where good people far outnumber bad, but where innocent people are shot to death sitting on their porches.
“Jacob’s always walked to his own drummer,” his mother said. “He has his own values. If the group is doing something he doesn’t like, he walks away.
“We’ve talked to him about his health and our concerns for his safety. Sometimes, you just pray. God protects fools and angels,” she said.
This summer, Jacob Nichols’ absence in the neighborhoods north of LSU was noted by the children, people at the Y and the pastors whose churches have helped Nichols with his work.
The hit and run, Nichols thought, had left no permanent injuries, but he was wrong.
“The doctors think I picked up a virus somewhere after I was hit,” he said.
He might have picked up the virus during treatment for his injuries. A week after the hit and run, Nichols started having chest pains and began throwing up blood.
“I’ve been struggling,” he said. “The doctors want me to take it easy, but it’s hard staying on the sidelines. It’s hard to feel close to God when you’re sick. I feel close to Him when I serve.”
“He’s a wonderful young man. I haven’t seen him in weeks,” said Clayton Hayes, director of Connections ministry.
“Connections helps people from different churches work together in the more challenging parts of town like Gardere,” Hayes said.
Gardere Lane, between Highland Road and Nicholson Drive, south of Lee Drive, is a collection of poor, largely black neighborhoods known to residents and the police for random violence.
“I crossed paths with Jacob in neighborhoods between LSU and downtown,” Hayes said.
Nichols has witnessed gun play on the streets. “It’s like ‘pop, pop, pop,’” Nichols said. “It’s sad. Gunfire goes unreported it’s so common.”
“He got hit on his bicycle on Braddock, right behind us,” said Ann Johnson, the business manager at Baranco-Clark YMCA.
“He was holding the bicycle in his hand. He said, ‘No,’ when I told him to call the police,” Johnson said. “So, I called the police.”
Johnson met Nichols about a year ago when the then LSU student walked into the YMCA branch to say he was looking for a base for a program for latchkey kids and kids in poverty.
“We talked to him,” Johnson said, “and agreed to have it here Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m. He and a group of volunteers from his church play with the kids, talk to them, help them however they can.”
Nichols helped organize a “swim day” at the Y and a Christmas party, Johnson said.
“We had 50 kids for ‘Water Day,’” Johnson said. “And pastors from the neighborhood. I said, ‘Where’d all these volunteers come from?’”
Fifty children got Christmas presents because of Nichols, University Baptist Church, state Rep. Pat Smith and Metro Council member Tara Wicker.
“It was stressful for him,” Johnson said. “He wanted every kid to have at least one gift.”
“It was like the loaves and fishes,” Nichols said.
“Families at University Baptist Church each adopted a child,” Johnson said.
Johnson worries about Nichols’ safety, too, but she doubts her concerns will keep him away.
“The violence, the shootings, that’s never steered him away,” she said. “He always comes. If he wants to do something in here with his group, he’s coming.”
M.L. Woodruff, director of the Istrouma Sports Organization, met Nichols through church co-ed softball.
“Jacob does an outreach in the Alaska Street Park,” Woodruff said. “We’ve met with the Y directors. Jacob and his friends go out Saturday mornings. They go door to door collecting kids to play sports.”
Woodruff doubts that illness or the threat of violence will keep Nichols from “doing what God’s called him to do.”
“You wonder,” Woodruff said, “is this guy nuts? But if we’re following Christ, there should be something a little nuts about us. Jacob’s not a martyr. He’s a leader. He’s an intriguing guy. He inspires me,” said Woodruff, 55.
Nichols has changed his mind about going to law school. When he gets back into school, he’ll major in history education, then go to Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco.
“Life is too precious to waste it on me,” he said.