OKEECHOBEE — October — Pastor Appreciation Month — is the perfect time to feature Pastor Johnny Jarriel, who has devoted 44 years of his life to the community of Okeechobee and to Victory Baptist Church. Born and raised in Loxahatchee, the youngest of seven, Jarriel left his little home town to trek off to college in 1966 and headed to Chattanooga to attend Tennessee Temple University.
Jarriel met his wife Sharon “Sherry” at Temple, and they were married in 1970.
From 1970 through 1974, he served in the United States Air Force and was based out of Las Vegas. “If you don’t gamble, it’s the best place to live,” he said. “You don’t have to mow your grass. You’re just a few minutes from the mountains where there is snow. It’s 100 degrees in the valley, but 100 degrees there is about like 85 here, no humidity. And then, they are trying to attract people so they have everything. The town was perfectly clean, and they did not allow any foolishness. It was safe to walk anywhere. You just had to stay away from the gambling.” Of course that was back then, he does not know what it is like now, he said.
After his discharge, he worked for a year, before deciding to go back to school to complete his degree in 1975 and graduating in 1977.
When he went to school, his goal was to work with young people, and he thought maybe he could be an associate somewhere. “I never dreamed of being a preacher! When I got out of the service, I didn’t have a clue what God wanted me to do.” That was why he worked for a year selling cars and insurance before going back to school. While he and his wife were at Temple for those last two years, they spent a lot of time asking God what he wanted them to do and where he wanted them to go. Finally they knew, “We finally understood He wanted me to be a pastor, and He narrowed it down to Okeechobee.”
When they arrived in Okeechobee, they had no idea where to begin but knew this was where God wanted them. “We didn’t know anybody here,” said Mrs. Jarriel. They started by calling the chamber of commerce for help looking for a home and then called their home church in Loxahatchee. Their pastor suggested they go to Missionary Baptist Church and meet Pastor Selvey. “So, on a Wednesday night, our building now is the first building we walked into,” said Jarriel. They ended up attending services at New Testament Baptist Church for about three months until they were ready to open the doors on their own church.
Victory Baptist Church began inside the women’s club where New York Life Insurance is now, near Aldi Super Market in October 1977. They paid $7 per service to rent the building. Each week, Jarriel loaded an upright piano into his pickup and drove it to the church, unloaded and then reloaded to bring it home again Sunday night. “I was young and had plenty of help back then,” he said. “That’s probably why my back’s messed up today.” They did this for about a year but then the club was sold, so they moved into the skating rink lobby. Again, hauling the piano in for each service. When KOA was built, the new owners offered to allow them to use their facility, and the church moved over there, hauling the piano in there. “We even had a revival in there one time. Soon, they moved to the old funeral home and rented it for seven years at $600 per month.
“That’s when we started the school in 1980,” said Mrs. Jarriel. They had the school for 25 years. At times, serving as many as 85 students.
Over the years, Jarriel did many different things to help support his family and his ministry, very seldom taking a salary from the church. Most often, he found himself trucking, both long distance and local. Mrs. Jarriel helped out by baby sitting in the early days and teaching later on.
In 1985, they purchased the building on Ninth Street where they are still located today. The Jarriels raised their four children Jon, Cathy, David and Joy in the church and now have 13 grandchildren.
Many people have come and gone over the years, enjoying fish fries, revivals, gospel sings and just good old fashioned preaching and teaching. Many missionaries have been helped on their journeys by Victory Baptist Church and many young paople have been led into the mission field by the teaching at Victory over the last 44 years. Even during the shut down, Victory found a way to preach to its members, placing 8x10 photographs on each pew and then putting sermons online.
Jarriel had a stroke about three years ago and has fought to get his strength back. He is back in the pulpit but said he thinks it is probably time for him to retire. He is waiting for God to send someone to take his place so he will know it is OK to step down. Until then, he plans to keep doing what he has always done, follow God’s will.