By Alexe van Beuren
Raymond Aven is already famous. When he started Compassion Food Ministries as the then-pastor of Springdale Church of God, the community – and not just the needy people – got to know him real fast.
After all, nine Yalobusha County churches and two businesses participate in Compassion Ministries; their combined efforts have helped feed up to six hundred locals per month. The ministry has been so successful that the Church of God chose Water Valley’s Compassion Ministries as one of two most successful food pantries in the United States.
After being profiled in the North Mississippi Herald and the Oxford Eagle, you probably know about the good work that the ministry does.
But what you might not know about Raymond Aven is that he preached his first sermon when he was fifteen.
“I always knew I wanted to be a preacher,” he tells me from behind his desk in Mechanics’ Bank. “I can’t ever remember not knowing.”
Aven tells me that his first sermon was on Lazarus from the book of Matthew, though if he had to pick a favorite book of the Bible, it’d be Proverbs. He points to the picture of Billy Graham taped to his computer and tells me that the famous evangelist reads a portion of Proverbs every day.
“Proverbs teaches you how to live, how to conduct yourself,” Aven says.
When Aven graduated from high school, he did not waste any time before pursuing his vocation; he launched straight into what he calls “full-time evangelism.”
“The Church of God probably has around 160 churches in Mississippi,” he tells me. “I must have preached at 120.”
After two years of preaching all over the state, Aven accepted a job as a youth pastor in Gulfport, where he met and courted one of his youth group attendees, Regina.
After Aven and Regina married, they moved north, where Aven became the minster at the Church of God in Amory. He was just twenty-one years old.
“They introduced me the first Sunday as the kid,” he recalls, smiling.
After two years of building ministries and increasing attendance, Aven left the Amory church to return to evangelizing. Aven and his growing family (he has one daughter and two sons) moved all over Mississippi, first to Morton, then spending three years in Gulfport and four years in Morgantown as a senior pastor.
When his mother became ill in 1998, Aven decided to return to north Mississippi and accepted the position of senior pastor at Water Valley’s Springdale Family Worship Center.
“The first thing I did,” Aven says, “was to start a radio broadcast show, and that helped. It got me known in the community.”
After seven years of living in Water Valley, Aven has become known enough that he’s served as the president of the Lions’ Club, received the Braswell Hatcher Award, and, in ministerial fashion, been called to preside over local funerals. Though he finds such service rewarding, Aven admits to sometime– almost– being at a loss for words.
“When you’ve got a ninety-year-old who has lived a good life and dies in their faith, it’s easy to promote them to the other side.” He pauses. “Babies, young children– that’s hard.”
In 2005, the Avens moved to Batesville, where Aven now preaches at the New Hope Church of God. Despite his new mailing address, Aven still feels a part of Water Valley; for one, he’s here Monday through Friday, at his full-time job as the Training and Security Officer at Mechanics Bank.
“I’ve really grown to love the people here,” Aven says. “They’re some of the greatest people you’ll ever meet.”
When I ask Aven if he misses preaching full-time, he shakes his head. “I like being bi-vocational,” he says, and smiles. “It gives you the sense that you’re with the regular people during the week– it’s the best of both worlds.”
Despite enjoying his job at the bank, Aven has no plans to retire from the pulpit. “I’ve been preaching for nearly thirty years,” he says. With Billy Graham as an example, Raymond Aven has decades to go.