Football season ended some weeks ago for high schools around the country. It was a moment of pause for Van Hardin.

“It was the first time in 32 years I haven’t been a part of a football team,” the former athletic trainer said. “You can imagine the mix of emotions, leaving one vocation to completely go to another. It was a hard decision, but at the end, I couldn’t say no.”

Hardin is speaking of his own loss of defense when approached by Fondren Church to take on the full-time role of Community and Missions pastor. He’s served in the position since late last summer.

The Moss Point native and Mississippi College graduate was the head trainer for Baptist Health Systems in Ridgeland, working with Ridgeland High School and the Mississippi School for the Deaf. Hardin also served churches bi-vocationally — The Journey, Northridge Church and Vertical Church, for the last ten years.

At one time, Hardin had planned to go to medical school. Later, he decided to become a junior high science teacher and coach. “I thought it would be the best opportunity to have an impact on young men’s lives,” he said. Hardin later got into athletic training to “keep me from having to end my sports careers.”

When Vertical Church moved to Clinton in late 2015, Hardin and his family – wife Emily and sons Asher, 6; Jeremiah, 4; and Amos, 1 ½ – felt called to Fondren, to stay in the neighborhood they’ve made a home since 2006.

The Hardins began visiting area churches and Fondren Church was a fit. Conversations began with church leaders for a pastoral position last March and, by July, Hardin had accepted. “[The church] made the most sense for us,” he explained. “[Fondren Church] was already a church that is doing a lot for the neighborhood, a church that cares about where they are, location wise. We felt it was the right place for us.”

The change in jobs also means Hardin’s daily commute has been cut from miles to blocks. “I get to stay in the neighborhood,” he noted. “I’m here with the people I enjoy and wanted to spend more time with, people like Chane.” Hardin said, “From day one, I wanted to help with Fondren’s First Thursday. Now, I can help with every event.” In a sense, it’s become a part of his job.

Hardin sees his call as one of uniter, a compass to help others focus their efforts to serve a hurting world.  “I love people, and I want the best for people, period. That is bottom line. I believe that the ‘best’ is a life of joy.”

“You’ll never find me on a corner quoting scriptures or holding up a sign,” Hardin said. “You’ll find me on the corner or in a coffee shop just listening to people, wanting to hear who they are because that’s the beginning of it all. There are so many facets to people living out their true identity, learning to love and serve each other. If we can find commonality in that, it’s a place to grow from. Let’s start with that at least.”

Hardin believes Fondren is a great common ground. “It’s not really a ‘religious’ place in the traditional sense, but I believe people are more accepting and open to a search for joy and authentic life than other places.” He added, “There’s an openness and willingness to value each other and care for people here, and that’s closer to the gospel than anything I have ever seen.”

Fondren Church has walked alongside local ministries like Neighborhood Christian Center, We Will Go Ministries and Red Door Jackson. The church has also partnered with Matamoros Children’s Home in Texas and Cambodian-based The Hard Places Community.

In 2017, Hardin said, Fondren Church hopes to partner further with Red Door, a mentoring and tutoring program, and through school partnerships, like a planned alignment with Walton Elementary, the elementary school for west Fondren. Hardin explained, “The needs are so huge, so we want to start with a neighborhood school to see what we can do.”

“Is it a playground redo?” he wondered. “Is it asking our members to read with kids each week? I know the direction we’re going but I don’t know what the specifics look like.” He added, “It’s still a big dreaming process.”

Hardin also sees the church campus’s multi-purpose building as a major player in community relations this year. “Maybe we offer more after school programs or an evening basketball session, maybe serving some meals or hosting a care center. We don’t want to come in and start up a ministry and say, ‘this is what we’re doing.’ We want to hear from the community and partner with people that most align with us and see how we can assist them.”