Hero on the Streets… 

Pastor Jerry Parrish and his one-man mission to keep kids out of trouble 
- October 8, 2021 -

WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock
PICTURES: Whitney Patton 

It’s just after sunrise, and Pastor Jerry Parrish curves down a familiar road in east Bradenton, easing his black Impala into the driveway of a dilapidated house that seems to sigh into the Earth with walls harboring heartache. Thirteen siblings inhabit the home where a mom roams in and out of a jail cell and a dad – illiterate and a gang member – lurks somewhere in the cold, street shadows.  

Parrish honks his horn, and a sixth-grader emerges quietly toward the soft glow of morning headlights as if stepping out of evil temptation and into a beacon of hope. Backpack slung over his shoulder; the boy jumps into Parrish’s car, grateful the Police Athletic League’s Outreach Director answered his call for a ride to school. With a phone ringing incessantly from kids scattered across Manatee County, the 54-year-old pastor always answers, even if he just finished a 12 a.m. to 4 a.m. shift roaming the dark streets while trying to reach gang members and drug dealers by spreading the gospel.  

“This kid is seen as a throwaway kid, but he is not – he matters,” said Parrish, a Texas native with a warm accent and friendly smile. “I was a throwaway kid. I was one of them. I have a hundred families like this. We have an epidemic in our streets, but this kid has hope, and we are trying to break the cycle.” 

Parrish, once a kid with a fiery temper who cussed out police officers, threw punches in backyard scraps, flirted with drugs, and sifted through trashcans for food, now desperately tries to shift the navigation of wayward, underprivileged, and at-risk youth. He has held hands and prayed with gang members at funerals and shuttled countless children to and from school.  

He has walked door-to-door through the roughest neighborhoods in Manatee County, inspiring kids and teens to get out and mow lawns or paint over graffiti with him. He has fought for countless children stripped of any voice. Parrish, a former youth counselor and street minister for the Manatee YMCA, now works day and night with PAL to uplift the kids, many of whom think they have no fighting chance. 

“He’s a welcome asset in our PAL family and to our PAL team,” said Deputy Ralph Bryant, director of PAL programs. “He will go out of his way to help in any way that he can. He is well known throughout the community, with contacts on every street corner. Whatever his needs, he can get it done. And if he can’t, he knows someone who can. He has a big heart, and he pours it out to youngsters who are traveling down the wrong path so that they have a chance to correct their behavior and an opportunity for a good life.” 

Tucked in an Amarillo, Texas suburb, the First Baptist Church ultimately saved Parrish, who grew up with absent, divorced parents. Never missing a single Sunday, church members would pull up with their van in front of Parrish’s home and shuttle both him and his siblings to services where volunteers would also feed the hungry kids. While he says love for the Lord bloomed there, it wasn’t until a chance speeding ticket in his early twenties that finally shifted a bleak trajectory. 

“I was speeding in my Capri Classic and cussed out the cop,” said Parrish, shaking his head. “I was a real hothead and got arrested. The judge gave me 100 hours of community service washing police cars. I was there with a bunch of kids who stole bikes and realized I was good with managing these kids – reaching these kids. They needed a leader, and I knew I could lead them.” 

Soon Parrish found himself taking vacation days from his job at Xerox just to lead school assemblies about drug and alcohol abuse. Not long after, Parrish, along with his wife, whom he says is the greatest, strongest Christian he knows, took a leap of faith into the world of ministry.  They created innovative programs like caring for babies born in the Texas prison system where moms would sign rights away so the Parrish’s could shelter the babies in their home. 

“We would take the babies into the prison every week to see the parents just so the moms and dads could build relationships with the babies,” said Parrish, who now has three grown children of his own. “We did this for the kids.” 

Crisscrossing the country from Texas to California, Parrish spread his youth ministry to L.A., where he even debuted in episodes for Christian Television before the YMCA lured him to Manatee County. Here, in the neighborhoods riddled with bullet holes, fentanyl dealers, and gang rivalries, Parrish has thrown his heart out like a life raft to at-risk youth. Down-to-earth and often donning a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball cap, Parrish sometimes roams three nights a week through known gang territory, trying to stop the violence with the word of the Lord.  

His phone rings all hours of the night with kids who are scared or hungry or just need a ride to school. He strives to make sure they know God and not just during a crisis.  

“I identify with these kids because I was the kid I’m now trying to reach,” said Parrish, who can share countless stories of children in need. They roll off his tongue with deliberate speed. He can remember names and ages and what school they attend. He knows their brothers and sisters and if their parents are in or out of jail. He knows how to reach them. 

He reached Jorge Gomez in the first grade. Now 21, Gomez rings as a true success story, resisting the constant temptation of joining a gang with Parrish’s love and guidance. Constantly mixing in the fringes of gang violence, Gomez turned to Parrish for an escape route out of hardship over the course of his childhood. 

“He’s my hero,” said Gomez. “God sent me an angel in Pastor Jerry. I was always fighting and hanging out with the wrong group. He is the reason I am not in a gang.”  

Dedicated to Gomez, Parrish would inspire conversation with him while mowing lawns or playing sports.  

“He always helped me stay out of trouble, like a father figure to me,” Gomez said. “He got me into sports and made sure I was at school. He fed me. I was always so hungry, so he took me to eat.”  

While Parrish rattles off a rolodex of mantras, he insists the most, “If you feed them, you can lead them.” He can close his eyes and instantly remember his own gnawing hunger pains as a child who never had enough food on the table.  

“Many of these kids just want to eat,” said Parrish, who remembers pulling out honeybuns from dumpsters with his brother. He eats one a day to remind him where he has come from. “They are so hungry. When you feed them, you build trust and a relationship with them.” 

Parrish has not only created relationships with struggling youth but also with allies nestled in the Manatee County School District. Sea Breeze Elementary Principal Tami VanOverbeke praises him for supporting the kids and families in the schools she has worked. 

“Pastor Jerry has been absolutely amazing,” said VanOverbeke. “Some of the wonderful things I’ve experienced thus far are going on home visits with me in the evenings when I’m not able to reach the families during the school day. Securing volunteers to help in the after-school programs to lower the student-adult ratio, buying and dropping off food for the families who express a need, donating bikes to use as raffle prizes, and mentoring students throughout the school year.” 

VanOverbeke emphatically believes Parrish is completely invested in the community and wants what is truly best for the kids.  

“He wants them to be productive, hard-working, positive, contributing, and successful members of society, where they always feel connected and at-home in Bradenton,” VanOverbeke said.  

Busy extending branches and building bridges to kids, Parrish rarely sits behind his nameplate at PAL. With Hispanic roots anchoring him, Parrish connects to Latinos in the neighborhoods he serves. 

“One of the biggest ways Jerry is an asset to PAL is that he participates in the culture of Latinos, and he has the ability to connect them to PAL,” said Deputy Francine Houston, director of basketball at the league. “Many of these families are close and don’t let outsiders in because of mistrust. Jerry provides a connection to PAL so we can serve these kids.” 

When Jerry is not mentoring youth across the county, you may find him indulging in one of his wife’s famous dishes like lasagna or chicken parmesan. Married 35 years, the couple finds tremendous joy in their grandkids. 

“They make me feel alive,” said Parrish, who often tosses the football around with his grandson. “I can feel the endorphins. I didn’t think I would live past 20 or see these grandkids. God has the plan.” 

Parrish traces back God’s plan to the dedicated First Baptist Church in his hometown, where the mentors refused to give up on him. 

“They would stand me on a chair, look me in the eyes and say, ‘You are going to change this world, son,'” said Parrish. “And I believed them.” 

Just before Parrish pulls into the middle school to deliver the Sixthgrader, he swings into McDonald’s to order a breakfast burrito for the boy. Chatting about sports and school, the duo roll into the drop-off lane as Parrish’s phone buzzes. Text messages and calls constantly flood him – many from kids who view Parrish as their hero. 

“No, I see them as my heroes., said Parrish. “They do more for me than I ever do for them. They are like family.” 

Related Articles