As a preacher’s kid, Jonathan L. Burton grew up believing God had called him into ministry. But as captain of the Southeastern University Fire basketball team that won the National Christian College Athletic Association 2005 Division II national championship, opportunities abounded.
The Holy Spirit gave the 6-foot, 5-inch guard and forward a vision early on to be seen as more than a talented basketball player, which would limit him to the sports arena. Burton wanted to be known as a man of God, who also played basketball.
Burton, whose uncle is four-time retired NBA All-Star Otis Birdsong, believed hoops could provide him with financial stability before launching his own outreach. He played with a semi-pro team in Orlando, Florida, and entered the Master of Divinity program at Southeastern.
As he weighed an option to play in Australia in 2007, Burton sensed the Lord telling him to walk away from professional basketball and go into full-time ministry.
“It broke me; I wasn’t expecting that,” says Burton, 40. “But if God is telling you to do it, you do it.”
Soon after, Burton’s spiritual father, Assemblies of God pastor Roosevelt Hunter, invited him to join a work in Hammond, Louisiana, which connected him to New Orleans, 60 miles south. Long-plagued by urban blight, New Orleans at the time still reeled from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city in 2005. In 2020, US Census figures showed that 24.7 percent of residents lived in poverty.
Burton, now an AG U.S. missionary with Church Mobilization, launched Cross It Up Basketball as a bridge between church and the community. He started with a Wednesday night basketball outreach designed to encourage students to come back into the game of life and score. Talks included topics such as peer pressure and self-worth.
As a result of that outreach, Burton founded a ministry to help with needs in New Orleans. The organization, with his wife, Brandy, as administrator, aims to impact youth and adults through sports and community development programs, producing leaders and role models. Additionally, Burton partnered with a local religious organization to hold outreaches at a New Orleans high school, two universities, and a prison.
“New Orleans has a lot of people who are in need,” Burton says. “The ministry God has called me to is to help people discover their purpose and value and to win in every area of life.”
Cross It Up partners with local churches and organizations, reaching communities through sports and music at school assemblies and revivals. Its workshops also center on topics unaffiliated with athletics, such as marriage and leadership.
The community development arm of Cross It Up aims to empower New Orleans residents through education, mentorship, and business internship. Its Intro to Business program teaches financial management, marketing skills, and how to start a business.
A core Cross It Up educational program is NOLA Prep, which offers online classes and one-on-one tutoring, enabling nontraditional students ages 18 and older to work at their own pace to earn a high school diploma. In six years of operation, 280 people have graduated.
Lena Wilson, 40, who lived in New Orleans’ poverty-stricken 9th Ward, dropped out of school at age 13. Limited by her lack of a high school diploma, the single mother of two worked in nursing homes and did odd jobs to make ends meet. She graduated from NOLA Prep in 2019. With her diploma, she qualified to attend an online medical academy, which she completed in October. Now having earned a medical administrative assistant certificate, she’s prepared for a better-paying job.
“Thank you, Jesus and pastor Jon,” Wilson says. “I was able to achieve my goals.”
He also is concerned about how abortion impacts African Americans and is associate director of Louisiana Black Advocates for Life.