On any given Sunday morning, a pastor leads his congregation in prayer and weaves an inspirational message.
On any given Sunday morning — during the waterfowl season, anyway — Jonathan Wilkins leads a group into the field and gives new life to the purpose behind hunting and to those on the journey with him.
Wilkins’ lodge, Black Duck Revival, is located in Brinkley and was formerly known as Heartline Christian Fellowship church.
The lodge came about when Wilkins needed a place to stay during his hunts.
“I was just looking for a duck camp for me and my buddies,” Wilkins said. “And then it just needed a complete gut. When I bought it, I thought it was in better shape than it was, which was basically just a rotting shell, so I had to rebuild the whole place.”
Wilkins, originally from St. Louis, began hunting with a friend in college while studying at Hendrix College in Conway.
“It was the first time I had lived someplace where there was more wildlife around and deer in the driveway. I had a buddy I was working with introduce me to bow hunting, and then I just went down the rabbit hole,” Wilkins said. “I think that same year, someone took me duck hunting. It’s kind of been on like gangbusters ever since.”
Listing his newly renovated building on Airbnb and renting it out to seasonal duck hunters, Wilkins tried to generate funds. Then he decided to host an event called The Revival.
“I just brought in interesting people. Folks I’d found that I thought were cool and outside the norm for duck hunting,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins also sees himself as outside the duck hunting norm.
“It’s kind of this male, corporate duck hunting culture. I exist very much outside that realm for many different reasons,” Wilkins said. “A lot of people want to lean into the novelty of the fact that I’m not white, which I’m very much aware of, but it’s not the focus of what I’m doing.”
Wilkins and The Revival group took a few days to hunt, cook their birds and enjoy fellowship with like-minded people. The event garnered attention quickly and paved the way for Wilkins’ new career path.
Through Black Duck Revival, Wilkins offers guided duck and specklebelly goose hunts and bayou catfishing tours. It isn’t just the renovated church that makes Wilkins and Black Duck unique, it’s also the attitude he takes toward the process of hunting.
“We talk a lot about the ethics of hunting and the ethos of hunting and not being consumed with this idea of limits,” said Wilkins, a former chef at White Water Tavern in Little Rock. “We go hunt, we come back, we have meaningful, curated meals. We talk a lot about the African culinary diaspora — like, Southern food is this amalgamation of West African and European cooking traditions.”
His hunting-with-a-purpose attitude and his linkage between modern food and its history were interesting aspects of the trip for fellow hunter Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro. The California-based company fosters Black leadership and connections through outdoor adventures.
“I find Jonathan to be so refreshingly multifaceted as a Black man for his ability to understand and concisely convey how hunting is transformational for people and communities through personal practice,” Mapp said. “I also value how he uplifts the strong historical linkages between the Black American South through the food he prepares with a sense of pride that has deeply inspired me and so many others.”
When guiding hunts, Wilkins works toward creating an atmosphere of intentionality and respect while also teaching hunters how to process and cook each section of the wild game brought back to the lodge.
James Brandenburg, a friend and chair of an Arkansas chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA), met Wilkins in 2019 through BHA meetings, and the two have been on several hunts together. To Brandenburg, intentional is one of the best words to describe Wilkins.
“Some of [the] hunting media revolves around the glory of ‘Oh, look at all these birds we killed,’ and that’s not anything that interests Jonathan. It’s more about the bounty of what you have and the resources that you’ve harvested,” Brandenburg said.
Though Wilkins may instruct his groups through each moment of the hunting process, his guided tours are not strictly for beginners. In fact, he loves when veteran hunters join in.
“A lot of people interpret what I’m doing as just being for new hunters, and it’s not. I like dealing with people that have been hunting longer than I have that have just never done anything but breast out ducks and soak them in Wishbone Italian dressing and showing them there’s more to the activity,” Wilkins said.
Brandenburg was a seasoned hunter before his first duck hunting excursion with Wilkins, yet his experience on their trip was one he recommends to all hunters.
“Experienced people have an opportunity to learn new ways of doing things or new perspectives on things,” Brandenburg said. “That’s the part I think is probably pretty unique in the way Jonathan does stuff. You’re going to go home with some knowledge you didn’t have before as long as you’re willing and open to learning it. If you’re an experienced hunter and you want to try something different or learn something new, Jonathan’s outfit is a great place to do that.”