Pine Bluff church gifts building to another congregation
PINE BLUFF — In an act of embracing the Southern Baptist idea that God owns everything and it’s a person’s responsibility to use what one has for the glory of God, Forrest Park Baptist Church has passed on its building and the property on which it resides to the congregation of New Fellowship Baptist Church.
The deal between Forrest Park, a historically white church, and New Fellowship, a predominantly black congregation, was signed June 1 and was followed with a celebration service June 25. But for New Fellowship, the search for a permanent place to worship had lasted for years, according to Thirland McKissic, the church’s 74-year-old pastor.
New Fellowship was first housed in a storefront property at 811 W. Sixth St. before it began leasing space from Pine Bluff’s Immanuel Baptist Church in June 2009 at the invitation of Immanuel’s pastor, Don Taylor.
During the time at Immanuel, McKissic said, he incorporated prayers for a new church into worship services and raised money through tithing.
“I kept telling [the congregation], ‘Put your pennies in,’” McKissic said. “‘If God multiplied five fish and two loaves of bread, he can take these pennies and he can give us a building.’”
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Lynn King remembers a time when Forrest Park Baptist Church would see 200-300 congregation
members on a Sunday.
The church’s former music director said that most of the time there were between 50 and 100 congregation members attending Sunday services at the church, which was organized in October 1950 as Bethel Baptist Church before being renamed in 1964.
As Forrest Park’s only staff member — its last pastor, Shelby Andre, left the congregation at the end of last year to pursue another religious vocation — King headed a congregation of fewer than 20.
“Not only had we dwindled in numbers, we had aged considerably as well,” King said. “We only
had one family that came regularly that were under the age of 60. [We had] at least one active member that’s in his 90s.”
In January, the congregation began meeting to decide whether to look for another pastor or to close.
In February, Forrest Park invited Mike Manning to a meeting. Manning is director of missions for the Harmony Baptist Association, a group of 42 Baptist-affiliated area churches.
It was Manning who made the suggestion that Forrest Park give the church to another congregation and facilitated the initial meeting between staff members of both churches.
McKissic was among the group from New Fellowship who came to sing at Forrest Park’s Good Friday service in April, and an impromptu fellowship took place afterward.
“It’s been real good,” King said of the relations between members of the congregations. “We can’t think of a single time with their church members that I haven’t walked into a smile.”
After a series of meetings, the leadership of both churches discussed terms and arrangements and in March an agreement was made. Forrest Park would not give the church and property to New Fellowship. Instead, McKissic said, it would pass on the baton “to carry on the kingdom’s purpose of God.”
Forrest Park and New Fellowship signed off on the transfer June 1 in a transaction that King described as “a very transparent process to everybody involved.”
Jackie Harris, New Fellowship’s executive pastor and the attorney who handled the paperwork for the churches, called the transfer “a bold move.”
“Most churches will go down to the very last [member]. They won’t just decide to dissolve,” Harris said. “They will deplete all their resources [to stay open] … but that just wasn’t the case here.”
New Fellowship began moving into the building June 2, completing its move out of Immanuel Baptist Church in time to hold its first
service at the new location June 18.
Forrest Park had its last service May 28. It was a “very emotional” service, according to King, one that involved congregation members and a few former members who had heard about the church dissolving.
“It allowed us to have whatever emotions that were there show,” King said, “whether they were joy [or] sadness.
“It was not the easiest thing in the world to do, but at the same time it allowed us to maintain something that we felt [was] important — mainly that the property would continue to serve as a church, and if we put the property up for sale, there was no way of knowing if that would happen.”
King said that after meeting, the members of Forrest Park decided to disperse and find other churches to attend, rather than join another church as a group.
Easter O’Neal, a New Fellowship member for almost as long as the church has existed, was the first parishioner
to arrive and settle into a pew at the June 25 service.
“I’m so proud of my pastor and this church,” O’Neal said.
Congregation members were very unified, she said, praying for and helping one another as “one big, happy family.”
Occupying a pew at the front of the church was Machelle Kearney.
“I’ve been diagnosed with five kinds of cancer,” Kearney said. “[The doctors] said I had six months; it’s been eight months.”
Pointing toward New Fellowship’s staff and elders at the front of the church during the service, Kearney said, “They made sure I didn’t give up.”
Around 100 people attended the celebration service, which doubled as New Fellowship’s ninth anniversary service, although the church’s official anniversary date is May 4.
At the service, King gripped a baton on the bright green end — representing Forrest Park — and extended its purple half — New Fellowship’s signature color — to McKissic.
“May we be the witnesses, first to our families, then our friends, and the people we see,” King said. “I want to pass this from our church
to your church.”
Applause and cheers escalated as McKissic’s acceptance of the baton from King became an embrace between the two men.
McKissic then spoke of how moved he was by Forrest Park’s passing on its church and the terms that made receiving the church a gesture of stewardship.
“They made it very clear: ‘We’re not giving you this church, we’re passing it on for the purpose of the Kingdom of God,’” he said. “‘Maybe you’ll come back another time and [we’ll]
have a cornerstone then — and Forrest Park will be on that cornerstone.’”
“This is indeed a history-making day,” said Dwight McKissicm pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, and a brother of Thirland McKissic. “I wouldn’t miss this day for anything in the world.”
Dwight McKissic said he remembered traveling past Forrest Park often during his childhood while riding in the car from one side of Pine Bluff to the other with their father, the late James McKissic, who was pastor of
Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.
“I’m here today because there’s a generation that’s in their graves now that would never have believed that this would’ve happened,” said Dwight McKissic, referring to the passing of a white church to a mostly black congregation.
Manning, who gave the benediction at the service, called the occasion “a monumental day for God’s people.”
“It’s an important day not only for these two churches, but for the city of Pine
Bluff,” he said.
Harris said New Fellowship’s members were excited at the prospect of being able to house more events, such as groups within the ministry and Vacation Bible School, both of which are important for the congregation’s younger families.
“They’re life busting at the seams,” he said of the congregation’s children, “and they’re excited about [the relocation] too.”
Identity had been an issue for the congregation when New Fellowship and Immanuel Church both occupied church buildings at 1801 W. 17th Ave., Harris said.
Visitors were sometimes unsure of which congregation was which, and having a building of its own would help define the church on its own terms, he said.
That began with New Fellowship replacing Forrest Park’s green marquee sign at 3706 S. Cherry St.
“The sign was one of the first things that we said, ‘We’ve got to do this,’ because of the confusion [that arises] when you have two different congregations in the same facility,” Harris said. “I think now that we have our own building to worship in, we can stand or fall on who we are.”
With closed eyes, wide smile and a raised fist, Thirland McKissic, pastor of New Fellowship Baptist Church in Pine Bluff, takes in a music segment of the church’s service celebrating its new home. The nearly 70-year-old church building and property had belonged to Forrest Park Baptist Church since 1950, but that congregation of fewer than 20 members voted in March to pass the church to New Fellowship.
A phrase from Luke 22:19 is inscribed on a table in front of the church’s pulpit. The members of Forest Park Baptist Church voted to give their building to New Fellowship and pass the baton “to carry on the kingdom’s purpose of God.” Forest Park members were happy the building will continue to be used as a church.