Pine Bluff church gifts build­ing to an­other con­gre­ga­tion

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - RELIGION - BY FRANCISCA JONES

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.

‘HIS­TORY-MAK­ING DAY’

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.”

ARKANSAS DEMO­CRAT-GAZETTE/FRANCESCA JONES

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.

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