On a Sunday evening in the hot summer of 1966, my dear parents and I joined Gulfport’s First Baptist Church. As we walked down the aisle, and the pastor, Dr. William Tanner, greeted us, I was fascinated by the greenish-amber stained-glass dome soaring over our heads. I was fourteen. That walk and that decision is one that I’ve never regretted.
The domed church, built in 1916, burned in the late 60s. It was replaced by a magnificent church that featured a soaring steeple, luminous-blue stained-glass windows, and stately Corinthian columns. That church was battered by Hurricane Camille and eventually destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. However, through wars, depression, nature’s wrath, and turmoil, the real FBC Gulfport survived unscathed. The real FBC, you ask? Its members-past, present, and future.
Today, September 19, 2021, to the day FBC celebrated its 125th Anniversary. Oh! What a glorious day it was! The church house was filled, and the choir loft rocked with hymns and praise songs rendered by the choir and orchestra of William Carey University. There were videos from former pastors who spoke of times past and challenged FBC to go forward into its future.
The church’s eldest member, 98-year-old Mrs. Charles “Pete” Stanford, was recognized. Her bright smile and loving countenance were a joy; she quoted her favorite scripture: James 1:22–“But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.” As Christians, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Be doers of the word…to love as Christ loved? To be joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, meek, and self-controlled?
As I’ve aged, I’ve never forgotten that night 55 years ago, when a loving pastor took the hand of a gangly teenage boy and greeted him with open arms. Over the years, as many of my friends joined other churches and other faiths, or gave up on God, Jesus and the Bible–thinking they were nothing more than a collection of myths and fairytales–I chose to remain faithful to them and FBC. Why? Because in times of great stress, the deaths of dear family and friends, periods when I stumbled down dark alleyways and slammed into scary dead ends, the loving members of FBC were there to hold me, love me, and say, “We’re here for you.”
Is First Baptist a perfect church? No! Why, you ask? Because it’s a gathering of people—imperfect, flawed people—who seek the perfection shown to us by Jesus’s death on the cross. Do I agree with all things Baptist? No. But growing up at dear ol’ FBC Gulfport, I’ve seen Jesus. I’ve seen him in the eyes of dear church members, those who’ve gone Home, and those who remain. I’ve seen him in the way church members have aided each other, ministered to the dying, cared for the living, and through it all gave God the glory.
Three of FBC’s brick-and-mortar churches are now nothing more than a collection of sepia-tone pictures and loving memories. There is no guarantee that the present church house will not succumb to some natural disaster. But it’s not the real church. FBC’s faithful members—past, present, and future—are! They have been and will continue to be the concrete foundation on which FBC rests. Because of their faithfulness in God and their love of Jesus, they will continue to be a light in the darkness of this old world.
And for that, I will be forever thankful!