Posts Tagged ‘ Baptist ’

Back Up The Bridge, Part II: The Bridge at Clover High School – Visited on 9/25/12

 

There is one eminently visible sign in Clover, SC that The Bridge, the Baptist church that meets each week at the town’s high school, is moving up in the world.  At a modest strip mall on Bethel Street in the eastern stretches of Clover proper, in a rental space usually occupied by hair salons and movie rental stores, stands The Bridge’s office.  A blue sign with white lettering announces the office’s presence to passing motorists, while writing painted onto its windows lays out the location and times of the church’s meetings.

Inside, the church office is a wide and empty space.  Chairs, couches and a coffee table stand in one corner, but otherwise the main room of the office is bare carpeting, pale walls and a flatscreen television hung high on the wall opposite the furniture.  A far smaller room opens onto the first, within which Pastor Kevin Witt keeps a desk and sees to the administration of his flock.  Mr. Witt sat his interview with Churchspotting in the main room of The Bridge’s office.  He had not changed noticeably from the young, heavyset man visited in our first coverage of The Bridge in August of 2011.

Kevin Allen Witt was born in January of 1975 in Birmingham, AL.  He spent his youth in and around Birmingham, where his middle class family lived and worked: his mother as an accountant, his father in finance management.  Growing up, Mr. Witt was active in his church youth group and school football teams.  His grades were sufficient, but he now feels he did not fully apply himself in those years.  As a teenager he hoped to study computer science or chemistry.

Mr. Witt attended college at the University of Alabama, where he began studying computer science.  he soon switched educational paths and began studying accounting, with the goal of entering federal law enforcement.  He earned his degree in accounting and continued to study at the University of Alabama School of Law, where he earned his Juris Doctorate.  He went on to spend the next three years as a practicing lawyer in Alabama.

During the second year of his law practice Witt felt called to do something different with his life.  He believed his relationship with God had declined during his studies, and sought to repair that connection.  He came to believe that God wished him to take up ministry and he started looking at seminaries with his then-girlfriend, now his wife.

Rather than act on impulse, he spent the next year researching and preparing for seminary school. After the third year of his practice he enrolled in the next semester of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at Fort Worth, TX. During seminary he joined a group called Team Church, a church composed primarily of seminary students with the goal of planting new churches.  In the 3-4 years of his involvement with Team Church the group founded twelve new congregations.

In his final semester at seminary Mr. Witt met a missionary from Clover, SC–specifically, from the First Baptist Church of that town.  Witt gained a job through that chance meeting as a minister of education at Clover’s First Baptist Church.  His role at First Baptist was Witt’s first full-time ministry position.

Mr. Witt remains fond of that institution, but he was not there long before he grew convinced that the church was unable to reach large numbers of Clover residents, especially new arrivals to the area.  His plans to ameliorate this weakness culminated in the The Bridge’s founding, first as a satellite service of First Baptist, later as a church in its own right.  The Bridge is currently composed of about 110 members, up from between 80 and 90 last year.  It is a member church of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Though Mr. Witt has never personally experienced visions or the supernaturally miraculous, he has encountered people who believe they were miraculously healed.  He holds that we currently live in the End Times described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelation, with the caveat that these times began with the coming of Christ some two thousand years ago.  He said that “every generation has thought they were the last and was wrong,” and believes that one should prepare for the end of days while accepting that one cannot know precisely when that end will come.

When asked about the proper relationship between Church and State, Mr. Witt said that he believes most Americans do not understand the US Constitution’s historical context.  He described how in the 18th Century the sovereigns of Europe determined the religion of their subjects.  He ascribed the Establishment Clause of the Bill of Rights to a fear, at the time of the nation’s founding, that the federal government might attempt to impose a national religion on the states.  He believes that the US should not attempt to impose any one religion or denomination on its citizens.

Mercy Baptist Church, Part II – Visited on 8/14/12

David Robinson met with Churchspotting in his office at Mercy Baptist Church, where he serves as pastor.  On the previous Sunday he was one of the few men present at Mercy Baptist’s morning service in a suit; on that Tuesday he arrived in a Tommy Bahama shirt and shorts.  The church’s cooling systems were defeated by a mid-August heat wave earlier that day; the interview was spent speaking over the hum of an electric fan in the corner.

David Robinson was born in Monroe, NC, in 1962.  He never knew his birth father, who left his mother before he was born.  Mrs. Robinson remarried when David was a year old, and his stepfather remained with the family till his death in 1982.

The Robinsons were a working class North Carolina family.  David’s stepfather made his living at a brick company while his mother worked at a cotton mill.  Mrs. Robinson developed brown lung disease at her work and must manage with a respirator, but she remains with her family.

Though there was no shortage of love in his family, David Robinson did not develop close ties to his stepfather as a child.  Around age fourteen he “started rebelling,” to use his words.  He began running away and skipping school on a regular basis; by fifteen he left home permanently.  He said he ran with a dangerous crowd, and by age 21 he’d spent some time in prison.

Mr. Robinson left North Carolina at 21 to work for an uncle in Texas.  As a condition of his parole, he swore not to return to NC for some time.  Out in Texas David built log homes and helped in other wood and construction projects.  He also met the woman he eventually married.

In the early 80s, after their first child, David’s young family moved back to North Carolina where he found work in the steel mills.  That career was cut short when Mr. Robinson fell three stories on the job, landed on his side, and suffered severe injuries that precluded him from the work mills required.

According to him, an uncle who also worked at the mills reported a miraculous event on that occasion.  This man said that as David fell, a “cloud-type hand” seemed to coalesce around him and turn him, so that he fell on his side rather than his head, and so survived the accident.  Churchspotting is unable to interview him on this matter, as the uncle in question passed away some time ago.  After his fall Mr. Robinson took to carpentry, the craft he still professes, particularly in service to building houses.

He and his wife separated not long after, due to David involving himself in certain wild practices again.  Among the conditions their separation was that he could only see their children at his wife’s church, Maple Grove Baptist.  As such, he began attending regularly.  On August 12, 1983 visiting preacher gave a sermon on the Biblical figure King David, and Mr. Robinson said he felt “as though a spear were jabbing him” each time his namesake was mentioned.  David repented of his sins before the altar on that day, and became increasingly involved in the church.

A year later he was a regular Sunday school teacher, but felt he should do something more with his life.  He prayed on the issue with his wife, but came to a decision one day while they sang with his friend Terry, the pastor’s son, and Terry’s wife.  He “felt called to preach,” and set out to pursue ministry.

At first David tried traditional seminary study, but with four children he found he had too much work to do to meet the school’s requirements.  Instead, he began to confer with local ministers who taught him and helped him study the Bible.  Between seven and eight years ago he was invited to minister his first church.

It lay in Kentucky, an old and established Baptist church.  Mr. Robinson described his time there as “a battle.”  The founders of the church were still living, and as the deacons of the congregation they held considerable sway.  David’s aggressive style of preaching, far different from what the church elders were used to, rubbed some people the wrong way.

As a first-time minister he did not yet have the experience to smooth those ruffled feathers.  Bad feeling mounted on both sides.  A wealthy member of the church left and pressure grew for David to leave so that he–and his expensive donations–would return.  The congregation put David’s presence to a vote, and he was sent home.  His frustration with the experience remained with him for years to come.

When David’s family returned to North Carolina they settled in Pineville.  After trying several new churches, and even retreating from church life for a while, The Robinson family was invited to a Christmas play at Trinity Baptist in Fort Mill, where they stayed till David was invited to serve as minister at Mercy Baptist.  Mr. Robinson has since ministered to Mercy Baptist for three years, and plans to spend the remainder of his life there.

His tenure at Mercy Baptist has not been without its hiccups.  Around the two year anniversary of his arrival, the church’s founders took about half the congregation with them to found a new church.  Since then, however, the congregation has grown and David has set his sights on establishing a new, permanent building for the church, rather than the old Ace Hardware building it currently rents.  The church has around forty members.

Mr. Robinson does not know whether the End Times described in the New Testament’s
Book of Revelation are here, but he feels that ‘things are adding up.’  He finds the conflicts affecting Israel especially important, as well as what he regards as an erosion of the moral fabric of the United States.  He sights the removal of Biblical study from public schools, the rise of the Gay Rights movement as signs of America’s moral shift.  He believes homosexuality is an “abomination before God,” and that any nation that sets itself against Israel will be judged by Heaven.  Despite this, the Apocalypse does not often enter his sermons and he does not regard himself as a ‘prophecy preacher.’
Finally, on the proper relationship between Church and State, Mr. Robinson holds that they need to be separated.  He said that the Bible instructs him to obey the law of the land, with the caveat that where the law and the Bible part ways he will hold to the latter.

Mercy Baptist Church – Visited on 8/12/12

More and more people in the York County area worship in non-traditional spaces.  Churchspotting has covered groups who gather in rented spaces at local schools, who meet in the churches of other congregations during their owners’ off hours, and who take over and refurbish former business and industrial sites as their places of worship.  Between the collapse of America’s real estate market and an economic malaise with no end in sight, there are certainly plenty of perfectly good buildings standing empty and renting cheaply.  It’s only natural that religious communities, particularly young groups with limited funds, take advantage of these vacuities in the market while they’re available.

Mercy Baptist Church is one such group.  The building it occupies was once an ACE Hardware store, and that lineage still shows in the structure’s red awnings, in the padlocked black iron grate that can swing shut over its main entrance, and in the bones of its interior.

Inside, Mercy Baptist’s ceiling vaults high overhead.  The bare metal of its ventilation system hangs exposed on high, and light pours down from bare tracks of fluorescent lighting.  Beneath that distinctly industrial ceiling, the church’s floor is divided and subdivided by beige walls, between eight and nine feet high–far lower than the ceiling itself.  The walls are set with whitewashed doors, and small red signs above them note their purpose or typical inhabitants: Nursery, Beginners, Teens, “Middlers.”

The walls form an L-shaped hall from the entrance doors, with the L’s stalk terminating in two sets of double doors leading into the sanctuary.  The largest single room in the church is dominated by three sets of wooden pews marching towards a raised stage.  A wooden altar and pulpit lie at its center, flanked at some distance by twin banks of speakers for the church’s sound system.  To its rear stand pews for the church choir; at the congregation’s right is a red-painted wooden ramp that renders the stage handicapped accessible–the first such addition Churchspotting has encountered in a church sanctuary.

There are no flags in the sanctuary of Mercy Baptist.  Instead, behind the choir pews, taller than anything else on stage, stands a wooden cross.  A white cloth drapes about its crossbeam like a shawl; a sign reading “INRI” is tacked to the headpiece.  The crossbeam is punctured at either end by a pair of long nails; a third juts from a footrest set into the cross’s base.  All three nails, as well as the wood around and beneath them, are painted blood red.

The congregation of Mercy Baptist Church gathers for their Sunday morning service at 11 AM.  By that time on the morning of August 12 there were over thirty individuals seated in the pews.  Their ages varied, from elderly to a handful of older children–most children of middle school age and younger spent the majority of the service in their classrooms down the hall.

The dress of those involved varied as well.  Both young and old worshippers could be seen in t-shirts and jeans, though overall the congregation skewed towards formal dress.  A handful of men came to worship in full suits, but most were satisfied with arriving in slacks and a collared shirt.  Among the suit-wearers was the church’s pastor, David Robinson.  An older man with brown hair and a greying goatee, he bore a faint resemblance to actor Harvey Keitel.

The day’s service began with a dozen-odd members of the congregation piling onto the stage to sing along briefly with a contemporary Christian song played over the church’s speakers.  A chorus of ‘Amen’s from the crowd met the song’s conclusion as the singers drifted back to their seats and a man from the congregation rose to deliver a few brief community announcements and prepare the congregation to make its offering.  Four ‘special singers’ from the group took the stage to perform, with accompaniment played over the sound system, while two men roved the pews with the church’s offering plates outstretched.

When song and offering finished Pastor Robinson took the pulpit briefly, but not to preach: he introduced his cousin, Paul, who was present with his own family that morning, and invited Paul to take the stage and ‘offer testimony.’  Paul proved to be the father of two teenage daughters, the younger of whom–Haley–was diagnosed with cancer some time previously.  Apparently Haley was a frequent subject of prayer for the Mercy Baptist congregation.

Paul spoke of his daughter’s battle with cancer, his despair when the doctors appeared to “give up hope” after her initial diagnosis, and the great comfort he drew from knowing his cousin’s church stood behind him and in his own faith.  His voice took on a vulnerable, emotional quaver as he drew to his story’s close.  He finished by singing, a capella, an old gospel song his brother sang in church when they were children.

Haley, whose cancer had gone into remission, was present with her family.  She sat with her father as the congregation’s children filed in to sing a rendition of “This Little Light of Mine” for her.  The children had spent some time in the preceding weeks collecting money for Haley’s treatment.

Robinson resumed his position behind the pulpit soon after, and the sermon he began took up the rest of the morning’s service.  Its principle subject was the plan for Mercy Baptist’s future.  It seemed Robinson and his church were committed towards moving out of the space they built in the former ACE Hardware store.  The goal was to buy a 10 acre plot of land nearby, currently occupied by a derelict blockhouse.  A black and white picture of the area, drawn by the pastor’s son, lay propped up on the altar while Robinson spoke.

Robinson spoke of the need for vision in the congregation, and faith that whatever they genuinely set their mind to would be supported by God.  He quoted martial artist Bruce Lee, and said that like Lee they must aim “six inches beyond their target.”

Over the course of his sermon Robinson reiterated again and again that their goal was not to build a church because he wanted it, but because they wanted it.  “Our objective,” he said, “is not to build a church.  Our objective is to build a house that God will want to live in.”  As the sermon drew towards its end Robinson pulled the black and white illustration of the current property to reveal a second picture behind it, this in full color, showing the ‘vision’ of what the property might be: a whitewashed country church with classrooms, a fellowship hall and broad green lawns.

At the close of his sermon Robinson left the stage while the man who read announcements at the service’s start led the congregation in a final prayer.  Then the people of Mercy Baptist Church filed out into the hall, towards the parking lot and a clear, cool August morning.

Pine Grove Baptist Church, Part II

The following interview took place in the office of its subject, Jerry Bryant, pastor of Pine Grove Baptist Church.  Mr. Bryant worked in an annex building of Pine Grove Baptist, in a room flanked by administrative offices and classrooms.  The wall behind him was lined with bookcases that reached to the ceiling; a broad wooden desk formed a solid bulwark between him and visitors.

Informed in advance of the pending interview, Mr. Bryant met it dressed for light business, in slacks and a polo shirt.  Though the top of his head was bald, its sides bore thick forests of brown hair.  His moustache was pale by contrast, thin and nearly invisible at a distance.

Mr. Bryant grew up within an hour’s drive of his current office in Monroe, North Carolina.  He was the middle child of three sons; his father worked in a mill, his mother in a grocery store.  The family attended church regularly, but as they moved from time to time they attended several different worship houses.

In 1971, sixteen and just shy of starting high school, Mr. Bryant opted to join the military instead.  He became a welder and pipe fitter for the navy, and spent the next forteen years in military service, the first eight active, the last six inactive.  He said that he was simply not interested in schoolwork at the time, and wanted a career.  He spent his active service stationed in Charleston and Norfolk, Virginia.

Asked about the Vietnam War, which was raging at the time of his enlistment, Mr. Bryant said, “I think the Vietnam War was necessary.  Do I think it accomplished what it should have accomplished?  No, because of the politics involved.”  Asked why it was necessary, he replied, “For the freedom of the individuals and the people involved, and their religious as well as political liberties.”

Bryant left active service for the Navy in 1979 and moved to Spartanburg, SC, where he found a job working for Michelin Tire.  He arrived in Spartanburg with his young family; two children and his wife, whom he married in 1974 while still in the Navy.  He’d not attended church since he left home for the military, and neither did his wife, but when neighbors invited him to attend Una First Baptist Church in 1980 it soon became a regular activity for his family.

Four years later, on June 15, 1984, Mr. Bryant described the moment he “gave his life to Christ.”  He was at Una Baptist, helping to teach boys’ classes of vacation Bible school.  He was sitting in on a class taught by what he termed a ‘child evangelist,’ who was painting an image of the cross while telling its accompanying story to the students.  As he listened, Mr. Bryant said “I realized for the first time in my life that I’d never completely given my life over to the service of God.”  From then on he dedicated himself to religious service.

Though he was two and a half years into a mechanical engineering study at Spartanburg Technical College at the time of his calling, Bryant abandoned that path in favor of a spiritual vocation.  He attended an unacredited bible school called the Dan Greer Bible Institute, but soon left it for North Greenville Jr. College.  After earning an Associate’s Degree there he transferred to Gardner-Webb University in the suburbs of Charlotte, NC, where he earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree in Ministry.

According to Bryant he became a pastor of the Southern Baptist Convention in August 1988, not long after he earned his Associate’s Degree, when he was invited to helm Thompson Chapel Baptist Church.  He continued working full-time at Michelin Tire until the following May, when he left that job to minister full-time.  He spent nine and a half years as pastor of Thompson Chapel until, in 1997, he transferred to Pine Grove Baptist.  He serves as pastor there to this day.

Pine Grove’s average attendance is, according to Mr. Bryant, approximately 100 persons on a Sunday.  The church was founded in 1958, while its current sanctuary was built in 1976.  The school maintains an auxilliary educational program, the “Pine Grove Christian Academy,” whose offerings start with infant daycare and progress through a K-3 kindergarten to a grades 4-12 after school program.

The church’s charitable works include an “orphan ministry” that works with the department of social services to find homes for South Carolina orphans.  The church also takes up offerings for New Beginnings Baptist Church in Clover, SC, as well as childrens’ and retirement homes in the state.

During his time at Pine Grove Mr. Bryant has, by his own admission, preached against homosexuality.  “It’s a sin,” he said, “and it’s an abomination before God.  It’s spoken against in the scriptures.  People can say that they are born that way, but if inidividuals are born that way it’s funny no animal lies with it’s own kind.”  The latter statement is untrue, as many nonhuman species exhibit homosexual activity in both captivity and the wild.  For the scriptural basis of his views, he referred Churchspotting to the Book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, and the Book of Romans in the New Testament.

Though homosexuals “are still human beings,” he elaborated, “Their mindset, their belief system is totally wrong, because up until the early 80s it was still listed in the journal of psychology as a deviant and abnormal behavior, until the homosexuals put pressure upon the authors of those manuals, to change that.  Things don’t change just because one group decides, and less than one percent of this country doesn’t have a right to enforce their beliefs or opinions upon others.”

Though he held forth with considerable vigor on the subject of homosexuality, Bryant was initially less forthcoming when asked to comment on the Catholic Church.  “I’ll have to think about how I want to respond to that one,” he said.  “I don’t normally have a lot to say about other denominations because Christ said in his word, ‘if they’re not against me they’re for me, if they’re not for me they’re against me.”   Still, it took no prodding on our part for Mr. Bryant to elaborate.  “I think the Roman Catholic Church is misled on some of its doctrine,” he said, “and I think that they seek to attain the same goal as a Christian church would, but I think they’re totally misled on a lot of the tenets of their belief system, as far as praying to Mary and thinking that the Pope is the only one who can bless a priest or preacher, and some of their doctrinal beliefs.  I believe they’re misled.”

When asked whether Catholics were indeed Christians, he said “I believe there are people within the Catholic Church that are Christian, as well as those that are not, but I also believe that there are Christians as well as non-Christians in any denomination.” “I believe there’ll be some catholics that go to Heaven and some that don’t, I believe there’ll be some Baptists that go to Heaven and some that don’t.”

Bryant was initially more forthcoming on the subject of the Church of Latter Saints, whose local church lies on the outskirts of nearby York, SC.  “I believe that the Mormon Church is a cult,” he said, “because they place Joseph Smith in a position of divine authority, as they would the Book of Mormon, and they place it equal with the Bible, and there’s no book in existence that’s equal with the scriptures.”

He did elaborate on the esteem he feels for Mormons’ emphasis on family ties, but added “I think they’re off base in a lot of their doctrines.”  He would not describe those doctrines, or the errors he saw in them.

On the subject of Biblical prophecy, Mr. Bryant stated flatly that he does believe we are living in the End Times.  Though he would not speculate on an exact date for the End, he did say that “We can look at the signs of the times and tell when that day is getting close.”  He cited how “God destroyed Soddom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality.  God condemned the killing of an unborn child,” and mentioned he found it “interesting that the Muslim [Brotherhood] are bringing themselves into leadership in countries around Israel.”

On the subject of Israel, Mr. Bryant “think[‘s] that Israel is on the verge of a major event that will have a lot to do with the fulfillment of End Time Prophecy.” “Iran is grossly misled,” he said, “if they believe that they’ll go in and wipe them off the face of the earth, it will not happen, it’s just not going to happen.”

On the subject of America’s own, current wars, Mr. Bryant replied “I think that the United States had to do something, to be involved in the Middle East, for the simple fact that Israel is one of our friends, our allies, and that we have an agreement that we will come to their aid just as they would to ours.” Further, Mr. Bryant “believe[s] that if what had went on in Iraq or Afghanistan would have been allowed to continue that there would have been a whole lot more 9/11s and a whole lot more events happening around the world, and that radical Islam is bent on destroying Christianity and the Jews, and they’re not gonna stop until they can try to accomplish that; until they’re able to wipe out Christianity, until they’re able to wipe out the Jews they’re not gonna stop.”

When asked for his thoughts on Islam, Bryant said “I think Islam is greatly misled in their belief systems.  I do not agree with what they believe…they don’t agree with what I believe, it makes no difference.”  He went on to add that “If you’re right and I’m wrong I don’t have anything to lose.  But if I’m right and you’re wrong you have everything to lose, okay?  The same would go with the whole issue of Islam and any other cult or group.”  When whether he believed Islam is a cult, Bryant grew cagey again.  “Let’s just say I do not agree with what they believe, and I’ll kind of leave it at that.”

At length, Bryant broadened his scope to all other world religions.  “All the other religions of the world are a works based religion,” he said.  “If I do this I’ll please God or if I do that I’ll please God.”  “The Muslims believe that if they kill a Christian, or they kill a Jew that they automatically gain entrance into heaven and they’ll have so many wives and everything waiting for them when they get there.”  He went on to describe how his own faith was superior.  “It’s always works based, it’s always if I do this or if I do that.  If I had a religion that was works based what if I was an invalid, I couldn’t do any work, then I couldn’t very well get close to my God.  Christianity’s about a relationship, and every Christian church teaches a relationship with God, that it’s relationship oriented.”

When asked, like every other pastor interviewed by Churchspotting, about the proper relationship between Church and State, Mr. Bryant held forth at some length.  His first concern was that the federal government should not be able to dictate what he could or could not teach at his church.  “I’ve preached messages against homosexuality and I’ll continue to preach messages against homosexuality.  I’ve preached messages against racism and I’ll continue to preach messages against racism, okay?  Because to me racism is a sin just like homosexuality is a sin.  The federal government has no right to come in and tell me that I cannot preach against homosexuality.”

Mr. Bryant holds that a majority of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were “born again Christians,” and that this country was founded “so that the state or the government could not tell us what we could or could not do in our practice or our teachings, okay?”  He added that regardless of whether or not the government passes laws that label his preaching against homosexuality hate speech, he “will still continue to preach against homosexuality.  They can pass laws that say that living together is okay, but I will continue to preach against living together because the Bible says that’s fornication, okay?  It’s wrong, premarital sex is wrong.”

He conceded that the government has the right pass laws regarding speed limits on the roads, but said that “the poing where the laws they pass go against God’s law, is the moment where I’m no longer bound by their law and I’m bound by God’s law.”

Mr. Bryant voiced significant cynicism towards the American political system, and the president in particular.  “Those who are supposed to represent us,” he said, “have a tendency to lose sight of why they’re there.”  Of Mr. Obama he said, “I do not agree with our president, I hope he’s a one term president, has nothing to do with the color of his skin, has to do with the decisions that he’s made and the things that he’s said.  He’s a liar because he’s said one thing and done another.  But it’s not just him, it’s probably 90% of the rest of them up there.  He just happens to be the one in the forefront.”

Mr. Bryant said that the Bible enjoins him to pray for those in office, and that he does so.  He claimed that political parties were irrelevant to him, and that the only measure he takes of a politician running for office is their morals and values in relation to the Bible.  He addded that “we have seen the morals and values of this nation degraded over the last years, not in just the last three and a half years but for years now.”

When asked how the country’s morals and values have degraded, Bryant said, “What used to be wrong is now accepted.  If it was wrong in one time why is it accepted now?  And you can take that and apply it to whatever.  You know, if something was wrong it’s wrong, if it’s right it’s right.”  Specifically, he believes that “They’ve tried to take God out of the schools, they’ve made murder legalized as abortion and called it a woman’s choice.  Her choice was whether to get pregnant or not, okay?”

On the subject of teen pregnancy, Bryant related that “Used to if a young girl got pregnant in school she was not allowed to attend school, she had to go to home school, and she was not allowed to be part of a classroom, because it was not acceptable for a junior high child or a high school child to get pregnant and flaunt it in the eyes of the public.”  To this he added, “Do I believe they should be isolated and ridiculed?  No.  But I believe they need to be taught.”

Mr. Bryant concluded by defending his views through invocation of the scriptures.  “Everybody wants to label evangelical Christians as right wing conservatives,” he said, “I’m not right wing anything.  I’m a Biblical conservative, and I never vote on a person based on their political party, I vote for people based upon their biblical views, and whether their views align with scripture.”

Jerry Bryant preaches from the pulpit of Pine Grove Baptist Church every Sunday.

Pine Grove Baptist Church, Part I – Visited on 5/20/12

Just east of Oakridge Middle School, where Relevant Church meets concurrently, another Christian group gathers each Sunday.  Pine Grove Baptist Church occupies a substantial lot on the western edge of Lake Wylie, SC.  Its buildings are red brick and white-washed wood; a tall white steeple rises above the central crest of the sanctuary.

Inside, wall-to-wall blue carpeting covers the sanctuary floor.  Pews stand in three long columns facing a stage set with a pulpit to the fore and an electronic drum set behind.  A choir loft rises above and behind the pulpit, and above that smooth white walls, punctured at their middle by a recessed, spearhead cavity within which hangs a great wooden cross.

The sanctuary’s walls are whitewished brick, embellished with vast wooden rib-arches like those seen in the sanctuaries of Charlotte Avenue Church of Christ and Trinity Bible Church in nearby Rock Hill.  Between those arches the walls are punctuated by windows of frosted, blue-stained glass.  Electric lamps of glass and metal hang from the sanctuary’s ceiling, a gently angled triangular peak of fitted wooden boards.

Pine Grove’s congregation numbered about fifty strong that morning.  Their clothing tended towards formal, with men in collared shirts and slacks while women wore dresses of varied design.  The congregation’s children were similarly attired, but the younger teenagers wore their street clothes.

After some opening pleasantries, the day’s worship service at Pine Grove Baptist began with prayer.  The church conducted its prayers by having the lay members bow their heads in silence while a speaker at the pulpit, whether the church’s pastor or some other member, prayed aloud.

Music followed prayer, presented by two female singers and a male singer-guitarist, all roughly middle-aged.  They sang a medley of contemporary Christian worship music, and encouraged the congregation to sing along with them.  According to the guitarist, the musical style at Pine Grove’s worship services varies from week to week.

While the music played the congregation was directed to rise and greet each other with handshakes and hugs.  Pine Grove’s worshipers circulated in and around their pews greeting each other until the music faded and they sat to hear announcements of current events in the church and the lives of its members.

During a second music set the church’s deacons passed around the offering plates.  When it quieted again Pine Grove’s pastor, Jerry Bryant, took his place behind the pulpit.  Bryant was a heavyset man in glasses and a dark suit.  The crown of his head was bald, but its sides held a thick coat of brown hair.

The subject of Bryant’s sermon, which filled the rest of the day’s worship service, concerned unity and the responsibilities of life as a church member.  He opened by saying that “Christianity is about a relationship with God where other religions deal with a responsibility or ‘works’ kind of relationship.”  He went on to explain that this relationship entailed good works nonetheless, specifically that though Pine Grove’s congregation worshiped within the church’s walls, their work as a congregation took place outside the church, in their community.

He said that the church was “an organism guided by the Holy Spirit,” which strove to please that Spirit.  That goal entailed ‘ministry,’ which he described as programs and personal efforts to affect one’s surrounding community.  He named the church’s “Orphan Ministry” as a concrete example, but elaborated that such programs had to be actively promoted and operated by the lay congregation.

As Bryant closed his sermon the music started back up, and the church began an “Invitation,” literally inviting visitors to the church that day to become full members.  As the music finished Pine Grove’s congregation stood, joined hands and bowed their heads as the pastor voiced a final prayer.  Then they dispersed into the parking lot outside, and a startlingly bright May afternoon.

New Life Baptist Church, Part II – Visited on 2/10/2012

The office of Rev. Dean Reynolds at New Life Baptist Church is a small, cluttered workspace: stacks of books and papers, teaching materials and devotional texts, family photos.  He keeps the door closed—it is a cold morning, and the church is expensive to heat.

New Life Baptist occupies a building that was once the machine shop of a firm that made spiral staircases.  The great collapse of America’s real estate market in 2008 demolished the company and left its cavernous workspace vacant.  Very little of the building’s former occupants remain now.  Its interior was reshaped by the diligent hands of New Life’s congregation, partitioned into sanctuary, offices, classrooms.  Only in the sanctuary, in the glow of industrial halogen lamps, with the metal serpent of the room’s ventilation coiling along the ceiling, does its former identity peek through.

In that cluttered office Rev. Reynolds told me his life story.  He was raised in Rock Hill, SC, in the congregation of Eastside Baptist Church.  He said that his decision to become a minister came at an early age.  Reynolds was sixteen when, as he requested prayers for his then-fiancé’s alcoholic father, his pastor asked “When are you gonna give up and do what God’s called you to do?”  Dean’s response, which surprised him at least as much as the rest of the congregation, was to call out “I will preach God.”

At sixteen, Dean Reynolds did not become a man of the cloth immediately.  He finished high school and spent a year afterward working to pay off his car.  He then attended Charleston Southern University, and for three years immersed himself deeper and deeper in the youth revival movement of the late 1970s.

Reynolds became a singer and a preacher.  After three years at CSU he dropped out of college to form a gospel quartet.  The group spent a year touring the Carolinas, singing to faithful Baptists.  He married during that time, and after a brief post-quartet career selling insurance he became a youth minister.

All this was decades ago.  It was not till 2008, the year of the great economic collapse, that Reynolds came to New Life Baptist.  By that time he was a veteran minister with a degree from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, having risen from youth ministry to the head of his own congregations.  When he arrived, New Life was renting space each week at Lake Pointe Academy, a facility of New River Community Church in Lake Wylie, SC.

Not long after he joined New Life as its pastor, Reynolds led the church to its new site in Clover.  With help from a crew hired by the landlord, the congregation of New Life reshaped the defunct industrial space into a place of worship.  Three years later, the church has sunk firm roots into its new home.

New Life Baptist works with other groups in the Clover area to provide charitable aid through programs that include God’s Kitchen (mentioned here: http://wp.me/p1JM4Z-64) and the Palmetto Pregnancy Center (mentioned here: http://wp.me/p1JM4Z-68).  The church also supports Baptist missionary work overseas.  It has no relations or partnerships with the institutions of York County’s sizeable Catholic minority.

From his post at New Life, Rev. Reynolds teaches a very specific doctrine.  He believes that we can learn, with certainty, where are souls are bound for after death.  He believes this rests entirely upon one condition: whether or not one “accepts Jesus Christ as their personal savior.”  From that, according to Reynolds’ description, all else follows.

He does not believe in sex outside of marriage, or in the use of contraceptives outside of monogamous married relationships.  Based on his reading of the Book of Revelation and his interpretation of current events he believes that the “Rapture,” the apocalyptic end of this age of the world, is near at hand.

Regarding the relationship between Church and State, he believes that the two should be separate.  He is against government attempting to “regulate or in any way impose the church from doing the work it’s called by God to do.”  He particularly fears that new legislation may force religious groups to provide contraceptive care.  According to him Christians need to be involved in the processes of government, but he feels that political activism lies outside his own calling.

New Life Baptist Church Part I, Visited on 2/5/2012

New Life Baptist Church is somewhat difficult to reach.  The church does not have its own free-standing building.  It does not occupy a shop front or a school.  A banner on the side of Hwy 321, in the middle of Clover, SC, directs the seeker down the gravel parking lot of a local business headquarters.  Behind the main office, in the rooms of a repurposed warehouse building, lies New Life Baptist.

It turns out a repurposed warehouse is a fairly practical space for a small church.  With minimal retrofitting the structure’s business offices became church offices and classrooms, while the warehouse proper held the church’s sanctuary.

Two wide columns of cushioned seats filled most of the sanctuary’s floor space.  A stage rose before them with room enough for a full drum set, a palisade of microphone and instrument stands, a keyboard in one corner and a pulpit of transparent plastic.  A huge screen for an overhead projector hung above the drum set.  Two pastel banners, one painted with the word ‘peace,’ the other with ‘love,’ hung from one wall.  At stage left stood an American flag; at stage right stood a Christian flag of identical proportions.

The congregation of New Life Baptist was a more evenly distributed mix of age groups than Churchspotting normally sees.  Certainly there were many older worshippers in evidence, but at least three generations of families were present.  Dress seemed to be a matter of personal preference.  No one in the congregation arrived in anything more formal than a collared shirt and khaki pants, but many came to worship in t-shirts and jeans.  Older members of New Life Baptist favored more reserved clothing, but the teenagers came dressed for a day at school.  The full congregation, including young children who spent much of the service in a separate Children’s Church, came to around seventy worshippers.

New Life Baptist’s music was all produced by the congregation.  Members of the group manned the microphones and played the instruments on stage.  The screen above the drums displayed each hymn’s lyrics to the crowd.  The church’s sound engineering was very professional, but it had the side effect of drowning the congregation’s own singing beneath the amplified voices of those onstage and the thrum of instruments.

The day’s sermon was delivered by Rev. Dean Reynolds, pastor of New Life Baptist, a tall, mustachioed man of 54. When the passion took him Reynolds spoke with the blistering cadence of an auctioneer rattling off his Hosannas and scriptural references at breakneck speed.  At rest, he joked and kidded with longtime members of the congregation, some of whom seemed to have followed New Life Baptist from its original site at Lakepoint.

Throughout his sermon, Reynolds emphasized that his congregation could know, “for sure,” whether they were bound for Heaven or Hell after death.  He called on them to embrace Jesus as their savior, and to allow him to change them “from the inside out.”  He told his congregants that God had a plan for them, if they chose to listen.

Rev. Reynolds also mentioned supernatural experiences in his childhood.  He claimed that as a boy he woke to find a shadowy figure clawing at his feet from the foot of his bed, an episode he said was “as real as I am.”  He said that not long after that he received a visitation from Jesus himself, who whispered to him “I am here.”  He also claimed that not long after that visitation he received a vision of God the Father in brilliant white light, which he shared with his grandfather.  He described how after telling his story he and his grandfather knelt and prayed at the foot of their home’ stairs, and how that Sunday they knelt by the altar of their church and prayed in the midst of the service.

The finale of a worship service at New Life Baptist is the Song of Invitation.  On February 5 that was a performance by the church choir, made up of a dozen or so older members of the church.  Members of the congregation were ‘invited’ at that time to come forward and kneel before the plastic pulpit while the choir sang “By the blood of the lamb we will conquer.”  After the choir finished the congregation’s musicians took the stage, and played New Life Baptist out as its members started to trickle out through the warehouse doors.