Posts Tagged ‘ The Bridge ’

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.

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Back Up The Bridge: A Return to The Bridge at Clover High School – Visited on 9/16/12

In August 2011 Churchspotting visited The Bridge, one of a number of York County churches that convene in rented spaces at area schools.  That year, The Bridge met in the cafeteria of Clover High School.  Its congregation was a few dozen middle-income Clover locals pastored by Kevin Witt of Fort Worth, Texas.

When Churchspotting first attended The Bridge it had existed as a body less than two years.  Founded as a colony of Clover’s First Baptist Church, The Bridge spent its first year supported by that older organization before becoming an independent church in October 2011, just months after Churchspotting’s visit.  As the group nears its second anniversary, we thought it opportune to stop by again to see how the The Bridge had developed in a year’s time.

The church’s blue banners flank the entrance to Clover High School’s student parking lot on Sundays.  A volunteer from the congregation stands between them, beckoning towards passing motorists and directing the curious inward.  Though The Bridge met in Clover High School’s cafeteria in 2011, more pairs of banners guide visitors to a different site: a strip of brand-new construction across the parking lot from the school’s main building, behind its Applied Technology Center.

Inside, there is a different air to The Bridge from a year before, not least from its change in surroundings–only opened to students in the fall of 2012, the Bridge’s current location is sparkling new by local standards.  The congregation met in what appeared to be a combination cafeteria/auditorium, very similar to that rented by Relevant Church at nearby Oakridge Middle School.  The Bridge’s membership expanded in the year since Churchspotting’s first visit, with more than fifty men, women and children milling between three marching columns of cafeteria tables positioned as pews and a hall immediately behind the cafetorium, where coffee and doughnuts were laid out for their use.

The pew-tables slanted to better focus their occupants on The Bridge’s “stage,” a huge screen lighted by an overhead projector which hung from a pole in the room’s ceiling.  To the right of the screen stood the instruments and microphone stands of the church’s live, in-house band; to its left stood an unadorned, human-sized wooden cross.  To the rear, laid out on a series of conjoined tables, were the controls and computers of the church’s audio-visual systems.

Kevin Witt stood behind that nerve center before the service began in earnest, talking with men from the congregation.  Mr. Witt remained the relatively short, heavyset, dark-haired young man of Churchspotting’s first visit.  He wore a polo shirt and jeans to his church; a clear plastic earpiece stretched the arm of its microphone midway over his right cheek.

It was not Kevin Witt who took the stage and began the morning’s service.  That duty went to a member of the church band, a man on the young side of middle-age in a blue t-shirt, goateed, with violently orange glasses.  He gave some announcements before the band started into the first song of its opening set, with him as its lead male singer.  After the first song, a standard Christian rock-pop ballad, the singer led the church in prayer.  He spoke while the congregants, most of them standing, bowed their heads and closed their eyes.  A guitarist in the band strummed behind the singer’s voice-over, till the prayer finished with a call of “How many people believe God isn’t dead?” and the band dove into its second song.

Kevin Witt emerged after the band finished its first set.  He stood behind a slim plastic pulpit set before the projector screen and announced upcoming events at the church: plans to hand out balloons and water at the annual Clover Auto Show, to feed the high school football team in the next week, all heralded under the banner of “loving our community.”  Another set from the band followed Witt’s announcements before the sermon began in earnest–not with an introduction from Witt, but with a televised clip from the 1999 film “Office Space.”

The clip, with its one use of the word ‘ass’ censored for the congregation’s benefit, showed the film’s protagonist, Peter Gibbons, speaking with a pair of specialists hired by his company to interview and subsequently downsize its work force.  He explained to them how the scant rewards and threats of reprisal he faced from his superiors at work were only capable of making him work just enough to avoid being fired.  As the film clip ended Witt regained the stage to open what he called a new series of sermons.  The projector screen showed its title in two foot high letters, “Malachi: Grace and Gratitude.”

Witt explained the historical context of the Book of Malachi, the last book of the Bible’s Old Testament, written in the middle of the 5th Century BCE within living memory of the Second Persian War between the city-states of Greece and the Persian Achaemenid Empire fancifully depicted in the film “300.”  Witt’s hands moved in rhythm with his speech, complimenting each word.  In fact his hands moved so often and with such a carefully repeated regularity of gestures that his display could almost be mistaken for sign language.  With the intellectual stage set Witt embarked on a chapter by chapter, verse by verse commentary on the Book of Malachi, with the projector screen behind him displaying the text to the congregation as he read.

The substance of Malachi’s text, as Witt described it, was a reprimand to half-hearted believers.  The prophet Malachi claimed that the priests of his day gave up only their lame and infirm livestock as offerings to God, not the best of their flocks, and that the people performed only the bare necessities of the rituals demanded of them by Jewish law.  The prophet went on to say that God had informed him that he despised these half-hearted offerings, and ordered that if his worshipers did not worship him whole-heartedly, with the best sacrifices they could manage and the highest devotion, they should shutter their temples and cease their lukewarm rituals.

Witt explained that in the Old Testament the blessings of God broke down on explicit national and ethnic lines, that he blessed the people of Israel above all others then and that this blessing obligated them to provide whole-hearted gratitude to God.  He explained further that the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament ended these ethnic restrictions and extended the blessing to those who believed in Christ.  “The air we breathe belongs to God,” he said, “Every good thing we have comes from God.”  This grace, he said, carried the same expectation of gratitude for modern Christians as it did for ancient Israelites.  In modern terms, he said, God would prefer the churches be shut than that they be used for less than genuine worship.  “Be real about this or just quit.”

Witt closed the morning’s sermon with a prayer.  The congregation bowed its many heads in silence as he spoke, while band members with downcast eyes retook their positions to the right of the pulpit.  Witt melted back into the crowd as the band began its final song, ending the day’s worship.  Worshipers at The Bridge emerged into the parking lot of Clover High School soon after, to soggy asphalt and a cloudy September sky pregnant with rain.

The Bridge at Clover High School – Visited on 8/21/11

Clover High School sits at the eastern edge of town in a sort of semi-rural no man’s land ringed by housing developments on one side and forest on the other, all bifurcated by the two-lane asphalt ribbon of Highway 55.  It was my own high school as a young man, and as I pulled into the sprawling student parking lot on the morning of the 21st, as I had on so many other mornings long past, I found myself beholden to memories untouched for years on end.

The Bridge is a weekly Christian service held in the high school’s cafeteria.  Unlike Oakridge Middle School, here there are no special concessions to public performance.  The church’s audio-visual equipment stood in a cleared space along the southern wall of the cafeteria, wires snaking here and there from microphone stands for the church’s live band.  Opposite the performance space was a spread of coffee and donuts for the congregation’s benefit, while between food and music sat a half-dozen low octagonal tables usually filled by squamous, gossiping high school students during their lunch periods.

That morning the cafeteria tables were ringed with a different sort: couples and families, a few dozen in their casual street clothes.  Clover is not a wealthy town; many of its families live in cramped, cheap housing along twisting asphalt roads, overshadowed by the outstretched boughs of century-old trees.  The congregants at The Bridge that morning were representative of the tenuous economic space between grinding poverty and the petite-bourgeoisie complacency of a community like River Hills—hanging on, despite the collapse of the region’s industry decades ago and the anemic national economy, a sample of the lower end of middle class.

The Bridge was first started as an auxiliary program of the First Baptist Church of Clover two years ago, and has existed since then as a sort of colony of that older religious community.  It rents its weekly space from Clover High School; in addition, the congregation donates school supplies to CHS and on some days provides free lunches for its teachers.  On October 2nd The Bridge ended its two-year probationary period and officially became an independent church in its own right.

The first half of a service at The Bridge is a performance by the congregation’s band, local amateurs who took their seats among the congregation when their songs were done.  Their music had the tenor of a Christian garage band overlaid with Southern Rock—the last song of their set was a cover of “Sweet Home Alabama” with reworked, Christian lyrics.

As the band repaired to their seats the pastor of The Bridge, Kevin Witt, took their place.  He is a short, heavy-set man; in fact, he looks very similar to the comedian Patton Oswalt.  That morning his sermon regarded the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Through that story Rev. Witt impressed upon his flock the importance of helping those in need, regardless of their background or the relationship between them.

After the service I conducted a brief interview with Pastor Witt.  He is a transplant to Clover, having arrived five years ago from Ft. Worth, Texas.  His church is small but active—adult members can volunteer to join small groups that meet for three-month semesters of shared bible study.

The Bridge is active in providing charity to the needy of Clover: among the projects he mentioned were an adopted stretch of highway maintained by the congregation; a monthly ‘laundry party’, where the congregation pools some money and spends a day paying for all the laundry loads and detergent at the town laundromat; volunteering and donation at the Clover Area Assistance Center; as well as a mission project required of each of the church’s small group classes by the end of their semester of study.

As always, I asked Rev. Witt what he thought of the relationship between Church and State.  After a moment’s deliberation he replied that he acknowledged the division between the two, but preferred to focus on his charitable and spiritual duties, and leave the politics to the politicians.