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Church loses century-old homestead to progress, but pulls together to relocate

POSTED: June 4, 2011 1:30 a.m.
Photos by KATIE DUNN/Times regional staff

The Rev. Tommy Fountain, a missionary and evangelist with the Mulberry Baptist Association, delivers a dedication prayer at Sharon Baptist Church's new home off Dee Kennedy Road in Auburn.

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The final service Sharon Baptist Church celebrated in its sanctuary in many ways chronicled the life of Christianity’s most famous son.

More than a century after the church began meeting at the corner of Ga. Highway 124 and Ga. Highway 211, its congregation faced the heartbreaking realization that the area’s suburban sprawl had finally encroached too much on the small, country church.

The Georgia Department of Transportation announced three years ago its intentions to improve the intersection, a project that will confiscate much of the church’s parking lot and one that has forced its congregation to relocate.

Organized June 1, 1894, the first church building was constructed in 1895, according to an excerpt from "Beadland to Barrow: A History of Barrow County, Georgia." Decades later in March 1968, a fire destroyed that structure. Work to erect the current brick sanctuary began that same year and finished in 1969.

During the rebuilding process, the church’s congregation met at a nearby school, according to long-time parishioner Harvey Turk, 86.

There won’t be a chance to return this time, but there is still an opportunity to start anew. That process began on May 22 for Sharon Baptist’s congregation.

More than 100 people gathered for the last time inside the sanctuary to bid a cheerful farewell to their long-time spiritual home. The morning was marked with uplifting hymns and a sermon from Pastor Le Gibson that focused on his hope for a new beginning.

In a symbolic gesture, the communion table, pulpit, Bible and a candle representing the light of God’s presence were each carried from the church and loaded into a truck bound for the new sanctuary.

Parishioners also removed blue Baptist Hymnals from the pews as they left. Some discreetly brushed aside tears as they climbed into their vehicles and in a slow procession, led by two Barrow County Sheriff’s Office cruisers, drove the six miles to their new home at 1059 Dee Kennedy Road in Auburn.

A brief ribbon-cutting ceremony was held before another service commenced.

The church’s three senior deacon families, Harvey and Helen Turk, Bobby and Helen Parks and Lee and Pauline Moore, cut the ribbon.

Helen Turk began attending Sharon Baptist Church in 1952 with her husband Harvey. She described the procession that Sunday as being "like a funeral." "They had the pulpit and communion table all wrapped up (and) people were stopping along the road," she said. Turk, 80, said it has been tough for her to accept the move. "It’s sad, I cried and cried (this morning)," she admitted.

Bobby Parks, 81, has called Sharon Baptist home his entire life. As a child, he walked to church and remembers when people rode in horse-drawn buggies to Sunday service.

Instead of using parking spaces, they tied their horses to trees. Back then, preaching was held once a month and Parks said the preacher stayed with a different family each time he visited.

Parks’ wife, Helen, began attending after the couple married almost 55 years ago. At that time, many of the church’s members were kin to one another and Parks joked that she had to bite her tongue at times.

"I found out when I first came to church down there that I couldn’t talk about anybody because everybody was kin to somebody," she said with a laugh. "So I had to keep my mouth shut."

With so many memories, leaving is bittersweet, the couple said. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in the church, watched both of their children baptized there and celebrated their daughter’s and granddaughter’s marriages.

Pastor Gibson said the decision to move has been tough on everyone. Sharon Baptist is the first church he’s pastored, Gibson explained, his voice faltering. He’s been at the helm now for five years.

"I’ve baptized over there, people have been married in that church, people have buried their husbands and wives in that church, people have been saved and baptized in that church and seen their children baptized," he said.

"There’s so much of their personal history in that church, to leave that is incredibly challenging, but it has to be with what’s happening to the intersection."

Gibson said he anticipates the church’s former property will be rezoned commercial and placed for sale, though church members will continue to maintain and preserve the cemetery.

Despite the heartache, Gibson said the congregation has shown resilience. "They’ve been very gracious, they’ve prayed their way through it and God has just used that to open our hearts and minds," he said.

The church’s new home lies off a residential road where a light breeze and the rhythmic sound of crickets chirping replaced the hectic pace of the busy interchange along Ga. Highway 211.

It’s a scene that Sharon Baptist might once have overlooked before the population boom. And while parishioners, like Helen Turk, likened leaving to a funeral, there is also hope a rebirth is possible.

It certainly seemed likely at the close of the first service held in the new sanctuary.

With a woman smiling shyly next to him, Gibson announced to the congregation that she had attended that day to be saved. When he asked the congregation for their approval, all consented with a hearty shout.

Harvey Turk also seems certain that despite being in a different location, Sharon Baptist will retain its small-town roots. He and wife Helen live one mile from the former church.

Now, he said, "we’ll have to get up a little earlier."



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