Church finds resurrection in second congregation

Published 12:36 am Monday, July 26, 2010

In the end, four dedicated souls realized they alone weren’t going to be able to fill a 200-seat sanctuary with praise.

So the congregation of First Church of God in Ferriday tried something rare for decades old churches — a new beginning.

Founded on Seventh Street and then moved to North Third Street when a new church facility was built there in 1963, First Church of God was an active part of Ferriday’s religious life. Quavis Gillespie had been a part of the congregation since she was 5 years old, and she remembered it as a thriving congregation.

As time went on, though, there were fewer and fewer people showing up for worship on Sunday mornings.

A number of factors were in play. Louisiana’s delta economy tanked and people moved away; some died; others just became disinterested in religion.

But the end result was always the same — empty pews.

The remaining members did the best they could, forming an intimate, close-knit fellowship that still met weekly. Gillespie’s husband Willie led the group in singing and brought a Gospel lesson every week. They didn’t have a musician in the group, but they had a number of songs pre-recorded on a Clavinova digital piano, and those were sufficient.

Finally, though, the church’s physical plant became too much to handle, and it was time for the last four members of the First Church of God to have that conversation — what should they do with their building?

“We couldn’t get any help; we couldn’t get any more people to come and the four of us couldn’t handle it anymore,” Gillespie said.

They had unsuccessfully tried selling the church before, so they wrote a letter to the central Church of God office in Anderson, Ind., asking for advice.

In the end, it turned out that the answer to their problem was less than a mile away.

Founded in 1908, the Doty Road Church of God was the first black Church of God congregation in Louisiana. It had seen its ups and downs through the years, but was starting to see corporate growth. A new pastor, the Rev. Simeon Green III, had come on board in the last two years.

The Doty Road Church of God’s building could hold maybe 100 people, fully packed. The expanding congregation was between 60 and 70 regular attendees.

When the First Church of God members met with a representative from the denominational central office, he told them they had three options — sell the building and divide the assets among themselves, sell the building and donate the assets to the Church of God with the intention of using the money to one day start another church or donate the building to another congregation.

They took to their knees in prayer, and ultimately, the thought of selling the building just didn’t sit right with the people who had been making weekly pilgrimages there for years.

“We wanted to keep it as a church, because if we sold it the buyer could use it for anything, turn it into office spaces or something like that,” Quavis Gillespie said. “Everybody agreed we didn’t want it to be used for anything but a church.”

And so Willie Gillespie approached the Rev. Green about donating the property. He took the pastor on a walking tour of the facility and shared their plan.

Later, Green took the Doty Road deacons and board of trustees to the facility, telling them that the members there wanted to meet with them. He didn’t explain why.

“When the plan was shared with them, they rejoiced and were happy,” Green said.

The keys to the church building were officially handed over at the Doty Road church’s old location, the small white congregation mingling with the growing black congregation and rejoicing that at every end there is a new beginning.

“They understand we are all part of the same family, and they look forward to being part of our ministry,” Green said.

Ultimately, the donation included the building, everything inside it and $10,000.

For Quavis Gillespie, seeing the building she has worshiped in for the last 47 years donated is a reminder that even when things don’t seem to be going the way you would like doesn’t mean they are going badly.

“It is sad for us, but it all turned out wonderful,” she said. “They are very happy and they fill the church up — it is just right for them.”

The new location truly is just right for the mission work the Doty Road church wants to do in the community. It’s situated on the same block as the high school, library and a housing complex for elderly people. Green said he hopes to find a way to partner with the high school to provide counseling to students, and the church already hosts services every third Sunday at the apartment complex for the residents.

Green is not shy about saying that he thinks the story of how the First Church of God became the Doty Road Church of God is one everyone should hear.

And he is quick to emphasize that he doesn’t want anyone to think of it as a black church, a white church or even — at a time when people in the Miss-Lou are trying to rise above thinking in terms of regional rivalries — a Ferriday church.

“This is a gift of God,” he said. “We want to make sure the people of Ferriday and the surrounding areas are free to worship with us and minister with us.”

Because the move means the Doty Road building is not being used for Sunday services anymore, Green said the church is forming a transitional committee to determine how it will be used.

The idea of converting it into a community conference and educational center has been floated, but Green said the church wants to hear from the community about what they would like to see done.

“We want the community to know this is there for their use,” he said. “Our plan is not for it to just sit there.”

Services at the Doty Road Church of God’s Third Street location are at 11 a.m. Sunday and 6 p.m. Wednesday.

Sunday School starts at 9:45 a.m., and communion is served the first Sunday of every month.