Baptist church flows with change for 50 years

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comFebruary 18, 2012 

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Hilton Head Island has grown up with First Baptist Church, which celebrates its 50th anniversary today.

The first gathering of the congregation -- six years before it officially became a church-- was held in the home of Lois and Norris Richardson. That Sunday school meeting of 56 people came only a few weeks after the Richardsons opened a grocery store on an island so remote it initially had more wild boar and alligators beating down its door than customers.

Business was so slow at the market that Lois Richardson had time to become Charles Fraser's first employee in Sea Pines.

But their Forest Beach Market would evolve into Coligny Plaza with more than 60 shops and restaurants.

And the church on South Forest Beach Drive would evolve into one known for missions, particularly on the beaches.

Its Easter sunrise service on the beach attracts close to 1,000 people. And in 1991, it was named the national Resorts Missionary Church of the Year by the Southern Baptist Convention for programs involving as many as 15 summer missionaries meeting people on the beach, at ball games and in a coffee house at Coligny Plaza where they performed music and skits.

"It enabled the church to touch a lot of lives outside the four walls of the church," said the Rev. Felix Haynes Jr. of St. Simons Island, Ga., the pastor from 1979 to 1994.

First Baptist calls itself the "visitors' church" because waves of vacationers from all over the world pass through each year.

"We've always been visitor-friendly because we're visitor-located," said the Rev. John F. Keller, pastor for the past 18 years. "We're by the beach with short-term rentals all around us."

But in its first meetings, there were no walls to hold missionaries in or visitors out.

They worshiped on the ground-level cement slab beneath the Richardsons' home on the ocean on Bayberry Lane.

A NEW SONG

It all started about the time Hilton Head Island got its first bridge, in the spring of 1956.

Virgil Woods went to Ridgeland Baptist Church concerning a mission Sunday school on the island.

When the Richardson family of five moved to the island that summer, they offered their new home to be the church's temporary home and put up signs in the store inviting people to come.

Lois Richardson recalls that they borrowed chairs and benches from the Ridgeland church and her son, James N. "J.R." Richardson Jr., then about 11, had to set them up and take them down every week.

She says the collection was never more than $10.

When a man with three young girls came to work for the island's chamber of commerce, the girls attended the new church and played with the Richardson children during the week. One day Lois Richardson overheard them downstairs pretending they were holding church.

"(J.R.) said he'd be the preacher and one of the girls said she'd lead the singing," Lois Richardson said. Another girl asked what they were going to sing. And the song leader said: "You know we're going to sing 'Hound Dog.' "

FULL CIRCLE

The church became a mission of the Baptist Church of Beaufort and built a small sanctuary across from the old William Hilton Inn.

It incorporated on its own on Feb. 18, 1962, with 37 charter members. It has always been on South Forest Beach Drive on land donated by Fraser and his family's Sea Pines Co. The Frasers donated land for several other churches, as well.

The late Rev. Wilford M. Lee was a beloved figure as he led the church from 1968 to 1979, a period of much growth and construction.

Today, Keller sees new challenges for his church as the island changes, as well as the church at-large.

"In the early church of Acts, they were turning the world upside down," Keller said. "Today in many ways the world has turned the church upside down. With the church seeming to be so needy, it's almost as if it feels it has to be like the world to attract the world. It used to hold much stronger to doctrine."

He said his church is "more of a Bible-focused, Christ-centered church."

Haynes said its first half century has been marked by "being alert to ways it could minister way beyond its location, being sensitive to its unique setting, and touching a lot of lives."

And while the island has grown up with First Baptist, things seem to have come full circle. Just like 1962, the island finds itself peering into an uncharted transition, Keller said.

"The island is pretty much built out. What is it going to be in years to come? What should we be doing today to help shape that? We really need to pray for the leaders in our community."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

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First Baptist Church of Hilton Head Island

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