ALTOONA, Pa. (BP)–Trudging his way through tightly packed snow, Rusty Sunderland was determined to make it to church one wintry Sunday morning.
Though most people in the western Pennsylvania town of Altoona had decided to stay inside from the blistering cold that day, Sunderland felt compelled to climb the upward slope to the town’s First Southern Baptist Church a few blocks away.
Sunderland wasn’t a Christian. He had been to the church only a few times at the urging of his wife, Dorothy. He wasn’t even sure the church would be open, as services had been canceled the week before due to weather.
But the feeling that he needed to be there was so strong Sunderland took the chance and headed up the hill. When he reached the church, he and pastor George Sanders were the only people there.
Until that moment, Sanders hadn’t known why he had felt the Lord impressing him to keep the church open that day. But the reason quickly became clear when Sunderland approached and expressed his need to be saved.
No one was more surprised than Dorothy Sunderland to hear what had happened.
“I had been praying for him to be saved, but was focusing on just getting him coming to church,” she said. “And then, when he does come to church, he comes to be saved.”
For months, Dorothy and the pastor had met for weekly Bible study at her house. At first, her husband and daughter kept their distance but gradually were drawn to the discussions about Christ and his life-changing grace. Just before Christmas, the daughter, Heather, accepted Jesus Christ. Two weeks later, Rusty walked through the snow to meet Christ as his Lord and Savior.
They were baptized together in February. The change Christ has brought in their lives has resulted in a growing home Bible study, which has drawn several of their friends and family to Christ. On one day in June, 13 people were baptized.
In total, the congregation baptized 20 people in 1999, nine of those after they made professions of faith as a result of spring revival services. In 1998, 13 people were baptized.
Only a handful of adults and five children were attending the church two years ago, Sanders said. That summer, Glade Hill Baptist Church in Glade Hill, Va., helped conduct a Vacation Bible School, which yielded the church its first convert in almost two years.
Support also came from a partnership with Black Creek Baptist Association in northeast Florida. Long Branch Baptist Church in Jacksonville contributes financially, which has helped Sanders maintain a full-time pastorate.
Located in a small factory town with a heavy Catholic influence and large senior adult population, the church’s outreach to the tight-knit community is slow and relationship-based. It meets in a small former Episcopalian church across the street from a Catholic congregation.
But person by person and family by family, the church is making a difference in the lives of those around them — ready for the next person who comes walking through the door, ready to accept Jesus.