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First Baptist bids farewell to hurricane-battered site

GULFPORT, Miss. (BP)–Members and friends of First Baptist Church in Gulfport bid farewell March 26 to their beloved beachfront facilities brought down by the wind and waves of Hurricane Katrina last year.

“The church of Jesus Christ is not at this location,” said Ken Parvin, who was reared in the church and currently pastors Heucks Retreat Church in Brookhaven, Miss.

Gesturing to the hundreds of people gathered in and around the large tent pitched alongside the ruins of the church, Parvin said, “I am looking at First Baptist Church. Ladies and gentlemen, never forget that the church of Jesus Christ is in you.”

Church members have made the decision to relocate and are searching for land north of Interstate 10, several miles inland from the present location.

Karen Simmons, who has worked at the church for 26 years and been a member since 1966, recounted that her parents first met each other 52 years ago while attending Training Union at the Beach Boulevard church.

Simmons spoke of her wedding at the church to her husband, Frank, manager of Gulfshore Baptist Assembly near Pass Christian, and the marriages of their children in the church. Gulfshore, owned by the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board, also was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. A study committee appointed shortly after the storm by then-Mississippi Baptist Convention President Gene Henderson is studying the condition of the conference center and will explore various possibilities related to future conference ministries in Mississippi.

Herbert “Coach” Wilson told the afternoon service he first attended the Gulfport church in 1945 and said he is encouraged by plans to secure land farther inland less susceptible to the effects of major hurricanes. “If God leads us to buy that land, God will lead us to build facilities on that land,” Wilson said.

First Baptist pastor Chuck Register spoke of the many special memories the church evokes -— comical, sacrificial and eternal. Delivering a message from the third chapter of the Book of Philippians, Register urged the congregation to “reflect, refocus and recommit” in order to be “people just like Jesus Christ.”

After the final service, people lingered on the broken street in front of the city block where the church’s rubble is fenced off. Cane-carrying older members were joined by young parents holding infants in taking one long, last look at the venerable church complex. The property soon will be listed for sale.

First Baptist, Gulfport, was constituted in 1896 and built its first building in 1899 at the corner on 14th Street and 23rd Avenue. In 1915, the church moved about one block to its present location at 22nd Avenue and U.S. 90.

Hurricane Camille pushed about four feet of water into the church in 1969, but Katrina gutted most of the buildings on the property and reduced the sanctuary to its steel superstructure.

The stark photographs of the ruined church quickly became an international symbol of the fury of Hurricane Katrina and the unprecedented destruction wrought by the storm. The church body is presently meeting at Gulfport High School.
William H. Perkins Jr. is editor of the Baptist Record, newsjournal of the Mississippi Baptist Convention.

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  • William H. Perkins Jr.