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Historic church passes torch to new ministry

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP)–Surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” former and current members, friends and supporters gathered at Ruhama Baptist Church, Birmingham, for its final service Dec. 2.

The service was deemed “Passing the Torch,” as the church merged with First Baptist Church, Irondale, its sister congregation. Greater Emmanuel Temple Holiness Church will move into Ruhama’s former campus.

Denominational officials and Jerry Henderson, Ruhama’s associate pastor for worship and education, emphasized a positive message. Members of Ruhama will strengthen other congregations, the legacy of Ruhama will live through its archives and Emmanuel will carry out the Great Commission through new ministries, the speakers emphasized.

“Ruhama is not a building,” said Ricky Creech, director of missions for Birmingham Baptist Association (BBA). “The Ruhama community of faith is something held in the hearts and minds and spirits of you all. Keep that spirit, and integrate that spirit into whatever church you attend.”

While the choir assured the congregation they were “standing on holy ground,” everyone lifted their voices to acknowledge the faithfulness of God, the greatness of God, the helpfulness of God in the past and the hope God gives for the future.

Elaine Laird sang “Bless This House,” with words adapted by Henderson and Laird.

The oldest church in the Birmingham Baptist Association, Ruhama was established March 27, 1819, in a log cabin with a dirt floor, with Hosea Holcomb as its first pastor. While not designated as the oldest church in the state, Ruhama is older than the Alabama Baptist State Convention, which was established in 1823.

“Imagine being the early settlers,” said Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM). “Imagine moving out of a log cabin into two frame structures and finally into this sanctuary, completed in 1926.”

The membership of Ruhama swelled when Howard College, now Samford University, was relocated from Marion County to its East Lake campus in 1887, said Betty Bryant, the church’s historian.

“Howard College brought its faculty and their families, and we had strong leadership then,” Bryant said.

“This church rose to the college’s rescue in those years,” said Thomas Corts, president of Samford University. “This university would not exist had it not been for the dear folks at Ruhama.”

In 1957, the college moved to its present location in Homewood, but the church more than survived with its attendance reaching more than 3,000 in 1970.

Membership has since dwindled, and the remaining members voted April 1 to merge with First Baptist Irondale.

“About 58 of our members have signed up to move there,” said Henderson. “The average age of our members is over 70, and it would be difficult for us to continue financially and with leadership without moving somewhere else. Some will be going to other churches because of the convenience to their homes.”

Henderson said the church has tried to reach out to the East Lake community and has been successful with the children but has had a more difficult time reaching the adults.

“Emmanuel has established more than 20 churches in West Africa, and it is doing ministries we wanted to do but didn’t have the resources for,” said Judy Aycock, chairman of Ruhama’s trustees. Emmanuel plans to establish a school, a bookstore, a gymnasium, a senior citizens home, a drug abuse recovery center, a teen pregnancy crisis center and adult education classes for teaching today’s technology.

Henderson said the decision to sell the church buildings to Emmanuel was not based on the highest bid.

“We looked at the ministries of all the churches that applied, and Greater Emmanuel will really help the families in this community,” he said. “It is our dream to come back in a few months and see this church filled up again.”

The new congregation will buy the church with a lease purchase plan, which includes a large down payment and monthly payments. Ruhama is using money from its treasury to contribute to the SBOM, Alabama Woman’s Missionary Union, Samford University and Emmanuel Church’s ministries.

The church is donating its archives to Samford University’s special collection, Bryant said. The archives include church minutes, old photos, books and community historical documents.

“Perhaps the most interesting article in the archives is the water heater,” Bryant said. “They used that for the first baptistry. I’ve heard there used to be two livery stables nearby, and they took buckets of water to the baptistry on wagons from the stables.”

Ruhama’s final service recognized this history and recent members of the congregation. Henderson asked many to stand for recognition, including current members, current and former staff members and the oldest member of the church, Lillian Thornton, who will soon be 100 years old.

“Paul’s second letter to Timothy says we can have confidence when we can say ‘I have kept the faith.’ Ruhama Baptist Church can say, ‘I know whom I have believed,'” said Arthur Walker, former interim pastor of Ruhama.

Ruhama “passed the torch” to Emmanuel Church and to First, Irondale, toward the end of the service.

“This is an outgrowth of several things,” said Terry Sutton, pastor of First Baptist Irondale. “Ruhama is our mother church. We were an opportunity for them to come to their daughter church and help build a new church together.”

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  • Malinda Hallman McGill