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Thousands at Bell Shoals Baptist Church celebrate lives of Forrest, Preston Pollock

BRANDON, Fla. (BP)–Thousands paid tribute to senior pastor Forrest Pollock and his son, Preston, 13, May 17 at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla.

The two perished in an airplane crash May 12 on Cold Mountain in the Shining Rock Wilderness area of North Carolina, 20 miles from Asheville. A memorial display at the front of the Tampa-area church included a duo-toned Gibson Les Paul electric guitar alongside a picture of Preston Pollock, whose cross-armed stance echoed that of his father’s portrait nearby. On one end, a family portrait stood between a few multi-colored floral arrangements, while a broken-heart flower tribute graced the middle of the memorial.

No one could have been anticipated the first major event planned in the new $24 million facility would be a “Celebration of Life” service for the pastor and his son. Regardless, the 3,400-seat state-of-the-art worship center filled quickly for the two-hour service with overflow seating in the bright lobby where hundreds more watched the service on video screens.

Volunteers from dozens of churches in the Tampa Bay area -– and members of F.A.I.T.H. Riders motorcycle ministry from across the state -– assisted with seating mourners and with parking cars at the sprawling 39-acre campus.

In an emotional mix of reflection and celebration, well-wishers from the 7,000-member church where Pollock served since 2002 began arriving two hours before the 11 a.m. service to sign guest books, joining local pastors, out-of-town guests and Southern Baptist leaders to contemplate “what a wonderful hope we have in the Lord Jesus Christ,” as executive pastor George Thomasson described it in welcoming the crowd on behalf of Pollock’s wife of 17 years, Dawn, and her family.

Of father and son, Thomasson said, “They are more alive than they have ever been before.”

Courtney Pollock, 15, the oldest of the five surviving Pollock children, had entered the worship center last with other family members, and remained composed while singing the hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” with her eyes mostly closed.

The congregation stood and some raised their hands while the graceful young woman with long, curly, blonde hair concluded by glancing upwards and singing, “I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”

Preston Pollock, who was home schooled along with some of his siblings, was a musician and songwriter. He also liked to fish and was learning, according to the church’s program, to be a pilot, like his father.

Three of Preston John “P.J.” Pollock’s friends — Caleb Clark, Caleb Moore and A.J. Wellman — read handwritten notes from the podium. Clark introduced himself and the other two as members of the band, S.O.S. (Suspects of Sin) that Clark and Preston formed when they were 6 and 7.

“One thing that we wanted you to know about Preston is that he loved God,” Clark said in sharing a word about Preston’s faith. “If anyone is here today that doesn’t know for sure that they are a Christian, then please come and talk to one of us. We may just be kids, but we know how to tell you about Jesus and we know for sure, we will see Preston … when we get to heaven.”

Moore, longish, straight blonde hair hiding his features, told of thumbing through his Bible after hearing the news and coming across a commentary that, in part, described heaven as “a perfect place of perfected people with our perfect Lord.”

“If that’s what heaven is like, then I’m so happy for my friend Preston,” Moore said. “When I found out, I cried for myself and mourned for myself. But now, after I read that, I cried for joy and happiness because I know he went up with his dad to heaven. And I am proud to be in the same band with him and proud to be his friend.”

Wellman read aloud a song the trio dedicated to Preston, “See You Later”: “They say it’s OK to cry even though it’s not a goodbye. We know we’ll see you again someday because God carefully planned it that way. It’s not goodbye forever. It’s only see you later, my friend.”

“You were a great friend and you always made us laugh,” Wellman said. “We know you are in heaven and we’ll see you one day -– and be sure to save us a seat.”

Synched to MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine” and imposed onto clouds, a parade of family photos flashed on two giant screens as the audience alternately laughed and wiped their eyes at the images, ranging from nearly identically posed portraits of Preston and Forrest Pollock to youngsters’ snapshots and more intimate shots of Forrest and Dawn Pollock celebrating his various academic degrees.

Many of the photos hinted at Pollock’s flair for the dramatic, fine suits, and “Louisiana flavor” some have attributed to the time he spent in Baton Rogue -– and his early adult background in broadcast journalism. The multimedia presentation ended with a simple cross on a hill against a brilliant orange sunset framing the merged images of Preston and Forrest Pollock.

Simeon Nix, the church’s pastor of music and worship for more than a dozen years, led a 200-member choir, orchestra and praise team throughout the celebration. Directing an anthem titled “Greater Glory,” Nix said Pollock asked him to compose it for the church’s June 1 building dedication. Pollock preached only his third and final Sunday in the new worship center on Mother’s Day May 11.

Nix described Pollock’s smile as “bright and magnetic. I once told him that he was so pretty and perfect that I needed a little dirt on him to make him real.”

Struggling for composure, Nix spoke of -– and then sang — Pollock’s favorite song, “In Christ Alone” –-which he would use in signing his letters, followed by his initials, “FGP.”

“I believe this was his testimony, which speaks of his tenacious love for Jesus Christ,” Nix said. “In Christ Alone.”

Chris Butson, former chairman of the personnel committee at Bell Shoals, credited Pollock for introducing the church to Bible characters through dramatic presentations and for provocative sermon series. Speaking of the 1,300 baptisms since Pollock began serving the church, Butson said the pastor led the church to become one of the 100 fastest-growing churches in North America.

“He has taught us to know, to grow, to show and to go for Jesus Christ,” Butson said. “I will walk with Forrest Pollock again someday on the streets of gold.”

Tom Elliff, who was Dawn Pollock’s pastor at First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla., before becoming a senior vice president at the International Mission Board, said he remembers when Pollock decided during a premarital counseling session to accept a call to the Gospel ministry.

“Every time I was in Forrest’s presence, I felt like I was in the presence of true greatness,” said Elliff, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “It is not necessarily because of great things he did, but it was because Forrest did everything in a great way, and that’s the measure of true greatness. He attacked it with vigor and enthusiasm.”

Pollock married Dawn in 1990 and sold the successful Norman, Okla.-based business he founded, PDC Multimedia Productions, Inc., in 1991 to begin studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Texas.

Holding Pollock’s preaching Bible in the air, Elliff said there was a lot of “conjecture” circulating about the circumstances surrounding Pollock’s death -– and he had the “actual report” in its entirety.

“In one bright, brilliant, shining moment Preston and Forrest stepped into the presence of God,” Elliff said to thunderous applause.

Preaching from 2 Corinthians 5:8, Elliff reminded the audience that not everything about death has been revealed, but that it is important to remember that “there is also coming a day … there will be another incredible moment” of resurrection similar to what happened when Jesus was resurrected from the grave.

In the meantime, however, it doesn’t mean that people don’t have sorrow, Elliff said, but it does mean Christians may experience sorrow in a way that is different from “people who have no hope.”

Even Jesus wept, Elliff said, looking at the Pollock family, and there’s such a thing as a “broken heart.” Trying to be reasonable or “choosing to be happy” is unreasonable and not possible in times of great loss when emotions may ebb and flow like waves, he said.

But God can “restore” the broken heart and “restrict” or “bind up” or limit the capacity of a broken heart to destroy, Elliff said. Speaking of Dawn Pollock and members of the family, Elliff said “God can keep this from destroying them.”

Instead, there can be a sensitivity to others that develops out of tragedy, Elliff said, noting, “If you had grown up like Forrest had grown up, and experienced some of the things that he had experienced, maybe you would care like he cared about the kind of folks for whom he cared.”

Evangelist Kelly Green, in issuing an invitation, said because the Christian faith is about a relationship with Jesus, the hope of healing and an eternity with Him is what can reconcile even the most tragic of circumstances.

“There was a hill, a mountain that our pastor and his son flew into by accident. But the story doesn’t end there,” Green said. “Because, you see, there was another mountain called Mount Calvary where a Father and a Son were together. And a Son died…. And the moment that our pastor and precious Preston entered eternity it was because of the resurrected Jesus.”

Bob Anderson, who was Pollock’s special adviser for five years and had pastored in Louisiana before moving to the Tampa area, said of Pollock, “He sung his song, he gave us his music … three stanzas to his song -– his vision for this church, his dream for this church, and his goal for this church.

“That song must never die. That song must continue on,” Anderson said.

Pollock is survived by his wife, Dawn Allen; five children, Courtney, 15, Brooke, 14, Hope, 11, Blake, 10, and Kirk, 8; his mother and stepfather, Eva and Earl Sprinkle of Marion, N.C. Preston’s survivors also include grandparents Loyd V. and Margaret Allen, Jr. of Edmond, Okla., and great-grandparents Loyd and Verna Allen, Sr. of Choctaw, Okla.

Interment will be Tuesday, May 20, in Oklahoma City. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that contributions be made to The Greater Glory building fund at Bell Shoals Baptist Church. Notes to the family can be sent to: [email protected]
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan