This post comes from Anita Snell, former member of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church and missional church specialist for the Fellowship.
Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla., dedicated new worship space on Jan. 10 after the complete destruction of its original sanctuary two days before Christmas 2007, just two years ago. The African drum beat announced the dancing children as they joyously sang Natalie Sleeth’s “Gaudeamus Hodie.” A Baptismal celebration of three new Christians followed. Guest musician Kyle Matthews, Minister of Music at First Baptist Church of Greenville, S.C. graced the worshipers, as only he can, with songs that reach to the inner depths of the soul. The band sang “How Sweet the Sound,” written by Brett Foster, HAB’s own Minister of Spiritual Formation and Mission, while the liturgical readings and prayers were given by senior members of the congregation. Highlight of the day was the sermon by Senior Pastor Kyle Reese entitled “Founded on the Rock” – seated on a stool and speaking conversationally to the congregation, he recited from memory all the words of Jesus from Matthew 5, 6, and 7. It was heart-stopping! A Dedication Litany for the congregation was led by Mary Bridgman, chair of the diaconate.
It wasn’t an ordinary day because it isn’t an ordinary church. This Place of Grace has served through the years to share the presence of Jesus Christ throughout the Jacksonville community and truly throughout the world. The church structure is not The Church, and even though HAB has been without the usual facilities that house this worshipping community for the past two years, it has still been the church at it’s finest.
The story of the HAB congregation working together to rebuild its sanctuary from the rubble of fire is a remarkable one: Sunday, December 23, 2007 dawned in Jacksonville, Florida to a spectacular, horrible, emotional, Dante-esque sight — a fire that had apparently smoldered through the night erupted in the wee hours into a five-alarm fire that shut down all of Hendricks Avenue, a major thoroughfare, from the dawn hours until the end of the day. A neighbor walking his dog about 4:00 a.m. saw the flames and called the Fire Department, but the conflagration was too great to be contained. The fire fighters worked valiantly, but the blaze consumed the sanctuary and much of the other administrative offices, library, music suites, and other facilities. The horror was picked up by CNN and other media and was broadcast far and wide. HAB has been a symbol of cooperation and ecumenical community spirit through the years, and the burned building was a high-profile of loss for the entire community. Grief and consolation poured out from the all over the country. It was an emotional time for the church and the city’s larger ecumenical family.
Kyle Reese, senior pastor of this congregation, and the church leaders are still amazed that through this tragic event, there has been a huge outpouring of community support and an expansion of church ministries that grew from the smoldering embers. Church leaders decided to begin the rebuilding immediately, and to continue to expand initiatives in its historical community service that were approved shortly before the fire. The church adopted two schools, launched an expanded ministry for the homeless at the downtown Sulzbacher Center, and joined forces with another church to provide healthcare and other services to the Southside poor. HAB also works with Global Missions of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship through giving and mission engagement with the Ruth Schools in Romania and Hungary, Touching Miami with Love, Open House Ministries, and the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Schools.
The new HAB sanctuary is stunning! The immediate greeting from the front entry is a huge stained glass window of the “Welcoming Jesus”—a motif taken from the original window destroyed in the fire. There are other fragments of design that were taken from the former church, but the new sanctuary is at once fresh, welcoming, and warm. It is a cruciform design that results in everyone sitting in the round and being surrounded by an atmosphere of worship. No one is isolated or far away, and worshippers feel they are in the immediate presence of Christ.
Generous community participation helped fund the new building. The rest of the needed financial support was raised for the new building through the insurance monies and the sacrificial giving of the congregation. After two years of tremendous work, the new sanctuary is now a miraculous reality. The new 60-rank antiphonal organ with trompette en chamade is installed, the technical bells and whistles that accommodate many styles of worship, including the contemporary “Gathering,” are in place, and the zillion other little bits and pieces that make this place special have all been put together. The place of visual art in worship is accommodated in two galleries that surround the entries. Local artists and the art of the congregation are currently featured, and plans are in place for this special ministry to continue, as a way to reach people in new and fresh ways with truth and beauty.
A quote from the Florida Times-Union on December 23, 2009, the day the new sanctuary held its first public service, seems to sum up the church: “Along the way, members discovered religion is about fellowship and compassion not buildings.”