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Sharing gives Florida Street Baptist Church new life
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Sharing gives Florida Street Baptist Church new life

With a dwindling congregation, it pins its underused campus to another church and a school.

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GREENSBORO — The laughter of children again echoes down the hall from the nursery.

Rows of cars occupy spaces once empty on Sunday mornings.

A buzz of activity permeates throughout the building.

Inside 1403 W. Florida St. last Sunday, two events took place. One had the congregation of Florida Street Baptist Church singing from the hymnals in its converted fellowship hall. The other occurred in the larger sanctuary the congregation gave up — a guitar-strumming musician leading Spring Garden Community Church into worship.

That’s right. There was a church service going on — but with two different churches under the same roof.

While Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, another resurrection of sorts is taking place within the sprawling brick campus of Florida Street Baptist, once one of the largest churches in the city. In recent years, its congregation had dwindled to 30 parishioners, mostly senior citizens.

This second life is one of faith, prayer and people with good intentions.

And a church taking on tenants.

...

Florida Street Baptist was a church ahead of its time in many ways.

One of the fastest-growing churches in the state in the 1960s, Florida Street sent mission groups to assist churches that requested its help in ministry.

It was a congregation of nearly 1,000 people in the Sunday school and two worship services. Many people lived in the surrounding neighborhoods, which were all-white, just like the congregation.

The congregation was financially able to complete an education building in 1969 and hold a debt-free title by 1971.

Gradually, families left the neighborhood, which was growing more diverse, for the suburbs and found places to worship closer to where they lived. The national trend of big denominational churches in decline left lots of empty seats at the pews.

The membership grayed.

Eventually, there was no need for the beds in the nursery.

The choir disbanded a decade ago. It was down to seven people, none of them under 65.

“It takes about $5,000 a month just to open the doors,” said Bill Slack, Florida Street’s worship leader and chairman of the deacon board.

So the church moved into the smaller fellowship hall to cut down on the utility bills.

Some of the pews were taken from the rear of the main sanctuary and placed in the fellowship hall, replicating the larger sanctuary on a smaller scale.

Those in the congregation who stayed did so because of the fellowship. Because they felt God in the building.

They still do, even as the interim pastor preaches from a makeshift podium where Sunday dinners were once served and behind him stand U.S. and North Carolina flags.

“You miss the baptismal pool and all the pretty decorations,” Virginia Purgason, married in the church in the 1950s, said of the thick, mint-green carpet lining the aisles of the main sanctuary and the gold-toned candelabras overhead. “But God is still here.”

This isn’t a church without passion, but one without the energy of a new generation.

The staff is comprised of just one person: Slack.

The congregation contracts with a piano player.

The newsletters sent out to former members ask them to come for a visit.

“I still feel that Florida Street can grow again,” Slack said. “It will never be the church that it was (at the height of its popularity) from 1967 to ’71, but I still feel there is a place in this neighborhood for this church.”

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There is a place for this church — but it took another church to provide it.

Couches and mismatched chairs now occupy the space where four front pews used to be — except for last Sunday, when tables were brought in for Spring Garden Community Church’s first Passover Seder.

“We hope it says come as you are,” said Spring Garden Pastor Paul Stolwyk, pointing out duct tape on the well-used arms of a chair. “Just like the furniture, it says we may be broken but we can still be used.”

Massive canvas paintings by local artists, some of them members, now cover the walls of the main sanctuary.

Stolwyk occasionally uses them as inspirations for his sermons.

A map in a hallway includes missionaries supported by the congregation and where they serve.

On a recent Sunday morning, about 70 members and lots of children were moving around.

With young families now back in the building, the plastic covers have come off the beds in the nursery and in the playrooms where there is dated but usable furniture.

Beyond the doorways with child-proof gates, tiny hands clasp dolls likely older than their parents — maybe grandparents.

And then there are the couches.

“It’s a very comfortable place for us,” said Brian Dowtin, there with his four children, ages 8 to 15. “I walked in that first morning feeling strangely comfortable. I don’t know it if was the couches or the people.”

The church — which has a large artist community, range of ages and incomes — once met in a warehouse that the then-300 member congregation left because of zoning issues.

Paul Swenson, one of the church’s founding elders, heard about the space at Florida Street from a co-worker about three years ago. At first glance it looked too traditional — and a hard sell for the membership back at Spring Garden.

Getting more than twice the space for the same rent helped make the decision a little easier.

“By opening up and allowing for some nontraditional ways of thinking for a Sunday morning gathering, they’ve helped us thrive,” Stolwyk said of the Florida Street congregation.

There are no ushers, bulletins or piano.

There is no dress code, either.

Rebekah Kirkman wore jeans.

“When we go to my grandma’s church we have to dress up, and here we can wear what we want,” said the 11-year-old, who along with all the children in the church had a hand in one of those massive paintings in the sanctuary.

Stolwyk, in slacks and a button-down shirt, has a question-and-answer segment at the end of his sermons.

The Spring Garden church wants to be a place where people feel like they can come and bring whatever doubts they have, he said.

They have questions,” Stolwyk said. “And I don’t have all the answers. It’s a discussion.”

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Regina Clark, a founding member of Glenwood Family Ministries, had heard about empty space at Florida Street a few years back, and from the street noticed the vacant three-story education wing there.

“Every time I drove past ... I would put my hand out toward the building and I would say, ‘Lord, we thank you in advance. I know you are going to give us this space for a school one day.’ ”

Clark thought this for months. Never having looked inside the building. Not knowing who to contact.

Organizers envisioned a faith-based approach to help struggling kids from the nearby Glenwood neighborhood get a strong education. Having a campus at Florida Street would allow many students to bike or walk to campus.

“We kept saying, ‘Lord, if you open the door, we’ll walk through it,’ ” Clark said.

As the group worked to open Hope Academy, a private, nondenominational Christian school for at-risk youth from the fifth to ninth grade, one of its members knew Swenson at Spring Garden. He let the group in to the education wing to look around.

“When I toured it the first time, I cried because I said, ‘This is a school waiting for kids to show up,’ ” Clark said.

To meet building codes, the school had to put in new windows and replace the heating system.

“It was like it was built for us; it was just built 40 years too early,” Clark said with a laugh.

The school is in the second year of its lease.

“We will have people come through on a tour and say they grew up at Florida Street Baptist Church and they are excited to see something like this in that space,” Clark said.

...

Memories jump out at Slack as he walks the Florida Street campus.

As minister of music, he led nearly 500 people in the many church choirs. He recalls altar calls with people streaming down the aisle.

He tempers those images with words of how souls have been led to Christ and strengthened through the various ministries throughout the building.

“There’s only one person who can tell the future of Florida Street and that’s the good Lord,” said Slack, who doesn’t take a salary but keeps the building running. “What he wants to happen will happen. But we’ve got a lot going on here.”.

Contact Nancy McLaughlin at (336) 373-7049, and follow

on Twitter.

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