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First Baptist on Fifth views demolition project as launching new chapter
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First Baptist on Fifth views demolition project as launching new chapter

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The congregation of First Baptist Church on Fifth is letting two loved ones go.

Starting today, abatement works begins on the non-sanctuary buildings of the 147-year-old downtown church that has been at 501 W. Fifth St. since 1924. Building B debuted in 1954 and Building C in 1961.

In about four weeks, a methodical deconstruction of the buildings will begin, leaving behind in the short term half of a city block to be used as open space.

In all, the first phase of the renovation is expected to take 10 weeks.

“It’s going to be like separating Siamese twins given how all the mechanics, HVAC and the like have been connected for so long,” said Gary Knight, chairman of a 16-member committee that studied and stewed and fretted and prayed for more than three years over the decision that was made public in June 2017.

The committee’s recommendation represented the final leg of an internal discussion several decades old.

“We have talked about the building plans to the point it had to have become among the most studied projects in Winston-Salem,” Knight said.

“We, as a committee and a church, finally reached a point where it made more sense to handle the problem rather than applying Band-Aids and keeping kicking it down the road.”

The decision represented a humbling reflection that the church, with about 500 active members, no longer has the 2,000-plus member size from the 1960s and 1970s to financially support what was slowly becoming a money pit of repairs.

About 25 percent of the annual church budget was being spent on operating the two buildings, as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars required each year from restricted funds.

“From roofing to mechanical systems, plumbing to masonry work, our entire physical plant is in dire need of attention and we cannot continue to spend at the pace we are on and remain a vital presence of ministry and mission in the downtown community,” the committee said.

The equivalent of $14.4 million in 2017 dollars, or a combined $4.37 million at the time of each project, has been spent on the sanctuary and two renovations. The church also spent in 1991 about $1.27 million in 2017 dollars, or $700,000 at the time, on replacing the steeple.

“Despite the significant spending on Buildings B & C within and beyond the church budget, remaining urgent maintenance needs have led us to this critical moment,” the committee said.

Downsize

The Rev. Emily Hull McGee, the church’s pastor, said there’s no doubt that the demolition represents a melancholy end of a church chapter.

“The decision was pretty straightforward once the commitment was made again that we have a unique call to serve and love downtown Winston-Salem,” McGee said. “As part of the call, we have to downsize.”

Randy Peters, chairman of the church deacons, acknowledged there were a few families, some generations in membership, who had hurt feelings over the final decision

“We were very cognizant of those families and individuals who have given so much to the chapel, the gym, the children’s center,” Peters said.

“We formed a subcommittee to find every memorial, every donation over the years to make sure they were recognized and recorded.”

Yet, Peters and McGee say they realize some of those members may leave the church after the buildings come down.

The first renovation phase will cost about $5 million, of which a member family has provided “a major gift that would enable us to start the project.”

Knight estimates the church will save between $150,000 and $200,000 in annual maintenance costs from shrinking to the existing sanctuary building.

“All of our ministers were spending so much time and energy on being building managers,” Knight said.

“Our goal was to restore them to be ministers first, to the congregation and to the local community.”

People and memories

McGee said First Baptist was deliberate in taking time to celebrate the activities and memories created in the two buildings.

The children’s center operated as a back door to the church for 50 years, becoming one of the first five-star childcare facilities in the state.

The center’s closing in December may have generated the biggest jolt to the surrounding community given that thousands of children from all walks of life were cared for by teachers, some of whom had spent their entire work career there.

But even as much of a ministry as the children’s center had been, it was not able to operate fully self-sufficiently, with the church funding much of the upfront and ongoing costs of maintaining its five-star status, Peters said.

The basement gymnasium was among the first of its kind in the Triad, allowing the church to provide a gathering site for youth basketball games, roller skating and other functions such as a homeless shelter during extreme cold conditions.

The fellowship hall provided meals to the congregation and walk-ins from the community most Wednesday nights for decades, as well as serving as a reception hall for weddings. The small chapel was home for a Korean church for several years.

McGee said the congregation held a gathering where members were given two stones and a Sharpie. One stone was to be placed in a space in one of the two buildings where they had experienced God.

The second stone represented where they believe the church would and should go in the future.

“It gave members the opportunity to lay it down and let it go,” McGee said.

“We’re still going to be First Baptist on Fifth. It’s the people and the memories that will live on after the buildings go down.”

Changes

The three church leaders said part of what helped get them through the bittersweet moments was the recognition that First Baptist on Fifth is clearly not alone in downtown churches adjusting to socioeconomic changes.

There has been a commitment to share their learnings with other downtown churches contemplating a similar downsizing move. They mentioned talking with a venerable church in downtown Atlanta having similar challenging discussions.

Some churches end up selling their property as downtown real estate values rise in many communities, moving to areas hoped to be more fruitful in gaining members.

McGee and Peters said First Baptist has had on- and off-again conversations about making a similar move.

“We all had our flags to be planted into the ground about what were negotiable and not negotiable,” Knight said.

However, Peters said that as committee members listened to each other, rather than talked past each other, common ground was found, and then a commonality on the vision and direction to take.

Knight said the committee consulted with real-estate officials who said providing half of a city block “was not as valuable a resource as we may have thought it would be.”

“We are not actively pursuing any kind of non-ministry effort with the land, and we hope to find ways to minister from the open space, but who knows what the future prospects might be.”

Missions

The committee discussions led to the same conclusion, McGee said, that First Baptist is being led by God to remain a source of light and outreach to downtown Winston-Salem residents during a time when more individuals are calling the district home, but fewer are actively attending any church.

The church leaders said the demolition decision was “freeing” in “allowing us to more actively pursue the four missions in our current mission statement,” McGee said.

The four missions: advocating and cultivating for the well-being of children; helping to mitigate poverty in the community; expanding on being a teaching and learning church; and growing in membership and faithfulness in spreading the good news of Jesus.

“Those missions transcend all socioeconomic boundaries,” McGee said.

“The nurturing of children has been a special part of this church for decades and a great expression of our love. We want to go beyond showing mercy to those who are the most neglected by putting our feet and our hands to our faith in serving them.”

Peters said the church is reaching out to business, civic and elected officials to help determine where to best put its energy, resources and time.

“We are determined not to just come up with a mission statement, salute it, and then put it on a shelf,” Peters said.
“Our deacons have subdivided themselves into four groups, representing the mission elements. The deacons have been commissioned to get out into the community to hear about and learn about where we can make a difference.

“In six months, we’ll report back to the congregation on what our goals are and how we can act on them.”

Continuing history

McGee said that another element of what helped church members get through the reality of the downsizing was seeing how excess materials were finding new homes.

“The chapel’s pews were acquired by a startup church in Haywood County,” McGee said. “The kitchen equipment will help a young woman start her new bakery. The basketball backboards went to a church in Mount Airy.

“Our church’s legacy of helping others in innovative ways now reaches from North Carolina to the outskirts of Detroit, and many places in between.”

The leaders said the congregation is looking forward to the second renovation phase.

That will include: replacing the roof on the remaining building A; relocating the electrical transformer and the boiler; addressing restoration of the building A tower; adding restrooms in building A; and providing temporary space for children and some church offices.

That work could take between 10 and 14 months.

“The final lesson we learned during this journey is that First Baptist on Fifth’s history is still being written, and hopefully will continue to be written for decades to come,” Peters said.

“While we’re anxious about the paths we’re taking, we also recognize we need to be willing to be open and listen to what God has planned for this church and our members and our community.”

rcraver@wsjournal.com 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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