Article in The Albuquerque Tribune: Salvation’s sprawl

It’s a Wednesday evening at the First Baptist Church in Downtown and three smiling teenage boys jump rope on the church’s lawn in the settling darkness.

They manage a few leaps before one of them makes a mistake, the game’s end beginning a round of laughter and playful hugs and slaps on the back.

From inside the church at 101 Broadway N.E., Janet Saiers, a church member since 1956, points and explains how the grass beneath the boys’ feet once was a parking lot.

On the opposite side of the building, where the walls overlook Central Avenue, Saiers remembers a railing, now marked only by holes in the ground, that she and her sister used to lean on while skipping up concrete steps into a day of worship.

Back in those days, she says, a computer station didn’t sit next to the balcony pews, and movie screens didn’t flank the pulpit.

“When I was growing up, a lot of the preachers didn’t even use a microphone,” she said. “A lot has changed.”

The question now is not if change will come again but when. Earlier this month, First Baptist’s congregation voted 202-79 to buy property on the West Side and build a new home for the church that traces its beginnings to 1853.

Like any such step, hope and sadness mark the path. Developers eye the property, and neighborhoods prepare for loss and gain.

Some of the church’s flock cheer the move. Others wonder why and have begun looking elsewhere for a place to practice their faith.

Through the smiles, cries and questions, church officials are clear: This house of God has to go where the young families are or risk fading away.

Beginning again

On Albuquerque’s western edge, there is a 13.3-acre stretch of sun-beaten dirt, shrubs, nomadic trash and weeds.

The surrounding neighborhood is thriving. Homes fill the hills and cars zip through the intersection of Paseo del Norte and Eagle Ranch Road that marks the property’s southeastern tip.

“We’re going to be willing and able from that location . . . to identify with and to minister to generations that are coming up, even now,” said Steve Taylor, 54, lead pastor of First Baptist Church since March 2001. “There are so many more young couples with young families in that area. . . . It opens doors for a more significant impact on our community.”

He estimates about 350,000 people live within a seven-mile radius of the site. Construction of the church must wait until First Baptist’s property Downtown sells, but plans are in place to bring more worshippers into the fold.

The church, Taylor says, will be an ultra-modern structure that provides not just Sunday morning worship, but a place for anyone in the community to spend some time, “to let it become a lifestyle.”

That could entail public walking trails, an outdoor amphitheater, a Christian bookstore modeled after Borders, an outdoor baptistry, a coffee shop, a movie theater and possibly a rooftop courtyard, he says.

“The emphasis of our church will be on young people, younger married people, young singles,” he said. “We’re going to be doing a lot of things that appeal to them.”

Sander Rue, vice president of the Rancho Sereno Neighborhood Association, said his organization was thrilled by the church moving in, especially given its programs and its minimal impact on traffic.

“We think it will blend nicely into the community,” he said. “We really don’t see any negatives to this.”

Taylor says the move is designed to revitalize the church after years of struggle.

Sunday school attendance dropped from about 1,200 in the early 1990s to about 300 by the time Taylor arrived, according to the church’s administrator, Keith Weathersby.

Weathersby attributes the decline to two factors: a three-year period when the church’s former pastor was preoccupied with handling the death of his wife during his first year of service, and another three-year period when the church went without a pastor. He says Taylor has built the church back up, and Sunday school attendance is up slightly again.

B.J. Davis, a member of First Baptist for 47 years, says he is ready for the new beginning.

After the church’s vote to move, the 78-year-old, musical-saw-playing osteopathic physician walked the 13 miles or so from First Baptist in Downtown to the new location on the West Side.

“My mother was one of the people that came across the prairie in a covered wagon,” he says. “Well, if Mama could do that . . . I certainly could do something different, also.

“It took me four hours and 40 minutes to walk from our church out to the new land. It was just something I wanted to do.”

“When my foot hit the soil at the bottom of the land, I began to weep.”

Remembering

The Downtown church holds powerful memories for Davis.

His children were baptized at the church. Two of them were married there. His oldest son attended one of its programs for children with exceptional needs and had his funeral service there.

Davis also recalls a time when a homeless man interrupted a service. He took the intruder to a nearby restaurant to talk.

The man complained of being out of work, of being a war veteran. But Davis pointed out that those weren’t such terrible problems by describing his own tragedies: a brother who died in World War II, a father killed in a train accident when Davis was 11.

“I said, ‘You can go on and live life with what you have left,’ ” Davis says. “These things happen in our lives, but there’s more important things. Go on.”

It’s an attitude echoed in his enthusiasm for First Baptist’s new location.

“It was quite important to us as a home, but we see this new move as a leap into the future for our church,” Davis says. “I just feel like it’s time for us to leave and get a new start and do greater things for the Lord.”

But not all of the church’s congregation share the excitement. “It’s very sad this is happening,” said Albuquerque businessman H.B. Horn, 88.

“I’m not mad at anybody at all. It’s just a sad part of my life.”

Horn was baptized at the church when he was 10. He served on teams that found three of the church’s 31 pastors. He joined or led numerous committees of First Baptist that raised funds for the church. He donated money. He sealed real estate deals that allowed its expansion into what it is today. But the move has him considering Highland Baptist Church as a place to worship.

“We need a Baptist church in that area,” he says. “I’d just like to see us keep our location.”

SIDEBAR: Developers hail Downtown site

For some, First Baptist Church’s absence will leave a scar. Others see a blank canvas on which to build a stronger Downtown.

Rob Dickson, owner of Paradigm & Co. and developer of the Albuquerque High lofts, said he is sorry to see the church go.

But he has ideas for the property: a 12-story to 15-story residential building, 800 to 1,000 housing units, shops and a meeting house that everyone in the neighborhood could use for events.

“My approach would be to renovate the existing buildings and then build new buildings on the surface parking lot around the building,” he said. “That could really become a higher density, vibrant place.”

The church’s day of departure remains undecided. Deals need finalizing, and construction is still just an idea.

Barry Porter, a member of First Baptist’s relocation team, said the West Side property purchase should close June 3, and until then, he prefers to leave the price unsaid.

After closing, he said, the church can begin reviewing offers for the Downtown property.

Terry Keene, president of the Broadway and Central Corridors Partnership Neighborhood Association, said Downtown would get a big boost from development of the property.

The association is leading a redevelopment plan for east Downtown, the area along Central Avenue from the train tracks to I-25, and along Broadway Boulevard between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Coal Avenue. It calls for wider sidewalks, slower traffic, more shops and a lot more people.

First Baptist Church is “a very low-profile, underpopulated church,” Keene said. “To have that much space taken up in a small area like this by a facility where people kind of visit it sparingly during the week and once on Sundays . . . it’s going to be better to have potential for that property to really be fully utilized.”

SIDEBAR: Other flocks feeling boxed in, left behind

First Baptist isn’t the only Downtown church whose members have migration on their minds.

Members of St. George Greek Orthodox Church, less than half a mile from from First Baptist, have also considered a move to the West Side or northeast Albuquerque, said Rev. Mario Giannopoulos, a priest at St. George.

“We talked about it for many years,” he said. “We need bigger space. Initially, we thought we’d remodel. Now we’re looking at other positions as far as buying property.”

Price will weigh heavily on the decision, Giannopoulos said, reasoning that if remodeling costs as much as a new place, then a new place might be the right way to go.

“There are so few of us down here anymore,” he said. First Baptist’s move, he said, “certainly hurts.”

First Presbyterian Church – less than a mile from First Baptist – also played with the idea of moving but decided to remodel and expand, said Paul Debenport, senior pastor with the church.

“It’s still a vital church,” he said. “We’re above a thousand members. We’re finally beginning to grow again.”

First Baptist’s eventual departure is a blow to the area, he said.

“We’re sad to see them go,” Debenport said. “It’s important that a vital city have vital downtown churches.”

Of particular concern to Debenport was the fate of Noon Day Ministries, a center based out of First Baptist that serves homeless and low-income people.

The sale of the property will mean the center will need to find a new home, a process First Baptist will assist with, said Barry Porter, a member of First Baptist’s relocation team.

“Relocating Noon Day is certainly part of the relocation strategy,” he said. “It won’t be going to the new location with us, because that’s not where the (homeless) people are.”

Dennis Lihte, executive director of Noon Day, said the center, begun in 1982, will continue to provide meals and assistance for the needy.

“We’re committed to finding a place in the Downtown area to continue our work,” he said. “Homeless missions in general are not popular institutions, so we expect that there will be opposition, but we hope that people will understand what important services we provide.”

FACTBOX: A timeline

First Baptist Church began in 1853 with five members who met inside an Old Town adobe building that rented out for $10 a month. Since then, 11 other Baptist churches have sprung directly from First Baptist, including Sandia, Hoffmantown and Del Norte. Here are some of First Baptist’s historical highlights:

1853: Founded by Hiram Walter Read, a third-generation New England Baptist preacher who came west – toting pistols when necessary – in 1849.

1855: Read leaves the church. Samuel Gorman serves as pastor until 1862, and others keep it loosely organized for a few more years.

1867-1868: The church’s activities effectively stop in New Mexico.

1887: Read returns for three months, organizing the church again, which meets in a room at the Gold Avenue and 2nd Street YMCA.

1893: First Baptist moves into its first permanent church on the northeast corner of Lead Avenue and Broadway Boulevard.

1927: Church breaks ground on an underground building – the church’s basement at the time – at Broadway Boulevard and Central Avenue.

1937: First Baptist dedicates its auditorium, built above the old underground meeting room. The auditorium is in use today.

1949: Work begins on a five-story educational structure at the church

1978: A two-story educational building, connected to the older educational building, is completed.

2005: Plans announced to purchase West Side property and eventually move.

Source: “A Thumbnail History, Albuquerque’s First Baptist Church Celebrates Century of Continuing Service” by Betty Danielson, edited by Dale Danielson.

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