Dr. John Wall, the interim pastor at First Presbyterian Church, arrived there early Sunday morning and as he looked around the sanctuary, pondered the miracles that God can bring.
Soon, he and his white congregation would be joined by the Rev. Robert Heflin and the black members of Hayden Baptist Church.
Just over five months ago, the Hayden church was destroyed by fire. Wall's new friend had suggested never to take a church building for granted.
Yet Heflin and his congregation have worked to overcome their obstacles. On Sunday morning, he and Wall clasped hands warmly on the pulpit of First Presbyetieran Church and led the service as one – preaching the joy of brotherhood and of the Christmas and New Year's season.
The Hayden church has served as a beloved 144-year-old home to countless families since the 19th century. Since then, Heflin and his flock have found locations at Smith-Hazel Recreation Center and Aiken Electric Cooperative.
When they needed a home for December, First Presbyterian reached out – as its members had wanted to do in some way since the summer.
Heflin and his congregation chose to use the Presbyterian Church's family life center for the earlier services this month. They readily agreed to the invitation of Wall and others to attend the regular church service Sunday.
“They've been through such a trauma,” Wall said. “At Christmas and New Year's Day, and to wax metaphorically, why wouldn't we get together? It's a new day.”
Hayden Baptist Church will return to Aiken Electric Cooperative soon, as its members await a new church facility on Beaufort Street. They have no intention of forgetting their new friends.
“I cannot say enough about Pastor Wall and First Presbyterian,” Heflin said. “They have been so kind and so generous to us. We have a bond now that will never be broken. This service is a great way to close out the year. I teared up one time, thanking God about the awesomeness of this church.”
Hayden's choir and First Presbyterian's band shared music opportunities – a festive event they would like to repeat. John Gordon, a band member, said he and Hayden's music director, Mario Johnson, work for the same company and enjoyed the chance to bring their gospel and praise music to the combined congregations.
“This is unique and a blessing,” Gordon said. “They have a liveliness to their music, and the blending was just beautiful.”
At Hayden Baptist, Benjamin Jenkins has been a choir member since he was 11, some 20 years ago.
“Our fire was devastating,” he said, “but it makes me feel great to be here in this church. I'm excited to share fellowship. It's what God wants us to do.”
The First Presbyterian Church has experienced so many memorable services over the years, said member Will Callicott. Yet he recalls no other Sunday like this one.
“We were able to help another church in need, but for all to show up in force in this way is so special,” Callicott said. “I'm proud to be a part of a church that reaches out and uses its facilities in this way. As Rev. Heflin said, 'We're all children of God.'”
Gwen Johnson, a longtime educator, has been part of Hayden Baptist Church throughout her life. She acknowledged that the fire and the overwhelming dismay since then have been difficult.
“Yet we do see God in this, and that has been a blessing, one after another,” Johnson said. “What are the chances we would have had worship with this wonderful congregation if it hadn't been for that fire? I choose not to see the downside, because God is leading us.”
PHOTO by ROB NOVIT First Presbyterian Church member Wanda Cottongim, left, shares a moment with Hayzetta Young, a guest with other congregation members of Hayden Baptist Church.×
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