Evelyn Simpkins can't wait until the new Hayden Baptist Church is ready for its first Sunday morning service.
“If God spares my life, and I'm still living, there is going to be no way to keep me away,” she said following a groundbreaking ceremony Sunday afternoon on Prosperity Lane. The empty parcel of land, where Hayden Baptist Church eventually will stand, is in the Willow Run Industrial Park.
Simpkins, 92, is Hayden Baptist's oldest member. Even though the weather was hot and she had to maneuver her walker over uneven terrain, she gamely donned a hard hat for the big event and grabbed a shovel. Then Simpkins flashed a big smile while posing for photographs with a group that included Aiken City Council members Gail Diggs and Lessie Price.
“We've been running from one place to the other all the time, and I'm glad we're going to finally have a stationary place,” Simpkins said. “Thank the Lord! It's a wonderful day.”
Hayden Baptist Church previously was located on Hayden Road, and it served the Shaws Fork Community in Aiken County. But last summer, lightning struck the house of worship and it burned down. Hayden Baptist, which had been founded in 1868, no longer had a home.
But because of “an outpouring of love and support from the City of Aiken and Aiken County,” Hayden Baptist's members were able to continue worshipping together at other locations, said the Rev. Robert Heflin, who is the church's pastor. Meanwhile, he and Hayden Baptist's congregation never gave up their hopes to rebuild one day. Sunday's groundbreaking ceremony was an important step forward.
“This is a celebration to me,” said Benjamin Jenkins, who began attending Hayden Baptist Church when he was 11 years old. “God has brought us from the ashes and now He's bringing us back up with our restoration. We're going to stand for the Lord and nothing is going to stop us.”
An architectural rendering of the new church was displayed on an easel at the groundbreaking ceremony.
“It's very similar to our old church, and it looks so wonderful,” Jenkins said. “It makes me want to shout with joy.”
Teresa Johnson, another church member, also liked what she saw.
“There is a God and He's sent us a true blessing with this new church,” she said as she examined the rendering. “For us to have our own place of fellowship again is going to be beautiful.”
Hayden Baptist's new location is result of a conversation with God, according to Heflin.
“The night of the fire, God kept speaking to me,” the pastor said. “He told me this was an opportunity to do more work, and He told me He wanted the new church to be built on the east side of Aiken. But He also said we couldn't go any closer (to downtown) than Beaufort Street because if we did, we would be in Second Baptist Church territory and Friendship Baptist Church territory.”
The decision to make the new Hayden Baptist look similar to the old church was intentional, Heflin said.
“We had so many members who loved that church, and we wanted to bring a piece of Hayden from out in the country into the city,” he explained.”
Heflin added that 100 bricks from the former church building would be used in the new structure or to build a memorial to the old structure at the new site.
“This is a very happy occasion for Hayden Baptist Church,” Heflin said. “God has opened up the floodgates to bless us, and we want to say thank you to everyone. We are going to be a blessing to the City of Aiken and the community of Aiken County.”
Work on the new church could be completed by February or March of next year, according to Heflin. The sanctuary will be able to accommodate 250 people.
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013.