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Fifth Avenue Baptist Church members active in community

Mar. 18, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The stately white church at 1135 5th Ave. is different, architecturally, from many of its surrounding churches.

It has no arches or spires pointing to the heavens. What it does feature, however, are six columns that not only set the church apart to passersby, but serve as reminders of various elements of their faith, the Rev. Allen Reasons says on the Fifth Avenue Baptist's website.

The outer columns represent the commandments to love God and love one another, Reasons writes. The four inner columns represent the four primary areas of life in their church: "Inreach, outreach, spiritual growth and missions," he writes.

The congregation of about 1,200 spends time inside the columns growing spiritually with God and with each other, but they also work diligently to take that loving spirit outside the church walls, said Reasons, who has been at Fifth Avenue Baptist for about 12 years, after relocating from Texas.

"On Sunday, we worship together, but service starts at noon," he said.

From running a popular downtown child care center to making monthly mission trips to Nicaragua, Fifth Avenue Baptist is established as a large and lively congregation working to serve God and the people with whom they come in contact in a variety of ways.

"We have a great base of active church members," Reasons said. "It's very lay-led. The laity is extremely involved in the operation of the church. It's a very participatory church and a lot of people are actively involved in the life of the church."

With a number of higher-profile members -- such as former Herd football Coach Bob Pruett and many others -- it's wonderful to see how all are equal on Sunday mornings, Reasons said.

"It's a wonderful group of people," Reasons said. "I say to colleagues across the country that this is a good group of people who are intentional about living their faith."

Their heritage goes back to 1872, when Baptists started meeting at Marshall College and other locations around town, including atop a saloon on 3rd Avenue.

Their first official building was where The Herald-Dispatch is today, on the northwest corner of 5th Avenue and 10th Street. It opened in May 1882. The church was valued at $5,000, which at the time was actually too much for small and financially challenged congregation, according to a written history, penned by Irene Brand in 1972 for the church's centennial. There were improvements and an expansion to that building in the 1890s. By World War I, it was looking to expand again, and it moved into the current building in March 1919. The original building cost $182,000. More expansions came, including the educational building where the daycare is today, in the 1960s.

Nearly an entire wing is dedicated to its child care program which serves infants through preschoolers.

There also is a sizable fellowship hall and kitchen. Along with the church offices, there's a youth room, which has a Wednesday evening service with a band and a more casual atmosphere for worship. There's a bright, inviting chapel that hosts smaller weddings, funerals and summer services. It's also where the daycare children have weekly worship.

The church also has a reception room and rose garden, and a variety of other rooms.

Like other downtown churches, Fifth Avenue Baptist is a sizable facility. There's a story well-told that when Reasons showed up for his first day of work, he struggled to find his own office. He had to call the secretary to show him.

"It's a big place, and we try to make sure we use it in as many different ways as we can," Reasons said.

And there are a lot of ways.

Worship

Worship is obviously one of them. Donna Dingus is the organist at Fifth Avenue Baptist and loves using the instrument there to encourage members to join in song.

The organ there has 28 ranks of pipes, 35 stops and 1682 pipes. When it was installed in 1970 by Schantz Organ Co., it cost $48, 295. And a recent replacement cost about $400,000.

"When you view the complexity of the instrument, it's not an unreasonable amount. It is the most expensive piece of equipment the church owns, second only to the building itself," Dingus said.

It will be featured on Sunday, March 18, during a concert by famous organist Bradley Hunter Welch of Dallas, Texas. The concert, sponsored by the church and the Huntington Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, will be at 3 p.m. March 18, followed by a reception at Smith Hall at Marshall.

"The pipe organ is often referred to as the 'King of Instruments,'" Dingus said. "... After the introduction to a hymn, I'd like the congregation to feel like, 'How can I keep from singing?'"

The leadership of the church's pastors has been outstanding over the years as well, said David Pancake, a Cabell Circuit Judge and lifelong member of Fifth Avenue Baptist.

"It's had a great succession of historic leadership," Pancake said. "I go back over my 67 years, and it's been the leadership of the pastors that has been the foundation, the stone."

That includes Reasons, he said.

"He was 40 when he came. I've told him he was better at 40 than many at 60," Pancake said. "He has a tremendous gift of preaching. ... He reads Greek and he takes a text and can give you the Hebrew words and history behind it. He's an intriguing preacher with a big pastor's heart."

But as Reasons mentioned, the church is lay-led. There are a handful of commissions that focus on things like building and grounds, education and programs, and the heads of each commission serve on church council, along with the pastoral staff and at large members.

Among the staff are husband and wife, Ryan and Jana Stoner, who are the ministers of youth and children, respectively, along with Hubert Harvey, the minister of education.

Music department staffers are Jeff Pappas, as part-time director of music, and Dingus as organist.

Missions

Outside the church walls, a serious focus of the congregation is missions work, both within the community and as far away as a village in Nicaragua that is visited often.

Reasons' wife, Laurie Reasons, is much involved with the mission work in Nicaragua.

"Our first trip about 10 years ago had 112 people participating," she said. "That first trip had three separate teams working in different locations: medical, construction, and children's education with a modified version of Vacation Bible School . We began to work with an orphanage then, and we continue that precious partnership till this day."

Since that first trip, the church has sent many smaller groups multiple times per year. A couple of businessmen have, on their own, raised the funds and then built 27 homes in the neighborhood near the orphanage, Reasons said.

"Some of the services that God has led us to provide include medical clinics, dental clinics, construction of homes, food distribution, repairing of the orphanage facilities, and of course, sharing the embrace of Christ as we bond with the children and families," Laurie Reasons said. "All of these services, however, pale in comparison to the deep desire that everyone we meet will come to a personal love relationship with Christ and experience the delight of His forgiveness."

Trips require not just physical preparation such as travel immunizations, but also spiritual preparation.

A team that went to Nicaragua last December had weekly prayer meetings and a required book study.

"Once there, twice-daily devotionals helped keep the team unified with God and each other, plus a highlight was sharing "God moments' we experienced that day," she said. "Repeatedly we hear returning missioners say that they were awed to witness the working of God while there....many personally experience God's power through daily miracles -- and that is what keeps us returning time after time. Those frequent supernatural surprises stoke our spirits."

And although not all members of the church can go, they can all be missionaries, said Jana Stoner, who also coordinates missions. They can help collect items to take, they can make a financial donation and they can pray, she said.

About 60 church members sponsor a child's nutritional needs for $30 a month, Laurie Reasons said.

"Others support the orphanage facility itself by repairs, or purchasing mattresses, or contributing toward new appliances," she said. Some members, from children to senior citizens, continue to travel there each year.

"The commitment is worthwhile, for sure," Laurie Reasons said. "These combined experiences have knit our hearts together with these lifetime friends who live thousands of miles from here. The ties are lasting. Last year, we even had a family in our church adopt one of the orphans, and we are so excited we now get to worship with him every week."

Such fulfilling work in Central America, however, is only complementary to the church's constant efforts to bring God's presence everywhere, including here in Huntington, she said.

The church offers meals for the homeless on a monthly basis, at the Ohio River in the warmer months, and at the church in the colder months.

Along with serving as usher, being involved in Sunday school and offering home communion, Pancake volunteers to be a greeter when the church hosts meals for the homeless on the river. It's a wonderful experience, and "They don't know me from Adam," he said.

Fifth Avenue Baptist also is planning a new mission called "Helpington" inspired by a visit to Joplin, Mo., last year. Long before deadly tornadoes struck the town, it had been having a yearly day of service, on which churches got together to focus their energies on making physical improvements in their town. After worship, the participants get out on the streets and do various jobs to help out, and meet up for a large celebration with food and fellowship afterward.

Fifth Avenue Baptist is working on planning such an event in Huntington on Oct. 21, in partnership with First Presbyterian Church. It will focus on the Central City area, and seven weeks in advance participants will get out into the community to ask what needs to be done.

What was done in Joplin was everything from trimming trees and mowing lawns to beautification projects, said Philip Elliott who is helping coordinate this "One Great Day of Service," as it's called in Joplin.

Mission work is a remarkable experience, he said.

"It enriches me in how I look at society as a whole and how blessed we are in this country," he said. "Usually you go with 20 or 50 people ... By the end of the week, you become so close and get to see a side of people that you don't always see on Sunday morning."

Youth

FAB is working to make sure children get involved in such experiences even from a very young age.

One focus of the church under Reasons' leadership, Pancake said, is to fully involve youth, from the life within the church to the service outside of the church.

It begins with children in the daycare, who read Bible stories daily, have chapel once a week and pray at mealtimes. Their families are encouraged to contribute items for mission projects as well.

Children who are members at Fifth Avenue Baptist start mission work early.

Next week, for example, a group of kids ages 5 to 15 will be going on a mission trip to Washington. Kids also go elsewhere in the state for mission projects, and to Nicaragua. Meanwhile, they do other projects, from offering a free car wash on 5th Avenue to passing out water in the park, helping at a food pantry, carving pumpkins with the girls living at Golden Girl Group Home or visiting shut-ins.

"Our goal as a children's ministry is to make serving others so natural that they don't even think about it," Jana Stoner said. "When the kids do it, parents do it, and it's really changed our church."

As it turns out, there's more participation for the service projects than there is for recreational ones, she said.

"I'm really proud of where our families have come," Jana Stoner said. "The goal is that church members are the body of Christ out in the world. ... It's not what they're doing here. The real test of whether our church is doing its job is if our families are different, and if they're changing their communities.

"It's not about enhancing the church," she said. "It's about enhancing the kingdom."

The newly renovated organ at Fifth Avenue Baptist Church will be featured on Sunday during a concert by famous organist Bradley Hunter Welch of Dallas, Texas.

The concert, sponsored by the church and the Huntington Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, will be at 3 p.m. Sunday, March 18, followed by a reception at Smith Hall at Marshall.

"Dr. Welch is an extremely talented musician and gives a superb performance," said Donna Dingus, organist at Fifth Avenue Baptist. "I think one of the best aspects of his concert is his verbal performance notes. Before each selection, he gives verbal notes on the music to be played. Sometimes he tells about the composer, sometimes gives clues as to what the listener should listen for, sometimes tells an inspiring story about the music or how he has used it at his church.

"As Dr. Welch does this, he very quickly establishes a relationship with the audience," she said.

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