60th anniversary history review
The 60th anniversary year of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church has begun, and our planning committee has a wide-scale celebration planned. For one thing, the church's history will be published in installments over the next several weeks. Watch for a new "History Moments" article in the Sunday worship guide and right here on the web each week.
VHBC History Moment #1
The year was 1957. Dogwood trees were almost in full bloom in Vestavia Hills. Readers of the Shades Valley Sun in late March read about a meeting on March 31 for people interested in starting a new Baptist church in Vestavia.
The 3 p.m. meeting at City Hall was convened by Dr. Lamar Jackson, Missions Committee Chairman of the Birmingham Baptist Association. Oley Kidd, Director of Missions, and other ministers attended, along with an interested group of people. A committee was formed to go ahead with forward planning: Dr. A. E. Casey, chairman; W. B. Eidson, John Cain, and H. J. Hager, with ex-officio ministers Oley Kidd, Hugh Chambliss, and E. M. Arendall.
The committee recommended that an option be taken on land at the corner of U. S. 31 and Shades Crest Road, and Oley Kidd led the Birmingham Baptist Association to exercise that option with a deposit of $1,000.
A first worship service was planned and announced to be held at Vestavia Elementary School , now known as Vestavia Elementary - East. Oley Kidd led the service on Sunday, April 28.
Everyone was invited to attend a follow-up meeting on Wednesday, May 1, for the purpose of forming a Council empowered to constitute a new church, to be named Vestavia Hills Baptist Church.
At that meeting on May 1st, twenty-seven people requested membership in the new church, by transfer of letter and two by profession of faith and baptism. The Council was appointed to constitute the church, and consisted of Oley Kidd, R. E. Gilmer (Associate Moderator of the Association), Dr. Leon Macon (Editor of The Alabama Baptist), Rev. Bill Stewart (Mountain Brook Baptist), and H. G. Youngblood (Deacon Chairman at Shades Mountain Baptist).
On Sunday, May 5 at 8:30 a. m, Rev. Oley Kidd conducted the first service of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church. Six new members joined at that service.
Now the work would begin in forming this new church - where to meet, who to lead, and how to get organized. It was an exciting beginning!
VHBC History Moment #2
The new church was born in Vestavia Hills on May 1, 1957. But many questions arose. Where would it meet? Who would lead the church? Could it afford to pay a pastor?
Arrangements were made for the church to meet at the Vestavia Hills City Hall. It took a lot of work to prepare the spaces needed for Sunday School, and setting up for each service. Willing members got the work done. The first Worship service at City Hall was on May 12, 1957.
In only three weeks, the church voted to call John Wiley as pastor, Assistant Pastor at Southside Baptist Church in Birmingham. He had served in the Marine Corps in World War II, graduated from Howard College (now Samford University) and Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, Newton, Massachusetts. He and wife Gladys had three children at the time.
What a leap of faith. Imagine a pastor with a family coming to a church, where the receipts for the month of May, 1957, were $1,274. At the same time, imagine a church with only 33 members having the courage to call a pastor to come and lead the church with no staff support and such limited resources.
It happened. John Wiley led the first worship service as pastor on July 21, 1957, to an overflow crowd of 62, and accepted sixteen new members that day. It was a glorious beginning - a day filled with hope.
VHBC History Moment #3
Church membership grew quickly under the leadership of the new pastor, John Wiley. By October of 1957 there were 121 new members. Pastor Wiley was now assisted by Mrs. Claire Campbell, who assumed the role of church secretary, and whose salary and office space were provided through the generosity of church member Charles Carnley.
With the rapid increase in membership, it was imperative for the church to find a permanent location. A committee’s search eventually led to the Vestavia Temple and its spacious grounds. The temple was a round, four-story structure with a stone façade and columns. It had been built in the 1920s by George Ward, Birmingham’s mayor. Ward was fascinated by Roman history and had built his home to replicate the Roman temple to Vesta. On the grounds near the home he had built an additional structure to replicate the Sibyl Temple.
Vestavia Temple and its surrounding gardens had been a major tourist attraction for Birmingham. Having fallen into disrepair after Mr. Ward’s death, it was restored as a restaurant and tearoom in 1948. The restaurant had closed by the time of the church’s formation, and the property was offered for sale. The church voted to buy the beautiful property from its owner, Charles Byrd, for $140,000.
The deed for the church’s permanent home was signed in March of 1958. The overwhelming job of preparing the temple as a house of worship began, along with the financial challenge of the new debt. The dedicated band of believers, now with 160 members and an annual budget of $57,000, had taken another giant leap of faith.
A portion of the original Temple of Vesta remains in the stone walls nearest the Fellowship Hall, outside one of the smaller classrooms. As you walk through that hallway, let your hand run along the stone and listen for the faint echo of dance music from Charles Byrd’s restaurant, or imagine George Ward’s obsession with Roman architecture. Offer a prayer of thanks for the remarkable events and the strong faith that enabled our charter members to turn this unusual building into a place of Christian worship.
VHBC History Moment #4
The young church quickly adapted to its new home in Vestavia Temple in 1958—but only through much hard work and creative planning to utilize the space for all age groups. The need for housing the pastor and his family was considered also, and led the church to purchase a home adjacent to the church on Shades Crest Road as a pastorium.
Membership growth continued, and after four years the church decided to have a committee investigate the possibilities of building an education building for needed religious education space. It was recommended that the church begin such plans as soon as possible, and a Building Committee chaired by Henry J. Hager was named.
Fuller and Crawford, Architects, were appointed to design the two-story building, adjoining the present church auditorium. When contractors bid on the construction, the committee determined the lowest bid was more than twenty percent over budget. After months of making revisions and negotiations, the contract was awarded to Thomas C. Brasfield, General Contractor (now Brasfield & Gorrie) for $103,000. By that time, the church had 451 members and a Building Fund of $37,000. The building was dedicated in 1963.
In only five years, VHBC had continued its pilgrimage as it was led by the Lord to purchase the Vestavia Temple property, a pastorium, and now a new educational building. These facilities were dedicated to the glory of God “in providing a house of prayer, a fellowship of Christian learning and a congregation for human service.”
Walk into one of the comfortable, spacious rooms in this educational building, now used as adult and youth classrooms. Gaze out the window onto the grounds on Shades Crest Road and the pre-school children’s playground. Appreciate the English garden from the hallway. Give a prayer of thanks for all those church members who followed God’s leadership in providing this building for all its use—with children, youth, and adults—through all these years.
VHBC History Moment #5
After eleven years of progressive pastoral leadership, John Wiley resigned as pastor in September, 1968, to establish a pastoral counseling center in Birmingham. Assistant Pastor Lewis Byrd resigned soon thereafter, leaving secretary Claire Campbell to carry on the major tasks of the church, with the help of the deacons and church council, and the preaching of guest speakers and Interim Pastor Dr. Mabry Lunceford.
In August of 1969 the church voted unanimously to call Otis Brooks as its second pastor. He was a native of Decatur, Georgia, and had served in the U. S. Army as a medic in the European Theater during World War II. After the war ended he became a chaplain’s assistant, and was given the opportunity to begin his studies at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. When he returned to the U. S. he earned his Bachelor’s Degree at Emory University, and his Master’s Degree in Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He had served churches in Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana, and moved to Birmingham with his wife, Olive, and three children, Leigh, Mark, and Clint.
The church had sought God’s leadership during this important stage, and responded positively and optimistically to their new pastor’s leadership. As the young church entered its second pastorate, plans were underway for the construction of a new sanctuary, and a Building Fund of $90,000 was on hand. The new era, with a new pastor, appeared to be promising!
VHBC History Moment #6
Otis Brooks and his family moved from Monroe, Louisiana in 1969 to begin his pastorate in Vestavia. Besides meeting the church members and learning the church’s priorities, he began assembling a support staff. George Patterson was called to be Minister of Music and Youth, and Sybil McCrory was appointed the part-time Director of Christian Education.
The Building Committee and its chairman, Ralph Weed, were already busy with plans for a new sanctuary. Their original architect, who had proposed replacing the Temple structure with a circular sanctuary, had passed away. The idea was dropped, and new architects, Harold C. Wallace and Associates, were named. The church adopted a new proposal near the end of 1970, which included the sanctuary, chapel, choir room, classrooms, offices, and library. The circular temple structure would be reflected in the foyer and classrooms, which would stand in its footprint. At a projected cost of $452,075, the long-awaited construction began.
The fifteenth anniversary of the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, on May 7, 1972, marked the dedication of the new building. The celebration included a prayer of dedication professing that the church would be
“for those who are free,
those who are confused and baffled,
those who are sick in mind and body,
those who are stabbed by the guilt of sin,
those who worship as a family, the young, the parents,
worshiping by singing and in prayer,
so that all may know the oneness of Christ.”
Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, still in its teen-aged years, was worshiping in a new and beautiful house of God and opening its doors to all who would come!
VHBC History Moment #7
With Otis Brooks’ leadership and hard work from the congregation, an extraordinary time of new challenges and opportunities emerged throughout the 1970s.
The new sanctuary more than doubled the church’s former capacity, but of course increased its financial obligations as well. Concern about filling the larger space and meeting the higher budget were in the back of everyone’s mind.
Yet this was a decade of extraordinary energy and innovation, one in which the young church began to establish its identity as a caring, welcoming fellowship focused on missions, meeting community needs, study, and worship. Highlights of programs established during that time include:
• the Golden Mountaineers community seniors group
• the Child Development Center
• the midweek Pastor’s Bible Study
• the Wednesday Prayer Breakfast
• the annual youth mission trips
Other key events included:
• donating Temple Sibyl to be the gateway for the City of Vestavia Hills
• adopting two Vietnamese families, the first in 1975 and the second in 1979
• joining other churches to sponsor the establishment of Cross Creek Baptist Mission in Pelham
• installing a pipe organ in 1978.
Other decisions made by the church stood against the culture of the time and gave an early indication of the courage and character of the young congregation. They welcomed the first African-American member demonstrating that their openness to all who wished to worship was more than just words. And they revised the church bylaws to state unequivocally that women held equal status in the church with men, and could be ordained to serve as deacons or ministers.
During the 1970s the church staff also grew and changed, but the consistent pastoral leadership of Otis Brooks during the first ten years of his tenure ensured that the church would accomplish a great deal, that the new sanctuary would be filled and paid for, and that members would continue to grow in their spiritual pilgrimage.
VHBC History Moment #8
Strong pastoral and lay leadership assured that as the church continued to grow in numbers, its spiritual life was also deepening and its character was being shaped. The warm fellowship, common purpose, and gentleness of spirit characteristic of that time remain at the church’s core today.
By the late 1970’s it was clear the church needed not only additional classroom space, but also a new fellowship hall and kitchen. A planning committee was formed, with Ray Hurlbert as chair, and in 1979 the committee presented preliminary plans that had been developed by Albie R. Smith, an architect and also a member of the church. The church embraced the proposed plan and formed a building committee, to be chaired by Dr. Sam Gillis.
The committee faced some tough challenges. The economic climate was not favorable, with the prime interest rate climbing as high as 19¼%. Too, the church was already struggling to meet its annual budget, even without taking on a high-interest mortgage.
In a giant step of faith, the project moved ahead. Albie Smith’s architectural firm, Smith & Trawick, followed through with working drawings. Richardson Construction was selected as General Contractor. The church approved the plans, with the stipulation that costs be held to a maximum of $625,000. In order to stay within this budget, the church reluctantly cut back on plans for a youth activity addition.
When the new facilities were completed, and dedicated on May 24, 1981, church leaders negotiated the permanent loan rate at 14½%, a real blessing when the prevailing prime rate hung at 17%. The loan could also be renegotiated later without penalty.
With construction completed, Wednesday night dinners could now be moved from the temporary location in the foyer, with its uneven stone floor, to the carpeted and comfortably spacious Fellowship Hall. The cramped kitchen left over from the site’s restaurant days (the current flower room) had been replaced by a modern kitchen with an efficient cafeteria serving area. Best of all, the new space was flexible. On Sunday mornings, folding walls stored on each side of Fellowship Hall could be pulled out to make adult classrooms.
The completed addition was another huge step forward for the twenty-four-year-old church, and it survived the difficult building and financing process with its unity, warmth and sweetness intact. The words of a familiar hymn say it best, for yesterday and today: “There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the spirit of the Lord.”
VHBC History Moment #9
The productive nineteen-year pastorate of Otis Brooks came to an end when he chose to retire in 1988. Dr. William E. Hull, Provost at Samford University, was asked to serve as Interim Minister of Preaching. He was widely known and respected as a pastor, teacher, preacher, and author, and he and his wife, Wylodine, were active members of VHBC. The lay leaders and staff of the church joined Dr. Hull in providing the needed leadership during the interim period.
William H. Elder, III, accepted the church’s call to become its third pastor on the 32nd anniversary of its founding. He came to Birmingham following pastorates in New Orleans and Little Rock, and had previously taught at Ouachita Baptist University and served on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Christian Life Commission. He and his wife Linda had three children.
Dr. Elder led the church to consider undertaking newer, more contemporary styles of worship, in an effort to attract new members. Many church leaders responded positively, and the church realized some membership growth. But the challenge of providing two different worship hours proved to be difficult for the staff and congregation, and Dr. Elder resigned in 1992 to form a new nondenominational church, based on the contemporary worship model. His work in building that church, now known as Mountaintop Community Church, has been fruitful, and his time spent at VHBC helped its congregation to make positive determinations about its identity.
Dr. Paul Basden, Minister to Samford University, was called to be Interim Minister of Preaching while the church entered another search for a pastor. Once again the staff and lay-leadership of VHBC demonstrated their grace, commitment, and wisdom as the church sought to move through challenging days in a positive way.
VHBC History Moment #10
In 1992, while Dr. Paul Basden was still serving as Interim Minister of Preaching, a search committee chaired by Charles Goodson began seeking a new pastor to lead the church.
After several months of careful work defining the church's needs, reviewing numerous resumes, and narrowing down the list of candidates, the search committee decided to visit the First Baptist Church of a small town named Blakely in the southwest corner of the state of Georgia. The church's young pastor was named Gary Furr. After hearing Dr. Furr preach and talking with him at length, the committee was certain that God had led them to the right person.
Dr. Furr had a solid undergraduate and theological education, including a B. A. from Carson-Newman College, an M. Div. from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Ph. D. from Baylor University. He had pastored two churches in Texas before coming to Blakely, where he had served for six years. He and his wife, Vickie, had married while students at Carson-Newman, and now had three daughters.
The committee invited Gary Furr to preach at VHBC on June 20, 1993. On the same day, the church voted unanimously to extend him a call. God led him to accept, and he agreed to begin his ministry in Vestavia Hills in August of that same year.
When he arrived, Dr. Furr told his new congregation that he had two immediate goals: first, to get to know his new church family, and then to love his new church family. He initiated a time of listening, calling on a diverse group known as the Curriculum Task Force to help him understand both the church's past and also its vision for the future.
As his pastorate unfolded, listening and learning led to affirmation and healing. With a new spirit of hope and unity, the church began making concrete plans for the future, ready to move ahead in its spiritual pilgrimage as one body in Christ.
VHBC History Moment #11
After a time of listening and consensus-building initiated by Gary Furr early in his pastorate at VHBC, the church was ready to make ambitious plans for the future.
In 1995 a Strategic Planning Committee chaired by Clark Watson developed a comprehensive strategic plan. Called "Building Bridges to the Future," it defined the church's objectives, and included the recommendation to establish a Space Planning Committee to develop a master plan for expansion of church buildings. With David Whitt as chair, and Lawrence Corley as the assisting architect, the committee developed a master plan. The congregation approved the plan, with construction to proceed in phases, as funds became available.
Soon a Capital Stewardship Campaign was launched. Members pledged almost $3 million toward the total building program cost of $5.9 million. A Commitment Service was held on March 19, 2000, and the church was ready for work to begin.
On April 4, plans changed abruptly. An afternoon tornado raked across the crest of Shades Mountain, with the church directly in its path. Church and Child Development Center staff worked quickly to follow safety plans when the warning came, making sure that the 65 pre-school children under the church's care were all safe on the lower level. Damage to the sanctuary and offices was severe, the pipe organ chamber was soaked with rainwater, and more than sixty trees lay torn or uprooted. Damages to the facilities and grounds were estimated at over $1 million.
The storm and its aftermath disrupted church operations for a time and also forced a reordering of construction priorities. Expansion of the sanctuary could now be accomplished along with repair of tornado damage. Similarly, the church office suite could be redesigned and expanded as it was being repaired.
As those projects began to unfold, it became clear that while the tornado's damage had forced the church to take a slightly different path, it was still moving forward to realize its vision. An experience no one would have chosen to go through had taught valuable spiritual lessons: Things are transient. Life is fragile and precious. Loss is painful, but often brings new opportunities. And a setback, even one in the form of a violent storm, can be turned into a bridge - to the future.
VHBC History Moment #12
Following the April 2000 tornado, the church had to overcome many obstacles and inconveniences. The damaged sanctuary, library, and offices were unusable for months. The staff worked from temporary office space on Columbiana Road. The church worshipped first at Reid Chapel on the Samford campus, then moved to the more informal setting of Fellowship Hall, where folding chairs substituted for pews and the piano accompanied hymn singing.
Plans were modified and adjusted, and the church moved ahead under the Lord's leadership. Ministries, Bible study, missions support, and outreach programs continued energetically. New members joined. Repairs proceeded. Fundraising continued. After some months, the staff moved into its new and larger office suite, and the renovated and enlarged sanctuary, including the rebuilt pipe organ, was ready for Sunday worship.
During this time, reprioritized building plans also moved ahead. Over the next three years, the church would complete the most ambitious building program in its history. A new music suite was completed first. Next came a much-needed new children's building, a new student building and new adult classrooms. Carefully planned landscaping added a beautiful grassy park with amphitheater and walking path near the front entrance drive. Through gifts to the church, several new gardens were added. Paved parking areas were enlarged. Soon new playgrounds would be constructed.
Ministries, missions projects, and a variety of mission trips continued. By 2006, over 100 members annually were directly involved in dozens of missions projects, and the church continued its strong support of cooperative giving programs, while also giving over $90,000 to designated missions projects and offerings.
The music ministry flourished under the leadership of Terre Johnson, who came as full-time Minister of Music in 2005, following the retirement of Milburn Price, who had laid a strong foundation of growth.
Throughout its history, Vestavia Hills Baptist Church has been blessed with dedicated, capable, and skilled leadership. It has also enjoyed remarkable staff continuity. At the time of the 50th anniversary on May 6, 2007, Gary Furr had served the congregation for 13 years; Dennis Anderson, 22 years; Nancy Akins, 17 years; Mike McBrayer, 5 years; Otis Brooks, 38 years; Terre Johnson, 2 years; and Betty Sue Shepherd, 39 years. CDC Director Jennifer Cox had 8 years service, and other support staff members Martha Bell Neill, 5 years; Sadra Dudley, 35 years; and Henry White, 27 years of service.
On its 50th anniversary, the church honored its founders, whose charter established a church where God would be worshipped with dignity and sincerity, where learning and teaching would be central, and where the grace of God would be gladly shared with others. Leaders over the years were honored, both lay and staff, who enlarged an understanding of that founding vision. Children and youth were honored, who would be charged to recreate that vision in the future.
The 50th anniversary theme was Honoring Yesterday—Building Tomorrow. It is hoped that these History Moments have given each reader a new appreciation for the yesterdays of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, and an imagination for even better tomorrows.
"Threads of Vestavia Hills Baptist Church's
history are woven intricately into the fabric of the community."
- from an article previously published on visitsouth.com
In 1957, the city of Vestavia Hills was merely seven years old and growing. Sensing the need for an additional Baptist church to serve this growing community, seven Baptists met at the Vestavia Hills Elementary School to discuss the possibility of organizing a new church in the Vestavia Hills community. It was decided that this group would meet regularly at City Hall. Dr. John Wiley was called as the first pastor of this church with 150 charter members. Since the Presbyterian church met at City Hall at 11:00 a.m., the Vestavia Hills congregation elected to hold services at 10:00 a.m., a practice that has continued. The members set forth their mission:
We of the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church associate ourselves historically and traditionally with the church established by Jesus. Our aim shall be that which we believe to be the directive of him whom we call Lord. We seek to worship God with dignity and sincerity. We desire to learn together the facts and truths of the Christian faith. And we want to be teachers of these truths. We believe them to be the only adequate way of life. We are a fellowship of concern. Because of the love and forgiveness of God which we have experienced, we seek to love all man- kind and to demonstrate that forgiveness."
Seeking a permanent location for their new church, members purchased the Vestavia Temple in 1958. This unique landmark located upon approximately 20 acres of land was built by George Ward, a former Mayor of Birmingham, as his personal residence. The home was modeled after the Temple of Vesta in Rome. After Mayor Ward's death, and prior to 1958, the facility served as a restaurant. Significant work was required to adapt the building to a church. Find more history of this property.
The church constructed an education building in 1963 providing much-needed classroom space and room for future growth. After Pastor Wiley resigned in 1968 to enter pastoral counseling, C. Otis Brooks of Monroe, Louisiana was called as the church's second pastor in August 1969. In that year, the church grew to more than 600 members.
VHBC continued to mature and provide spiritual blessings to its members through worship, Bible study, and missions participation. Significant building programs under Dr. Brooks' leadership would include the present sanctuary in 1972, a new Fellowship Hall, Kitchen, and Adult classrooms in 1981. With an openness of spirit and a discernment of God's guidance, the Deacon body recommended to the church that all leadership positions be opened and filled without regard to gender. For the first time, women were ordained as deacons and considered for other leadership positions. In 1978, the VHBC Child Development Center was formed to assist those families with working parents. The Child Development Center offered quality care and teaching to infants through four-year-olds.
Upon Dr. Brooks' retirement in 1988,. The church called Dr. William H. Elder III from Little Rock, Arkansas as its third pastor in June 1989. Growth continued and an emphasis in worship styles clarified VHBC's preference for a traditional approach to worship. Dr. Elder resigned in 1992.
In August, 1993, Dr. Gary Furr, from Blakely, Georgia, accepted the call to become the fourth pastor at VHBC. Under Dr. Furr's leadership, the church embarked in strategic planning to re-define the church mission and objectives. This planning led to the development of a Master Plan for the church property.
A $5.9 million building plan evolved in 2000. A successful Capital Stewardship Campaign made it possible for the work to begin. In April 2000, plans were interrupted by a tornado which significantly damaged the sanctuary and offices. Damages amounted to over $1 million. This caused a reprioritizing of the sequence of the building-plan schedule, resulting in immediate repairs and updating of the sanctuary and church offices.
Upon completion of repairs, the church returned its attention to the original construction schedule, beginning with a groundbreaking ceremony for a new choir suite on Palm Sunday, April 8, 2001. In 2002, members gathered in front of the church, along Shades Crest Road, to break ground for the new preschool/children and student buildings. In May of 2003, new buildings for preschool, children, high school and college students were completed along with additional classrooms for adults. The project culminated with the installation of playgrounds for infants- through 12-year-olds.
Several acres of trees destroyed by the tornado were replaced with a beautiful park including an outdoor amphitheater. Gifts of time and money have helped to replenish the church grounds with trees and shrubs. The prayer point overlooking Shades Valley and memorial gardens surrounding the facilities have been added. These improvements have added to the beauty and enjoyment of our church both in worship and aesthetics.