Columbus’ historic Second Baptist Church launching Phase 2 of renovation plan

The HVAC project gauge shows fundraising is complete at Second Baptist Church in Columbus on July 7. The church recently achieved its goal of raising enough money to replace its aging heating and air-conditioning system.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Pastor Larry Rowe clearly appreciates Second Baptist Church’s huge role from the past. How can one possibly overlook how the assembly became a literal sanctuary for local African Americans — people unwelcome in churches with mostly whites then — just 14 years after slavery’s abolition?

But he is adamant that the shrinking congregation be forward-thinking in order to literally survive.

“If you’re going to live by the Scriptures, then you’ve always got to have hope,” Rowe said.

The church is in the midst of launching Phase 2 of its long-term renovation plan. That includes replacing a roof figured to be at least 20-plus years old, repairing the foundation and resurfacing part or all of the parking lot. Phase I of the effort began last year with a $30,000 expense of replacing an aged HVAC system that was no longer functioning well.

Cost estimates for the future work are expected by next month. Church member Roxanne Stallworth is working to possibly secure a grant for some of those expenses.

“We’re thinking long-term improvements, because we want this church to be around for a long time,” said Rowe, pastor since 2005.

The 144-year-old assembly has struggled in recent years, as many Christian churches nationwide have, with dwindling attendance numbers. That was why the local North Christian Church disbanded a year ago.

In recent months, Second Baptist’s Sunday morning worship attendance has been fewer than 20 people at most services, according to Rowe. He said that there are signs of hope, though, in one new member joining and in two new baptisms recently.

Part of Rowe’s awareness campaign to attract new members in recent years has been to dismantle part of the church’s history as a Black congregation. That’s significant since only slightly more than 2% of Bartholomew County’s population is Black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“One of my initial missions was to get rid of the idea that it is a Black church,” the pastor said four years ago. “It is a church open to all who believe in one Lord, one faith and one baptism. And that doesn’t matter what culture or what ethnic background someone comes from. We are open to those who believe (in Christ), and are seeking a safe haven today to worship God.

“In fact, we’re open to all who may not yet believe and are searching for a God of their understanding.”

Since the renovation effort began, Rowe has been extremely grateful publicly for the ongoing advisory help of Richard McCoy, executive director of Landmark Columbus Foundation. The nonprofit agency cares for Columbus’ cultural heritage. McCoy has been emphatic that Second Baptist fits that description.

“I think that Second Baptist is on a great path,” said McCoy, who includes the church in the foundation’s most recent push for what is known as progressive preservation. “They’re working through things in a really good and positive way while developing their planning structure.

“So I think they really have an achievable set of goals to go after.”

In the community over the past few years, the church has hosted programs such as Roberts’ weekend student tutoring program; has joined other churches such as First Christian Church for programs such as the free summer Sidewalk Sunday School in the past; currently assists with the Love Chapel free church meals; hosted neighborhood watch and similar meetings; and also participates in national outreaches such as Operation Christmas Child to help poor children in war-torn nations.

A 129th anniversary service in 2009 fittingly captured the church’s historic place in Bartholomew County while highlighting the significance of the present and the future. Longtime member Paulette Roberts offered a thought.

“We look back in order to be encouraged by what God has done,” Roberts said then. “But we cannot rest upon what already has been done. We must go forward to fresh endeavors, greater accomplishments and new victories in the name of God.”