By Judith Ryder
“Let us run with patience the race that is set before us, Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith”. (Hebrews 12:1,2)
On May 10, 1893, one hundred and twenty-five years ago, 59 adults amicably left the First Baptist Church of Pawtucket, their Mother Church, to organize another church which would eventually become known as Woodlawn Baptist Church. A celebration of its 125th anniversary will be held on Sunday, May 6, 2018 at Woodlawn Baptist Church during a 10:30 a. m. worship service followed by a luncheon (invitation-only, due to space restrictions).
So, for context, what else was going on around 1893? Highlights included: Grover Cleveland inaugurated as President of the United States for the second time; Thomas Edison finished building his first motion picture studio; a decline in the NY stock market triggered the Panic of 1893, leading to an economic depression second only to the Great Depression of the 1930’s; Lizzie Borden was acquitted of the ax murder of her parents in Fall River, MA; the 1893 World’s Fair, the “Columbian Exposition”, opened in Chicago, with more than 25,000,000 visitors; the Duryea Brothers road-tested the first American-made, gasoline-powered automobile in Springfield, MA; the 1890 Census listed the U. S. Resident Population at 62,979,766; and Wyoming and Idaho were admitted as the 43rd and 44th states in July, 1890.
Of even greater importance, perhaps, churches everywhere were thriving. In the case of Woodlawn Baptist Church (WBC), its actual beginning was, as with many other churches of that era, the establishment of a Sunday School. Initially envisioned by First Baptist’s Reverend George Bullen, it started on July 4, 1875 with six classes serving 42 students; the officers and most teachers came from First Baptist. Until 1878, the Sunday School met in the hall of the Fairmount Engine House on Washington Street; in 1878 a chapel was erected on Smithfield Road (now Lonsdale Avenue) for $1500, contributed by 57 persons. The membership reached 176 in the first year with an average attendance of 78. By 1883 the quarters had become too small, but improvements doubled the building’s capacity. When by 1891 the membership had risen to 300, a larger chapel, still intended for Sunday School purposes only, was built on a Lonsdale Avenue lot.
Soon afterwards, by request, during 1891 and 1892, a preaching service began at the chapel on Sunday afternoons, conducted by two pastors from Brown University, both of whom later became pastors of other N. E. churches. First Baptist, after careful consideration of a petition signed by 59 adult members, granted permission to organize Woodlawn Baptist Church and allowed the use of the chapel for one year. After the RI General Assembly granted an act incorporating WBC in 1893, Reverend Whitmas L. Wood was called as its first pastor; he served for 20 years. (Incredibly, during its 125 years WBC has called only 12 pastors, including its current one, Pastor Lawrence Smith, in 2016.) In 1894, First Baptist transferred ownership of the chapel property to WBC, but by 1895 the building was already becoming too small. In 1901 land for a new worship home was purchased on the corner of Weeden street and Lonsdale Avenue, the site of the present church, which was erected in 1902 at a cost of $25,886.89. Since, WBC has been redecorated in 1931, completely renovated in 1942 at a cost of $1800, and the whole first floor remodeled in 1951 for over $75,000 along with the addition of a new educational wing. A new Memorial Meeting Room was completed in 1982.
In the past, WBC was known as (in the 1950’s) a “Singing Church”, featuring several choirs at once. More recently, for over 20 years WBC’s choir has been directed by Dorothy A. Himan, a classically trained musician who faithfully served as Choir Director until September, but who continues active involvement as sanctuary pianist. WBC also fostered many “fellowship ministries”, originated by Pastor Newell Smith who, believing that young families needed more fellowship, encouraged the formation of groups to meet in people’s homes for progressive suppers of sandwiches and pastries after Sunday evening services. One of the after-church Sunday evening fellowship ministries, “Alpha Chi Phi”, ended only last September after 65 years of existence! (Current Pastor Larry Smith recently commented that in today’s world with sports available 24/7, 200 cable channels, the internet, and so many other entertainments/distractions, fewer people seem to seek out additional fellowship opportunities.) Finally, WBC has always been recognized as being particularly missions-minded. WBC attracted sixty missionaries who lined crowded hallways with their booths during a Missions Conference three years ago. Today WBC supports 17 missions as well as Operation Christmas Child and Angel Tree, a ministry to prisoners’ children.
During a recent interview, Pastor Larry Smith, who has only been there for two years, demonstrated an infectious enthusiasm towards his work and his flock – he obviously absolutely loves this “city” church and its people. He unabashedly admits weeping tears of joy upon learning that the church had voted to call him as their pastor. His delight was palpable as he described the pleasure of visiting shut-ins, in particular. He especially reveres the older WBC members for their hard work that reaped such fine fruits over the years – blessings the church still enjoys.
When asked about his own gifts, Pastor Smith spoke of one-on-one evangelism and his penchant for just talking with people and interacting with the community. He serves as Chaplain on the 9-member Board of Directors for the Woodlawn Neighborhood Association (WNA), opening and closing their quarterly meetings with prayer. The WNA works with the police chief on crime prevention and the opioid epidemic, sponsors community events at Slater Park such as soccer and basketball leagues and cook-outs, plus publishes a monthly newsletter. In the 1970’s, WBC instituted popular radio and tape ministries as a means of outreach. For the past several weeks, Pastor Smith, who is passionate about church growth, has been posting live on Facebook: a 1 to 1 ½ minute weekly synopsis of his upcoming sermon. Those without access to Facebook may go to the church website, www.woodlawnri.org, and click on Facebook. On a recent Friday within an hour of posting, over 100 Pawtucket residents unassociated with WBC had viewed the video; at week’s end there were 547 hits. Pastor Smith believes that church growth comes from “engaging the community where it’s at”. His goal is to grow Sunday attendance to between 175 and 200.
Sunday morning worship is at 10:30 a. m. Music is a “blended worship service” in which the congregation sings traditional hymns and some praise songs; occasionally a praise video is shown during or after the sermon. Pastor Smith calls it a “look-up” church because lyrics may be read either from hymnals or on overhead screens. After April 15, the Sunday night service, “Potluck and Praise”, will be from 5:00 to 6:00 p. m. Open to the community, it welcomes everyone to bring any kind of food to share (no use of the kitchen allowed), and tables are set in a U-shape to facilitate informal fellowship. Wednesday night prayer meeting, “The Oasis”, is held from 6:30 to 7:30 p. m. simultaneously with Awana, for children. In addition, Ladies Bible Study meets on Tuesdays at 9:30 a. m., and Men’s Bible Study meets on Wednesdays at 8:00 a. m. A Hispanic church, Inglesia Evangelica Bautista Manantial de Vida, meets in the sanctuary on Sundays at 2:00 p. m. and Fridays at 7:00 p. m. In past years, WBC has reached out to their Spanish and Portuguese neighbors with various programs, some leading to the establishment of new churches. Every few months, the Navigators’ 13-week discipleship program, “Growing in Christ”, is offered to provide a deeper knowledge of what it means to be a Christian. The course covers the layout of the Bible and encourages memorization of 13 verses. Would-be new members may attend, as well as long-time members wanting a refresher course. Pastor Smith and other graduates of the program teach.
Other activities abound. On April 7 from 8:30 a. m to 12:30 p. m. (serving light refreshments), WBC will host Group Publishing to train workers from participating regional churches how to conduct this year’s Vacation Bible School (VBS), whose theme is “Shipwrecked”. VBS at WBC begins Monday, July 23 through Friday, July 27, from 6:00 p. m to 8:30 p. m. for Kindergarten through Jr. High School. The library will be transformed into a pirate ship, and every night parents are invited to visit an outdoor canopied Parents Tent for refreshments of ice water and double-stuffed Oreos (pastor’s favorite!) and conversation with Pastor Smith, a deacon, and some “senior saints” to answer any questions about church, the Bible and, for example, doctrinal beliefs concerning differences between Catholics and Baptists. Last year VBS’s nightly attendance averaged 55 children, with 60 new children. A VBS closing ceremony instead of the regular worship service will be held Sunday, July 29, consisting of the children singing songs and reciting what they’ve learned to parents, grandparents, and family. Afterward, Pastor Smith will do a 5 minute wrap-up. Bob and Pam Lavoie head up this creative and valuable ministry to the church and community.
WBC often hosts concerts, open to the public, featuring popular musical groups. This summer Southern Gospel Concerts of Rhode Island 2018 will present a series of four concerts held at 7:00 p. m. with a “warm-up” each night by Just Us Four at 6:30 p. m. The Hyssongs come first on June 9, followed by Jim Brady Trio on July 14, Down East Boys on August 11, The Lesters on September 15, and Blackwood Brothers on October 12. Although a Love Offering is taken, there is never a ticket charge.
An important part of WBC’s success is its extensive training program for deacons before ordaining them. Deacons-in-training, or “Yokefellows”, are people preparing for leadership. They are chosen three at a time and work with seasoned Deacons to learn how to do visitation, for example to people during crises or in nursing homes. While being a Deacon is a lifelong calling, after years of serving on the Board, Deacons can become inactive. Nevertheless, before making major decisions, Pastor Smith calls them in with the active Deacons, explaining, “We’re all under construction!”
These and numerous other unique aspects of this active church will be celebrated soon at their upcoming 125th Anniversary commemoration on Sunday, May 6, 2018. A memorable day has been planned to begin with a slightly longer than usual worship service, to which the public is invited, at 10:30 a. m. in the beautiful sanctuary seating 250 – 300. Nursery and Junior Church will be available. A video highlighting as many missionaries as possible will be shown. The Sunday School and Awana will present songs. Terry Morgan, pastor of WBC for the 18 years prior to Pastor Larry Smith, and who will be present with his wife, Virginia, will offer a few words. Pastor Smith will bring the main message. Special seating will be provided for older members, recognition will be given to both active and inactive deacons and their wives, there will be a couple of solos, and Tom Mahoney and Sue Brackett will conclude the service by singing the benediction: “The God Of All My Day”. An invitation-only luncheon (since just 130 can be seated in the hall) will follow, with invitations going to Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien and other dignitaries. Throughout the many rooms, multiple displays will feature a large selection of old photographs which Pastor Smith’s secretary, Cindy Murphy, and long-time member Janice Wunschel have been unearthing for the special occasion. Included are many of the large choirs which performed beginning in the 1900’s. Still other displays depict photographs of all the weddings conducted at WBC, the numerous “fellowship ministries” that have been such a treasured part of WBC’s past, the church’s beautiful prize-winning patriotic floats entered in Bristol’s Fourth of July Parades, and a host of other reminders of precious saints whose past service enriched this beloved church.
Woodlawn Baptist Church has much to celebrate about its past yet, even more commendably, they also enthusiastically embrace the future with new ideas and renewed determination to reach the lost. While “125 years of sharing the gospel” is an apt description of both their past and present endeavors, they intend, with God’s continued blessing, to share the gospel just as fervently going forward.
“And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” (Mark 16:15)