Galveston church has storied past and bright future

GALVESTON  Historic First Baptist Church of Galveston is cultivating a climate of giving and growth, continuing a work begun before Texas became a state. 

Elkie and family—who run a janitorial service—epitomize the spirit, insisting on donating extra hours of cleaning to First Baptist. 

“We want to do this for my church,” explained Elkie, who discovered the church after meeting Beth Turner, wife of FBC Pastor John Turner, at the dance class their daughters attend.

Elkie’s family moved from maintenance to membership, swelling the number of new believers (mostly adults) baptized to nearly 50 since Turner arrived in October 2016. 

“Elkie understands the concept of giving and serving the church,” said Larry Gore, church administrator and historian. 

Gore understands that concept also: the retired hospital administrator who founded Galveston’s Lone Star motorcycle rally, donates his time—50 to 60 hours per week—to what he jokingly calls “the best job I never had.

“I get up every day thankful I get to come up here and work … because the leadership is so incredible,” Gore added, referring to Turner.

Raju Samuel, associate pastor, also donates his time.

FBC Galveston looms over its street corner: a red brick, white-columned, steeple-crowned edifice with outbuildings covering a quarter of a downtown block. This building is the fourth occupied by the 178-year-old church that, despite its rich history, is a revitalization effort today.

“Call it a resuscitation,” Gore quipped, displaying the historic church register, its yellowing parchment chronicling the founding members, including Sam Houston’s wife and mother-in-law, and Gail Borden Jr., Texas revolutionary and inventor of sweetened condensed milk. The record reveals First Galveston accepted black members starting in the 1840s. 

The church closed during the Civil War, then reopened. The 1930s and ’40s saw its heyday, when legendary pastor Harold Fickett Sr. drew weekly crowds of 1,200 to 1,600 (and as many as 2,600 on Easter). Fickett’s live Sunday radio broadcasts were so popular that the station manager gave strict orders not to cut away when the sermons ran long. Fickett’s son, Harold Jr., became a California pastor known for originating the Living Christmas Tree.

Before there were mega-churches, there was First Galveston.

Attendance had dwindled before Turner’s arrival. Since then, 147 people have joined.

The addition of a new members’ class—Discover First—has contributed to the growth. In a jam-packed 90 minutes, Turner shares the gospel, his testimony and doctrinal basics to attendees paired with “encouragers” from the congregation. 

Turner, who pastored a church near Wharton, Texas, and later served three years as administrative pastor at Shades Mountain Baptist in Birmingham, Ala., said he borrowed the concept of a single-session new members’ class from Shades Mountain. Turner taught the content to the whole Galveston congregation one Sunday. 

During Hurricane Harvey, NAMB used FBC Galveston as a distribution center, housing disaster relief workers. Harvey volunteers swelled midweek services then, but Wednesday nights remain popular, with about 100 coming for dinner, prayer and Bible study, children’s and youth activities.

“Prior to John, if we had 25 people total, it was a good night,” Gore said. 

The church has expanded its visibility in the community. An egg hunt once held for church families after Easter services has changed locations and dates, to Lindale Park the Saturday before Easter. In 2017, the event attracted 550 for hot dogs, Easter eggs and games while church members gave out Gideon Bibles and shared the gospel. Other city outreaches include a fall festival with a “How Can We Pray for You?” booth.

Turner’s road to FBC Galveston was unlikely. A native of Friendswood, near Houston, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Houston and a master’s degree in accounting from Baylor. He learned he had passed the CPA exam shortly after finishing his master’s.

“I will never have to study again,” he told his wife, a statement soon to prove ironic.

After starting a career in corporate and public accounting, SEC auditing and consulting, Turner “surrendered to the ministry” at 28, eventually earning master’s degrees in Christian education and divinity from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he recently completed his final doctoral seminar. 

“Everything we do is with a purpose,” Turner said of First Galveston. Even the introduction of new members occurs on special Sundays when new families are called up one-by-one, followed by the congregation.

“We lay hands on them and pray for them as the early church did for Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:2-3. We commission them as missionaries into the church and outside the walls of the church,” Turner said, crediting the example of Danny Wood, pastor of Shades Mountain, where new members are similarly welcomed. 

Turner understands the significance of the laying on of hands. He was scheduled to preach at Shades Mountain the week he was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Wood called forward members to surround him in prayer then and again later, when Turner preached the Sunday before surgery.

First Galveston affiliated with the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention shortly after Turner’s arrival. 

“We affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, and we appreciate the 55 percent of donations the SBTC sends to the national Cooperative Program,” Turner explained, later pausing before a wall of portraits of past FBC Galveston ministers, a lineup of photographs dating from the 19th century to the 21st, the present acknowledging the past, the future in view. 

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