Historic Houston church rebounding in eclectic Heights neighborhood

HOUSTON—What do the following have in common? A funeral home. A banquet hall. An indie film venue. A Hari Krishna temple.

Each place used to be a church in the historic Heights district of Houston. To everything there is a season. Businesses and residents have come and gone. Once vacated and dilapidated turn-of-the-century homes have been remodeled and reoccupied.

But for the 108-year-old First Baptist Church Heights, staying alive, albeit on life support at times, has been primed by prayer and a tenacious spirit, say the church’s newest pastor, John Schmidt, and Gordon Knight, an SBTC field ministry strategist who has served the church in his convention role.
“When I started visiting that church they were in big trouble,” Knight said.

In 2009 FBC Heights had no pastor and only a few dozen members when Knight was invited to shore up the church and try to prevent what seemed inevitable. The remnant congregation was presented with few options. They could shut down—essentially close the book on yet another church in this neighborhood—and restart under a new name and charter making them eligible for supplemental funding as an SBTC church plant.

Or they could accept the offer of Houston’s First Baptist Church to make their campus a satellite location of the much larger congregation. Financial and personnel resources would be poured into the effort but the result would be the same as the first option: First Baptist Church Heights would cease to exist.

Time and again church members told Knight, “We want to keep praying and asking God to help us revitalize this thing.”

For two years Knight assisted with the pastor search. Through a protracted and God-driven chain of events, 42-year-old Schmidt was called to lead the congregation from the brink of extinction. And in an ironic twist, Schmidt represents the ebb and flow of life and death in this community. Born and raised in Houston, Schmidt attended Woodland Baptist Church in the Heights. But at 16 years old, Schmidt recalled, “I got my wheels and I was gone.”

And so was his church. Schmidt said FBC Heights and Baptist Temple are the only two remaining Baptist churches in the neighborhood.

And just as nature abhors a vacuum, so too does the spiritual world. As churches of all denominations have shuttered their windows or sold their land in this area just west of downtown, the void has been filled with an eclectic conglomeration of drug-riddled corridors, homosexual churches, wealthy homeowners, impoverished families, and artist havens.

Schmidt was hired in December 2010 for a three-month stint as interim pastor. Six months later he was offered the job as senior pastor and by September 2011 the call was affirmed. He knew it was Providence that brought him to the church at that time. As a businessman he was skilled at turning struggling enterprises into profitable ventures. He knew those same talents could be used to turn a dying church into a thriving place of worship and service to God.

And he spoke bluntly, yet passionately, about the state of FBC Heights and the neighborhood it seeks to serve and save. Sporting a t-shirt, faded jeans and flip-flops, Schmidt sat in his office and pointed out the window to one of the many gentrified homes that define this area, naming and describing the resident and comparing him to his antithetical counterpart down the street. He knows the owner of a nearby coffee house. He’s an atheist but Schmidt will sit on the front stoop of the shop sipping coffee while the owner takes a break for a smoke. They talk. And, sometimes, Schmidt believes, his new friend listens.

“You have to get into people’s world here in the Heights. Unless you’re willing to do that you’re not going to connect,” he said.

And as the pastor of a Southern Baptist church, Schmidt seems a perfect fit for this unconventional neighborhood. He holds no advanced degree (He hopes to complete his business undergraduate degree at the University of Houston when time allows); he has the equivalent of an associate’s degree from the now-defunct South Texas Bible Institute; he has taken classes at Tomball College and completed a business management program at Rice University. His youth was spent in a Southern Baptist church but his formative years as a Christian were in the Assemblies of God.

Not your typical Southern Baptist pastor for your not-so-typical neighborhood. Still, Schmidt said FBC Heights stands on the truth of Scripture and the heritage of the 108-year-old fellowship.

As part of the revitalization of the church some members suggested a name change. By removing “Baptist” from its marquee, they argued, they would be removing a stumbling block to those outside the church who had preconceived ideas of what it meant to be Baptist. The church shares the neighborhood with a sizeable homosexual population.

But the current congregation is just one in a long line of congregations that have served the Lord under the name First Baptist Church Heights, Schmidt pointed out. And that history is rich with missions and church plants. This parent church has outlived some of those it birthed. Instead of changing the name, Schmidt is determined to change people’s perceptions of Baptists.

Schmidt wants to keep missions at the forefront of the congregation’s efforts—locally and internationally as the church joins into the numerous community events, residents will begin to put a face and personality to FBC Heights. The existing food and clothing pantry make the church an ideal location for an SBTC Disaster Relief base site during an emergency, Schmidt said.

The church also offers volunteer support for a summer feeding program that operates from one of its buildings. And it will continue to build upon its relationship with Harvard Elementary School across the street. Schmidt said the church has established itself as a good neighbor to the school.

Within the FBC Heights membership is a Spanish-language congregation. The two groups meet separately but join occasionally for a common worship service. Schmidt hopes to augment that relationship as the church reaches out to the Hispanic population in the neighborhood.

And Schmidt will not write off reaching the homosexual population, although they are served by two Heights churches that affirm homosexuality. Such a ministry would require the service of church members with the gift of mercy, Schmidt said.

Internationally the church supports a missionary in Dominique. Schmidt would like to expand that mission by establishing a hurricane disaster relief program there.

The spiritual revitalization of FBC Heights came with a physical makeover as well. A major sewage back up in the foyer bathroom flooded the adjoining sanctuary. Knight said it was a mess that forced the church to remodel and complete repairs left undone following Hurricane Ike in 2008.

Knight and other SBTC representatives attended the rededication services July 8. Following the service he said, “To see what it was then and what it was yesterday was a blessing.”

Schmidt’s aspirations for FBC Heights are not just wishful thinking. He brings his head for business to the task of his heart—to “help people fall in love with Jesus.” In the years before coming to the Heights, Schmidt operated a $300 million business, and he served as a pastor bringing home $600 a month. In all his efforts he followed a common practice of delegating tasks to trusted co-laborers. That has brought success in his business and church enterprises, he said.

But whatever the means, Schmidt’s goal is to have “a thriving, evangelical Jesus-loving church that breaks down every negative stigma associated with Baptist.”

And it might just begin with a cigarette-smoking, atheist coffee shop owner.

TEXAN Correspondent
Bonnie Pritchett
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