- Associated Press - Friday, April 11, 2014

SALINA, Kan. (AP) - The Rev. Allen D. Smith would never compare himself to Moses, but he did lead his people to a promised land.

After a 1999 fire destroyed the century-old historic St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church building, Smith, who had been pastor of the church for just six months, kept his parishioners together as they became a gypsy church for the next several years, holding services in several Salina locations, from the 4-H Building to the Salina Community Theatre.

Then, on March 17, 2002, Smith delivered on his promise to bring his people to a new location when a new church building opened at 215 S. Chicago.

“It was like a Moses-going-to-the-Promised-Land experience,” Smith told the Salina Journal (https://bit.ly/1oHjkRj ). “But I not only got to start them, I got to take them into a new sanctuary.”

Smith is celebrating a multitude of milestones in 2014. He turns 50 this year, and he and his wife, Shalonda, will observe their 25th wedding anniversary. He is celebrating his 15th year as pastor of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church, and in August the church will be 135 years old.

“This is my celebration year,” he said.

Next weekend’s Rev. Allen D. Smith 15th Pastoral Anniversary Celebration will commence with two events: a 5 p.m. musical show on Saturday, showcasing choirs from different parts of Kansas; and a 10 a.m. April 13 worship service featuring a surprise guest speaker. Both events will be at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church.

The celebration theme is “Being Made Now,” inspired by Second Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come.”

Before Smith came to Salina, St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church was old, indeed.

In 1879, when many of Salina’s religious groups were starting churches, members of the city’s black population began gathering for weekly prayer meetings in a dugout on North Second Street. These meetings led to the formation of St. John’s Baptist Church.

After moving to a storefront structure at Santa Fe and Ash, the first official church building at North Fifth Street was purchased in 1882 for $1,200.

In 1925, church members built the three-story brick building, at 339 N. Ninth, that stood for 74 years.

The longest tenured pastor at St. John’s was the Rev. J.E. Jones, who served the church for 27 years, between 1957 until his death in 1984.

“It was just an old traditional church at that time with a mostly black congregation,” said Jones’ son, Salinan Joe Jones, 80, who is a deacon at St. John’s.

Two ministers followed Jones before Smith was hired: the Rev. W.E. Whitaker, who pastored from 1984 to 1989, and the Rev. T. Ray McJunkins, who served from 1990 until 1998.

After a lengthy search, the pulpit committee hired Smith, who had left the corporate business world at age 33 to become a minister and had never pastored a church before. He arrived in Salina on Easter Sunday, March 20, 1999.

A native of Rayville, La., Smith attended seminary at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He said he saw a great opportunity in coming to Salina.

“It was an historic church with a wonderful history and people,” Smith said. “We had thought of adding onto the church. Then it burned down.”

On the day after Thanksgiving 1999, a fire from a blown boiler in the church basement gutted the historic church. After the fire was put out, very few items inside could be saved, said Barbara Knight, a St. John’s member since 1951 and the unofficial church historian.

“They pulled up as much stuff as they could out of the fire, file cabinets and such,” said Knight, 80. “The parsonage next door was pretty much intact, so I started laying soaking wet papers on the floor of the parsonage. It was winter, so it took forever to dry. I tried to save as much as I could.”

Smith was spending Thanksgiving in Louisiana when he was called with the bad news. He immediately drove back to Salina.

“Just that last Sunday I had preached in the old church that sometimes God allows things to happen to force you to start anew,” Smith said. “Now here I was, a new pastor, and how was I going to respond to this? I called my pastor in Kansas City, and he told me that as long as they see strength and confidence in their pastor, they’ll be all right.

“That Sunday, more than 400 people showed up at the 4-H Building. I made people understand that this building was not the church, the people were the church. I saw this as an opportunity to lead them not to just a new physical building, but a whole new ministry.”

Millie Moye, who has been a church member since 1983, said Smith was instrumental in keeping the congregation together during that difficult time.

“The pastor looked hard to find us a place to worship, and he had not been there very long at all,” said Moye, 68. “He’s a visionary person, and we had to trust in his vision. He looked for a place for us to call home.”

In 2000, an open plot of land was purchased at 215 S. Chicago, and a restoration fund was set up to build a new church. It would take another two years to build it, Smith said.

“There was a need for a sanctuary, a kitchen, a dining hall and gymnasium,” he said.

The new church opened on March 17, 2002, and during the next 12 years, the make-up of the congregation changed for the better, Smith said.

“One of the greatest things that has happened to the church is that it’s become multicultural and diverse,” he said. “Young, old, black, white — all coming together for the purpose of serving God and becoming fully engaged in doing God’s work.”

Moye said that since Smith has been pastor and the new church opened, “It isn’t just a typical black Baptist church.”

“Age is not a factor, color is not a factor,” she said. “It’s about the praise and worship.”

Jones said the new St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church is not the old-time historic church that it used to be — and that’s a good thing.

“There’s so much diversity in families now, and our church is leading by example,” he said. “People don’t like change, especially older people, but they need to change their thinking from what used to be to how things could be. Why the church burned down, only God knows. But I think it was for a new beginning.”

Knight quoted a Bible verse to describe the last 15 years of her church’s history, from Romans 8-28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.”

“Even though the fire was a heartbreaking time, a lot of good came out of it,” she said. “In the old church, it was mostly a black denomination. Now we probably have the largest, most diverse congregation in Salina.”

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