- Associated Press - Sunday, June 9, 2019

SUMTER, S.C. (AP) - When he started at Alice Drive Baptist Church, a former pastor there told him “it’s a good church to start at, but nobody stayed for too long.”

That was the spring of 1994, and Clay Smith said in an interview with The Sumter Item that he never dreamed that he would reach 25 years at the Sumter church that’s actually never been on Alice Drive.

But today, the church at 1305 Loring Mill Road on the west side of town is celebrating his 25th anniversary as lead pastor.

Smith said many things at Alice Drive Baptist have changed since his first Sunday in the pulpit - June 5, 1994 - but the life-changing message of Jesus Christ remains the same.

Back then, the church had an average Sunday attendance of about 285 people, and 301 were in attendance that day when “everybody comes to see what the new pastor is going to be like,” he said. Now, the church averages a little more than 1,500 in attendance over three Sunday morning services and another on Monday nights.



When he started, the church was at 109 Miller Road (the current USC Sumter Arts & Letters Building) and had a staff of five, including him.

“Four were full time and a part-time bookkeeper,” Smith said.

Now, the church has 42 employees - 18 full time and the rest part time - to include a kitchen overseer, facilities and finance staff, assistants, interns, ministers and pastors.

In 1994, the church had two computers, he said.

“They had a Mac and a PC, and nobody ever thought that they had to talk to each other,” Smith said. Now, he doesn’t even know how many computers the church has.

But one monumental thing happened that first Sunday in June at the church that still rings true today, he said, and that is the church is open to anybody, and it’s a “place of grace.”

“Pastor Clay” - as he’s sometimes affectionately known - tells the story like this: A black U.S. Air Force major and his family attended that day, and an usher at that time “of the old school” refused to give them a bulletin.

“If you can imagine, this is my first Sunday,” Smith said. “But I will never forget our deacons really stood up. They went and addressed this individual, and they took care of it, reaffirming again that we were going to be a church that was open to everybody. And out of that comes this whole ‘place of grace.’

“That’s what we are: ‘We are a place of grace.’ We love broken people, and I think Alice Drive has done a fantastic job of being that ‘place of grace.’”

Smith said he has so many memories, key church moments and stories that he could tell, but the following are a few key topics he discussed with The Sumter Item.

Smith said he loves getting to baptize people, which is a visible act or profession of faith in Baptist and other denominations. In his 25 years at Alice Drive, there have been more than 1,600 baptisms and professions of faith, according to church records.

“Just being there at that moment when they give witness to Jesus has changed their life,” Smith said. “That’s a pretty amazing moment.”

Another reward in his work is getting to see people take a “next step” toward Christ and mature, he said.

“The great thing about being at one church for 25 years is you do get to see people grow,” Smith said. “I have seen people outgrow prejudices. I have seen people grow in love. I have seen marriages that nobody would have ever believed would make it, and yet God intervened, and not only have marriages made it, but they’ve thrived. Kids serving God in some powerful ways. It’s just amazing.”

- Most memorable moment at the church

Smith said it’s hard to limit it to just one moment, but he will never forget the moments that all three of his now-adult children, Abram, Hannah and Sarah, were baptized at Alice Drive.

Also, to Smith, the church had one particularly memorable service in 1998, shortly after it bought the land to relocate at the corner of Wise Drive and Loring Mill.

The church cut sticks from the new property to use with Smith’s sermon that night, he said.

“I preached on Moses taking the rod of God and leading people to a new land,” Smith recalled. “So, we invited everybody to come up and get a stick. There was just such a powerful presence of God that night. I will never forget that.”

- Most difficult part of job

According to Smith, the hardest part of his work is seeing when people won’t take a “next step” toward Jesus.

“When you see very clearly next steps that people need to take toward Jesus and they won’t take them,” he said. “They willfully refuse. You try everything you can in terms of conversations, teaching, and people just won’t do it.”

Smith said it’s similar to when Jesus met the rich, young ruler and told him to go sell everything he had and give it the poor, in the Gospel of Matthew. That man went away sorrowful because he was very wealthy, Matthew says.

“Then (the Gospel of) Mark tells us that Jesus had looked at him and had compassion on him,” Smith said, “and I do think that’s a little bit of the same feeling: ‘Oh, please, come on, just let go and take that step of faith.’

“And I have really never met anyone who clearly took the next step that God wanted them to take who later said, ‘You know, I really regret that.’

“But I can show you a whole lot of people who didn’t take the next step God wanted them to take and then look back at their life and say, ‘Oh, gosh, look at everything I missed.’

“That’s definitely the heartbreaker.”

- His prayer for Sumter

Smith said his prayer for Sumter is that each person would know how much God loves them, and then accept His love and follow His leadership.

“I believe if that happened, I believe honestly if even 20% of our population really fell in love with Jesus Christ, it would be a game changer in every area in Sumter that we say that we want to improve,” Smith said. “For example, you talk about workforce improvement. If people really follow God, they’re going to be honest workers. You talk about improvement in education. Think about how dedicated our teachers would be. Think about the change that would happen in our students.

“You think of even better shopping opportunities. ‘Hey, retailer, come to Sumter because you will have less shrinkage from shoplifting than any other place in America.’

“It would totally change our community.”

He said he thinks what a lot of people miss about following Jesus is it’s not just about going to Heaven when you die; it’s a better life now and creating a better world that will shine into the darkness of the world we are in.

“Now, when I look out, I see a lot of spiritual darkness in Sumter, like other cities,” Smith said. “Sometimes, I go up to the top of the parking garage at Tuomey hospital, and I just pray for our city. I just look out and I think, it’s the phrase that God says to Jonah: ‘I see so many people in this city who don’t know their left hand from their right.’

“And my hope and prayer is that every church in Sumter grows and thrives, and then that every person would come to know Jesus Christ. Because one church cannot do it all.”

Smith closed by saying it’s been an honor and a privilege for to him to serve and minister in Sumter for 25 years.

___

Information from: The Sumter Item, http://www.theitem.com

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