LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Life gets messy, even in small towns like LaFayette, population 7,500.
Fires, medical emergencies, domestic disputes, vehicle crashes, illegal substances and more are attended to by radio-toting first responders who too often see gut-wrenching things most people are shielded from.
Churches get messy too, with unused spaces over time becoming “catchall rooms.”
Second Baptist Church addressed both when it converted a long-unused bridal room off its front foyer into a hangout for first responders.
“We knew many of them did not have an opportunity to worship on Sundays,” Pastor Mike Peterson told The Christian Index. “We wanted to give them a place where they would be comfortable.”
The first responders’ hangout was longtime member Vernon Barnett’s idea. He was a 30-year city employee who served in the police, fire, and electrical utility departments, and today he’s the “everything guy,” the manager and only employee at the town’s airport.
He still goes out on calls part time, and in his downtime, he reads. When he read about a church in Florida that had a thriving ministry to first responders, he thought to himself, “Why can’t we do something like that?”
“I still do have a lot of friends in that community, and not all of them have a relationship with the Lord,” Barnett said. “I’d been thinking about what can I do for my brothers and sisters, to show them the Lord loves them and wants to help give them peace and the strength to do what they need to do. How can I facilitate that?
“It was (the memories of) 30 years of calls, terrible calls, the terrible points of humanity,” Barnett continued. “First responders deal with things most of us don’t have to think about. I just wanted to find a way to introduce them to the love of the Lord. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get them to our church?”
He pondered the possibilities for a couple of weeks and came up with a plan: A place in the church first responders could call their own, where their always-on radios wouldn’t disturb people, where they could drink coffee, eat a snack, chat with their peers, watch Sunday morning worship on a big-screen television, and slip out – or in – between radio squawks.
Barnett mentioned his idea the next Sunday morning to Pastor Mike and to the youth/worship pastor Cordell Kingsley, who several minutes later mentioned it to Tanya Torbett, then the lone woman on the church’s building and grounds committee.
“It was like a light bulb went off,” both Kingsley and Torbett told The Christian Index. They both had first responder family members and knew their unique challenges.
The next day Torbett began clearing the bridal room of its contents: a “modesty wall” long unused by the choir, boxes and boxes of once-used VBS and other seasonal or theme-setting decorations, and 1980s bridal room furniture. “There was so much stuff you couldn’t even walk in there,” Torbett said.
Once empty, she cleaned the spacious room, repurposed a mirrorless dresser into a coffee bar with storage below, and with mission line-item dollars from the church’s budget bought three sets of high-top tables and chairs as well as Hobby Lobby artwork with a scripture. Barnett brought an extra coffeemaker from his home that soon was joined by a Keurig and several varieties of coffee, in addition to a basket of unending wrapped snacks. Kingsley found a 65-inch television on sale to complete the first responders’ hangout.
Within two weeks and a few phone calls, the room was ready when the first four used it.
“We want them to be able to hear the Word and worship, and we want them to know we love them,” Barnett said. “We just want to show them the love of the Lord. If they come in and just get a coffee and a snack, if they just visit, even just stand there for 10 to 15 minutes, that might be the only time they ever hear the gospel message.”
LaFayette, a county seat town in far northwest Georgia, some 30 minutes south of Chattanooga, Tennessee, has about 100 first responders – police, fire, sheriff and medical. About 15 are on duty any time of the day or night.
“They don’t like drawing attention to themselves, and they don’t like their radios going off in church, so they miss services on the days they’re working,” Kingsley said. “From what I’ve seen, (those who visit the first responders’ hangout) really enjoy the community, being together. What didn’t occur to us at first is that now the whole family can sit in the room. It gives them an opportunity to be a family worshipping together even though the first responder is working.”
About 150 people participate in Sunday morning worship at Second Baptist LaFayette. There have been other members who have approached church leaders with ministry ideas.
“People have ministries they want to pitch all the time,” Kingsley said. “We try to do as much as we can. Several have branched out from us, like Restore 634. It was started (in 2017) by two women from our church for formerly incarcerated women.”
Other ministries of the church, often in collaboration with other entities, include a two-day dental clinic once a year in partnership with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, local dentists and the LaFayette High School, whose dental students serve as assistants. The church also serves as its association’s weekly food pantry location.
“A Day Away” each summer provides community youngsters with a lake and zip line experience. The youth lead block parties in several neighborhoods with blow-up water slides. Second LaFayette members handle the “special needs residents” part of the town’s Easter Egg Hop. LaFayette hosts an annual Stay on the Square at Halloween, with teens from the church passing out candy to youngsters, and adult members passing out treat bags to parents.
About 500 from the community come to the church for a traditional feast on Thanksgiving Day, during which they are offered the opportunity to receive coats, blankets or shoes at Christmas. Church members take names from the “Giving Tree,” buy, wrap and deliver the gifts requested.
“We just want to make an impact on our community,” Pastor Mike Peterson said. “I believe that’s the heart of the gospel, lives transformed. We preach the truth of the gospel.
“The gospel changes lives,” Peterson continued. “We’re to be followers of Christ and influence our community.”