MONROE — Grace Baptist Church in Monroe had a grand opening for its new facility and a grand worship experience on Sunday, Jan. 7. It was their first service in a Piggly Wiggly grocery store that had been transformed into a beautiful edifice for worship and the study of God’s Word.
Tommy Fountain, Sr., pastor of Grace Baptist, has a history with Piggly Wiggly grocery stores.
“I started to work in the Piggly Wiggly at the age of 12,” he explained. “A lot was going on at that time in our family. I had just finished little league baseball. My dad’s lungs had collapsed. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis. During that trying time in our family I went to work in the produce department shelling peas and butterbeans for 10 cents a pound.
“At the age of 18, I was given the opportunity to be the store manager for the Piggly Wiggly in Smith Station, Ala. The Piggly Wiggly actually got us boys out of the projects.
“I began my ministry at Grace Baptist Church on Nov. 15, 2013. Two weeks later, the Piggly Wiggly in Monroe closed. I drove by the store and immediately knew that this would be Grace’s new home. I told my wife, Dianne, what I believed God had placed in my heart as the new location for the church.
“It took two years for the church to catch the vision, six months to negotiate the purchase of the property, and for the past 18 months, the Grace family has worked nonstop in the demolition and construction of our new church facility.
Fountain continued, “Now the only reminder of the building once being a grocery store is the Piggly Wiggly sign in my office. My preacher boys have said, ‘Daddy, you started in a Piggly Wiggly and you’ll end in a Piggly Wiggly.’”
A spark of enthusiasm
Grace church member Wayne Ricks was one of the men who saw the grocery store early on and caught the pastor’s dream of using the building for their church. He began to sketch out a drawing that would accommodate all of the education, fellowship, and worship space under one roof.
His drawing ignited a spark of enthusiasm that fueled the vision to relocate the church.
The church’s previous location in downtown Monroe was limited in space for parking, worship, and Sunday School. God’s hand was apparent throughout the process, because He provided two entities to purchase the old property. Monroe County Day School purchased the church worship center and a residential care establishment, purchased the educational building to establish a facility called Graceful Manor.
Since the church had to move out of its old buildings before the renovation was completed they were given the privilege of moving into the buildings formerly used by the Walton County Department of Children and Family Services. Kenneth Murray, Sr., whose son is a member of Grace, had purchased the DCFS building and permitted the church to use it free of any cost.
Dawn Parker, the church’s director of technology and children’s ministry, indicated that because there was a growing anticipation and excitement about moving into the new facilities, the church attendance and giving remained strong even during the time the church was in the DCFS building.
Parker stated, “During the building process ministry continued and the Lord blessed! The Lord opened many doors to minister to those in our community and we saw CP giving increase to 6 percent during the time of this transition.”
Falling into place
Through careful negotiations the church was able to purchase Piggly Wiggly’s 45,000 square feet of floor space and six acres of land for $600,000. The total cost for the land and renovation amounted to approximately $2.4 million.
On the church’s first Sunday in the new building there were approximately 700 people in attendance. The auditorium was filled to overflowing and there were 75 children and workers engaged in the Children’s Ministries.
Fountain added, “With nearly 40 years of ministry, this work of God has been the greatest act of faith I have ever witnessed in the life of a church. With the encouragement of Ken Murray, Jr., one of our deacons, I asked the church to pray about relocating the church to the Piggly Wiggly property. Amazingly everything began to fall into place.
Joyce Chambers, a church member, who had worked with the Walton County government in building projects for years, became the project manager and Gerald Atha, a contractor, combined their expertise and worked together with great dedication and determination to complete the project.”
J. Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, was present for the “grand opening” and commented, “There were numerous things that impressed me greatly on Sunday morning. First of all, the beautiful job done in the transforming the exterior of the former grocery store to a very beautiful Grace Baptist Church was remarkable.
“The interior was even more impressively beautiful. The crowds came for the big opening day – over 700 worshipers. The worship service music and sermon were outstanding. It was a glorious day of celebration of what God has done.”
Joyce Chambers exclaimed, “It was a celebratory day. I believe we will be able to see many lost people come to our church and be saved. It is wonderful to see my county have a place to worship like this. You could feel the spirit that prevailed as we gathered for worship.
“I was also thrilled as I saw the smiles upon the faces of our children. Every age group has its own classroom. We have 6,000 square feet just for our children. They have Bible verses on the walls of their rooms as well as our watchword – ‘Love God! Love People!’”