ROCK HILL, S.C. – At Second Baptist Church, the name does not quite fit. Nobody is second at Second. People of all colors come first.
Its sanctuary on S.C. 901 just south of Rock Hill houses two congregations – the predominantly white Second Baptist and the predominantly black Bethel Baptist Church.
When Bethel learned a few years ago that its old sanctuary on Porter Road was too deteriorated and simply unsafe, one of its deacons stopped by to see the Rev. Bob Porterfield at Second Baptist.
Porterfield is a trailblazer.
He ran Winthrop University’s Baptist Student Union for decades. He started the Children’s Attention Home for abused kids of all races and drug treatment programs for still more youngsters.
Porterfield went to his members and asked whether the church would agree to share space with the Bethel congregation that desperately needed a roof and home.
The people of Second Baptist took a leap of faith that was just that – based on faith.
“It was unanimous to bring Bethel here,” Porterfield said. “All were for it. And it has turned out to be an experience that has enriched us all.”
Bethel was welcomed with open arms and has continued to operate its own ministries in Second Baptist’s building. The congregation from Bethel was used to its own place, said the Rev. Robert Crawford, but quickly found a home at Second Baptist.
Color, so long an obstacle and dividing line in South Carolina – even among churches – never was a barrier.
“Our experience here has been amazing and wonderful,” Crawford said.
When Porterfield, 81, stepped back from so much responsibility last year at Second Baptist, the church interviewed the Rev. Mark Bradley about taking over as senior pastor. Bradley was asked by church members whether he had any concerns with keeping the arrangement with Bethel.
“I was proud to come to a church that shows that Jesus Christ is the savior of us all,” Bradley said. “Jesus looks at the heart of a man, not at his color. This church shows that to be the only way.”
The two churches have continued to operate distinctly, with separate service times, and Bethel continues to make plans to raise money to have its own sanctuary again in the coming years.
But they often share worship experiences and there is crossover between the congregations. There is no “us” and “them” – only “we.”
The only differences have been cultural, both pastors agreed. For example, the music at Second Baptist is of a more traditional Southern Baptist variety, while Bethel has a more rollicking musical tradition that long has been a staple at black churches.
“The music that Bethel uses, the way to describe it is, it’s got soul,” Bradley said with a laugh.
But the message in services for both churches is almost exactly the same.
“This experience has shown all how much alike we truly are,” Crawford said.
On a recent Sunday, musical differences and style differences will actually be another reason for unity.
Second Baptist held its homecoming, but the day was for all. Bethel’s service started at 8 a.m.; then the two congregations ate breakfast together. At the 10:30 a.m. service, Crawford delivered the sermon to a room that has all colors in it.
Then the music kicked in.
The Hinson Girls, a gospel bluegrass group of four sisters from Lancaster, S.C., was scheduled to perform. Then Bethel’s award-winning gospel choir planned to get up and sing.
“At Second Baptist, we can truly say we will have music for everybody,” Bradley said. “We want this day, Sunday, to be for anyone, regardless of what they look like, to come here and see that we can be home for them.
“The people of both congregations want to share what we have with everybody.”
For Porterfield and Crawford, the pastors who forged this deal and made it work, everybody really means everybody.
Someday, Bethel will have its own building and physically will leave Second Baptist.
But the spirit always will remain.
“The relationships we have created here will last forever,” Crawford said.
Porterfield, that champion of kids and causes, a cancer survivor himself, tough at 5 feet, 3 inches tall, said it best in response to Crawford.
“Amen, my brother.”