When the Rev. Michael McClary established his first church, it was in a small building in South Richmond that lacked a parking lot. Later, as it grew, the church moved a few blocks to a larger building. Again, though, no parking.
Now, Community Baptist Church has moved again, having acquired the former Southampton Baptist Church building on Comanche Road in Stratford Hills, and among the attributes of the 5-acre property is a sizable parking lot. McClary laughed.
“I’ve never had a parking lot. Now I’ve got one, and I don’t need it,” said McClary, who lives across the street from the church and walked to meet me the other day.
However, McClary is more than fine with the arrangement and with his church’s new home.
“It’s a perfect fit for us,” he said.
And the transaction was a win-win-win: for McClary’s church, for Southampton Baptist and for the social ministries that will be supported by funds generated by the sale. With declining attendance and an aging congregation, Southampton had concluded it was too expensive to maintain the building.
So it turned over the property to the Virginia Baptist Foundation for it to sell and then put the proceeds into an endowment that will regularly donate to missions that it had previously supported but can do so now at a higher level since the endowment will be used for no other expenses.
I wrote last December about the Southampton congregation and its decision to close its doors, but how it would continue to meet as a congregation, sharing space at Woodland Heights Baptist.
Southampton’s pastor, the Rev. Tom Ficklin, said his congregation was pleased their old building would continue to serve as a church, particularly a Baptist one.
“We continually hear great things about them and wish them all the best,” Ficklin wrote in an email.
In a way, he said, Southampton and Community Baptist are now “partners” through the endowment, “which will, in perpetuity, minister to the needs of the people of the city of Richmond.”
The sale was finalized in early May — the property sold for just over $1 million, according to city of Richmond real estate records — and Community Baptist, which was formerly known as Community Bainbridge Baptist Church, held its first service on May 22. McClary thumbed through the photo album on his cellphone to proudly show me a picture of a full house from that first Sunday.
It’s been a long, fairly amazing road for McClary, 68, who ran away from home at age 13, enlisted in the Army at 17 and then became mired in a life of alcohol and drug abuse as he lived on the streets. He aimlessly moved from place to place until he wound up in Norfolk, where he found religion and hope at the Union Mission in the early 1980s.
“I came to know the Lord at the mission in Norfolk, and I started attending church there,” he said. “I was ordained out of that church and started a Sunday night service at that church.”
He and Janet Lee Merritt married, worked a year at a mission in Newport News and then in 1987 came to Richmond to start Good Samaritan Ministries as a shelter for homeless men in Richmond. They eventually added a residential program for men and women with addictions that helps them transition into the community.
The McClarys’ belief that a spiritual component plays a vital role in recovery led them to start a church, which began on Everett Street in Blackwell, moved to the old Bainbridge Street Baptist Church on Bainbridge Street — an interesting connection since Bainbridge Street Baptist and Southampton Baptist were once in a partnership together as both churches attempted to remain viable — and now to the former Southampton property.
The former Southampton building is no bigger than Bainbridge, McClary said, but offers more acreage and a better layout for its Commonwealth Christian Academy, a school with an enrollment of about 25 that he hopes will be ready to move into the new location come fall. Good Samaritan Ministries is not relocating to the Southampton site and will remain on Hull Street.
Janet McClary died in 2010, but Mike McClary remains executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries and pastor of the church.
“While I was at the mission in Norfolk, I never imagined doing anything like this,” McClary said. “I’d lived on the streets for 20 years.”
He added with a laugh, “If God had shown me all this, I’d have run for sure.”
Meantime, the Southampton congregation is settling into its new arrangement at Woodland Heights Baptist, which invited Southampton to use its building for Sunday services. The two congregations also have worshipped together several times and shared pastors when one or the other has to be absent or on special occasions.
“We are worshipping in the sweetest chapel you’ve ever seen,” said longtime Southampton member Sally Dunnington. “Our church family loves our new space. In addition, the Woodland Heights family has been so welcoming and fun to get to know. All in all, the transition was painless.”
Added Ficklin of the relative speed at which everything has happened, “That all of it was accomplished in 17 months is nothing less than divine. God has faithfully cared for Southampton as we journeyed, so we have nothing but joy in our hearts for all the course of events. NOTHING moves that fast in the Baptist world without God directly involved, leading the way!”