Students like these from the University of South Carolina serve in a kitchen ministry at First Baptist Church, Allendale (Photo courtesy of USC-Salkehatchie)
Students like these from the University of South Carolina serve in a kitchen ministry at First Baptist Church, Allendale (Photo courtesy of USC-Salkehatchie)

Small church embraces diversity

First Baptist Church in Allendale, S.C. fosters ethnic and cultural diversity through variety of ministries and gospel mindset.

By Daniel Wallace

Allendale, S.C., is one of the most economically challenged counties in the United States. The U.S. Census Bureau can testify to that.

But it’s also one of the most ethnically diverse. And First Baptist Church of Allendale can testify to that.

The small congregation – with attendance running 85 to 100 per week – is a richly blended one, with African-Americans, whites and immigrants from India facing Senior Pastor Tom Hiers as he preaches Sunday mornings.

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The church demographics may be no surprise in a county where whites make up 24 percent of the population of just over 10,000, according to 2010 Census figures. But Hiers and visitors to the church say First Baptist’s cultural mix also is intentional.

“The core group of our church really is trying to be loving to our community, realizing it’s not a white community,” Hiers said. ”It’s just a community.”

The church’s membership is made up of Caucasians, African-Americans, Hispanics and Indians, with no one group primarily overpowering over the other.

“It was the most diverse Baptist congregation I have been a part of since I lived overseas,” Nell Green, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionary, said in an ABPnews blog written after she preached there in February.

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The Indians are some of the latest newcomers to First Baptist, many of whom are teaching in Allendale’s public school system. Three Indian Baptist families have joined the church, which also sponsors another seven Indian families who are in pursuit of green cards. Five of those families are Muslim, Hiers said.

And there are others. Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, West Africans and Australians have all been beneficiaries of the church’s services in the past year, many of them students at the University of South Carolina-Salkehatchie, located in Allendale.

Every Wednesday, the church offers a free meal to the college students in the community through a ministry that has become known as “Abba’s Kitchen.” After a meal, students participate in a devotion and then are free to fellowship and engage in various activities offered by the church, such as pool, ping pong and chess. The Wednesday night meal and devotion averages around 25 youth and college students in attendance but has boasted numbers as high as 95 students.

“These young adults will come here for an education, but we are able to touch them through our outreach ministries,” Hiers said. “Hopefully [the international students] go home with an awareness that God loves them and God loves their country as much as this one.”

Meanwhile, the church also reaches out to its community in other ways. Through a ministry called “Hog Heaven,” it recently provided a soup and cornbread lunch for 28 of the area's biker community after a Sunday morning service. In other ministries, the church regularly offers an English class for those who don’t speak the language, and sends members to lead Bible studies in prisons across the state.

FBC, Allendale, is a prime example of what diversity in the church should look like, Green said.

“I’ve watched a lot of churches talk about diversity and even have a strategy for diversity and hopefully welcome diversity,” she told ABPnews.  “What I saw in Allendale was the spirit of Christ bringing diversity all together and making it work.”

At the core of FBC, Allendale’s, various ministries is the desire to reflect the love of Jesus to all people and all nations. How that happens is just a matter of whatever the heart says to do, according to HIers.

“We want to meet people’s needs first and then let the Holy Spirit do the rest of it,” he said.