The First Baptist Church provides faith, worship, and gratitude for 150 years
At its very core, the First Baptist Church in Warrenton is focused on the community, the health, and wellbeing of its members. By staying true to this belief, the congregation, which just celebrated 150 years of worship, has been a place of faith since Leland Warring recognized the need for black Christians to have a place of worship outside of cabins one and a half centuries ago. Originally the church was located on Lee Street in Warrenton and was purchased in 1867 for 400 dollars. As the congregation grew it purchased a new location for 600 dollars in 1875, where the Old Presbyterian Church on Alexandria Pike resided. In 1886 Reverend Robert Ruffin spearheaded the drawing of plans for the present building, and the church has been located there ever since.
The congregation consists of approximately 120 members, 80 of whom regularly attend services. One member, Robyn Thompson, is the director of the Voices of Hope. She grew up on 4th Street in Warrenton and recalls walking to church as a child. Thompson is also the daughter of Eva and Robert Walker – he recently celebrated his 90th birthday. Warrenton has been home to Thompson her entire life, and she believes the community-mindedness of the church members is what keeps people going: “People genuinely like to help other people and believe in the power of prayer.” The Church provides many services created with community-members in mind, such as access to the church van for rides, Bible study, events at the Family Life Center (located adjacent to the church) and giving projects through Inasmuch.
Members strongly believe in the power of prayer, and accepts prayer requests three Sundays every month. “There are prayers of need and prayers of gratitude. Prayers are answered,” assures Thompson. Having grown up in the church, Thompson believes, “a sense of family and community definitely impacted my life. We are a product of what we are around. I love my church and pray God will guide and direct us to be a beacon of light in the community.”
With an aging membership, the Church is focused on recruiting the youth. Thompson is pleased with the participation from the younger generation during prayers. “It is encouraging to hear them ask for prayers. They recognize that we can talk to God, that God does answer prayer, and they don’t have to wait until they’re 60 years old to come to this realization,” she says.
Thunder Thursdays, under the direction of Scott and Jennifer Stacy, is a weekly program geared to the youth in the community. “We reach out to all kids in the community for an evening of Bible study, life lessons, and fellowship,” says Thompson. The program is open to children from first grade through young adult. This program, as well as Vacation Bible School and the Community Fun Day in the Park, have been successful outreach programs – proven by the mostly-youth choir that sang during the first Sunday service in November. Nearly 20 vocalists filled the small chapel with music while a three-piece band played beside them.
Thompson’s husband, John, is a deacon at the church and also a Warrenton native. He grew up on the south side of Falmouth Street, in an area referred to as Oliver City. The Deacon credits engagement to new members who interject energy into the group. “Our members do not just sit in the pews; we reach outside the walls,” he says.
Through a program called Operation Inasmuch United, members from Warrenton and other areas further the Christian role in the community. “We have 35 to 40 members who go out into the community to help others,” says Mr. Thompson. “They do everything from yard work to prayer support.” And the congregation appreciates the effort. One member, Alfreda Sharp, whose husband was recovering from a recent illness, expressed her gratitude for the help of the members who cleaned her yard and removed weeds from her fence. Sharp is a descendant of Reverend Robert Ruffin.
A new coalition program has united the church with the Warrenton Police Department Chaplain’s effort. “We have been meeting quarterly for the past year, discussing the opioid epidemic and how the congregation can work with law enforcement to create a sphere of influence,” says Mr. Thompson. The Church offers a refuge to anyone battling an addiction and needing help.
Visitors to the First Baptist Church are welcomed at their first visit with a special acknowledgment during the service and newcomers also introduce themselves and receive a small gift of appreciation for coming. Birthdays – whether you are six or 90, or anywhere in between – are also honored monthly. From the joyful moments to the trying times when Church members lean in to offer a shoulder it is easy to see how this congregation has maintained their faith, worship, gratitude and giving for one and one-half centuries.
Reverend Z: From Normandy, France to Warrenton, Virginia
In June 1994, Reverend Matthew Zimmerman, a retired Major General with the US Army was invited by then-President Clinton to deliver a sermon at the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of D Day. Once there, Zimmerman met the Honorable Jesse Brown, who served as the first black secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs from 1993-1997. Brown later asked Zimmerman to deliver the Veteran’s Day sermon at his church, the First Baptist Church in Warrenton, which he did. From there, Zimmerman took the role of Chaplain with the Department of Veterans Affairs for four years after which he was invited, by Brown, to serve as the Pastor for his church here in Warrenton. This was in 1998 and Zimmerman has been here ever since.
Residing in Alexandria, Reverend Z, as the congregation refers to him, has come to Warrenton for nearly twenty years to conduct services. “It is the people who constitute the congregation,” he says of why he continues to Pastor the church. He credits the late Jesse Brown with helping him feel at home as a newcomer to the tightly woven community found among the church members. Zimmerman’s father and grandfather were both Baptist Ministers and he felt a sense of homecoming taking on the role of Pastor for the congregation. Reverend Z invites everyone to attend service at the First Baptist Church.
Former President George H. W. Bush contributed a letter to the First Baptist Church’s 125th anniversary commemorative book of the congregation in 1992. It reads in part: “We can all rejoice in what your house of worship has meant to its members. A place of prayer, fellowship, reflection, and renewal, it has also been the focal point for many acts of generosity and service to others. Indeed, because the faith and values nurtured within its walls are the foundation of strong families and communities, your church has been a source of strength for our entire country.