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Gibsonton’s First Baptist celebrates eight decades plus

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There is a lot to be said for longevity.

By MELODY JAMESON

GIBSONTON –There is a lot to be said for longevity.

It so often is the foundation of stability, the source of useful knowledge found nowhere else, the springboard for achievements in the future. It offers the comforts of familiarity, the confidence derived from meeting challenges, the security of the known in an uncertain world.

On Sunday at First Baptist Church here, they’ll be honoring it all, observing it, celebrating it. It’s homecoming and they have much to cherish.

This community’s missionary Baptist church this year claims 81 years of history, almost half of those years led by the same pastor who has served no other congregation for 36 of his 68 years.

Out of those years together have come a striking sanctuary building that is a local landmark as well as a church home, a school graduating outstanding student achievers, a thrift shop that helps untold numbers of area residents, a growing network of missionaries circling the globe, a portfolio of property surrounding the church buildings ready for future expansion, a firm financial footing.

It’s the result of longevity, of staying put, in one place, doing what could be done. Yet, it is not the course Pastor Mac Clements and his wife, Patty, first charted for themselves.

Malcom, “Mac” Clements, the son of Fred and Bernice Clements who once operated a Gibsonton feed store, was born as World War II raged across Europe and the Pacific. He grew up in a home a short distance from the church where his family was well known. His maternal grandparents, Malcom and Ruby Sweat, were charter members of the little church organized in 1930 as the nation plunged into a great economic depression.

He swam in Bullfrog Creek and romped on the white sands of Gardenville Beach, both the swimming hole and the beach now only memories. He rode horses on Gibsonton roads that were more like trails and took in baseball games with neighbor Cliff Prevatt. In 1961, he was graduated from East Bay High School, number 24 on the championship East Bay football team in the ’60-61 season.

Young Clements, a South County country boy fond of mullet, smoked or fried, and of fishing, followed his dad to U.S. Phosphoric, the phosphate processing plant at the mouth of the Alafia River, just over the bridge. There his life was altered; he met Patty Sumner, not knowing what the future held for them, but with full knowledge, he says today, that somehow he would marry her.

Patty, born in Tifton, Georgia, but probably related a generation or two back to the pioneering South Hillsborough Sumners, also was an East Bay graduate, before Mac, and already was working in the processing plant office when he arrived. He wasted no time; they were married in the old First Baptist sanctuary in 1962. Come 2012, it will be 50 years, side by side.

Mac left Phosphoric, went to work for Reynolds Aluminum in Tampa and quickly came to question whether it was a good move. Lucking into an extraordinary 10-week paid vacation due to company policy changes, Mac and Patty opted to try running a tractoring business. And then along came the opportunity to own and operate an ornamental fish farm. It was a full time commitment, a venture into the unknown, and they did it for 10 years.

At this point, with two young daughters, a wealth of new business savvy and a successful fish farm, Mac Clements experienced an unanticipated stirring; a calling to pastor a church and not just any church, but the one that was historically his family’s. First Baptist’s leader was leaving for another assignment. Mac offered himself. What the church got was a package deal.

Mac and Patty Clements sold the fish farm and began devoting themselves full time to the Gibsonton congregation. It was 1975.

During the ensuing years, they both would earn bachelor degrees, hers in childhood education, his in bible studies. He would perform the full range of pastoral duties – Sunday and Wednesday services, sick and homebound visits, marriages, funerals, counseling – as she managed the church office, keeping a handle on its myriad details, maintaining financial records, cataloguing and scheduling and communicating.

Seeing his role also as giving a voice to Gibsonton, he ran for public office twice, once for the state house, later for the state senate. Those were among the few times that Mac Clements did not attain the original objectives.

Yet, the lessons learned, the contacts made, the friendships formed as a result of those defeats have been highly beneficial to the church, he notes today. They played a role, for example, in the acquisition of property east of the church at a price it could afford, thereby adding to its present and future value.

In 1985, the church opened the First Baptist Christian School, kindergarten through 12th grade. Of its 140 graduates, most have obtained college degrees. One has become a CIA agent, another bought into and built a fast food empire, another has been awarded a full scholarship to St. Leo College in San Antonio, yet another now is headed to medical internship in Miami, Patty recalls.

In the same timeframe, the church of today was built, an airy, two-story structure designed by Clements to encompass part of the old building and enclosing the new red, grey and mahogany sanctuary within a walkway that permits entrance to it from inside the building and from several sides.

The new church building, though, was targeted by Hurricane Jeanne in 2004 and an estimated $350,000 in damage was done when wind gusts collapsed the Plexiglas west wall and water cascaded into the entrance hall. The situation then was complicated by an incompetent insurance agent. The Gibsonton country boy, however, knew how to protect his church and, going around the agent to the insurance carrier management, resolved the difficulties. The cost to the carrier doubled.

First Baptist was repaired satisfactorily.

During the last decade, the church also has opened a thrift store on its grounds which is kept stocked with clothing for the entire family, household goods and baby accessories by church members as well as others, the Clements say. The store has been especially helpful recently as unemployment has lingered, offering useful merchandise at bargain prices.

Gibsonton’s First Baptist, in addition, was one of the first churches to join with HELP Ministries (Help Evangelize Lost People) which now consists of more than 1.000 churches supporting missionary work around the world, Mac emphasizes, proud that his church can focus particularly on the efforts of native missionaries in far flung nations.

It is this work, and its fruits, that several hundred congregants and invited guests are expected to commemorate during the homecoming service at 10 a.m. Sunday. Then, they will sit down together to a full barbecue dinner, sharing memories of early church history, enjoying the continuum that succeeding generations always represent, reflecting on that longevity that gives them the stability for further progress.

“The brightest, the best days,” their pastor said this week,” are still ahead of us.”

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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