Torch the Mortgage

St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church members plan to gather outside of their place of worship Saturday for a ceremony marking the end of both a challenging and blessed era.

For the second time in the church’s 143-year history, leaders will burn a replica of a mortgage document, in celebration of their latest house of God being paid off.

The journey began on the evening of Nov. 26, 1999, when their old church at 339 N. Ninth was destroyed by fire, bringing sadness to the congregation.

But it wasn’t long before despair yielded to joy.

“Those were some of the best of times from a spiritual standpoint,” said Pastor Allen D. Smith. “If made us come together and work together. It allowed me to develop relationships internally and externally that otherwise would have taken years. God was at work.”

Ironically, it took from July 7, 2000, when Security Savings Bank loaned $601,000 to St. John’s Missionary Baptist until July 7, 2022, when the balance was wiped to zero.

“This gave us a single task to focus on. We didn’t have room for individual needs. God was going to find us a new place,” Smith said.

The horrible evening on the day after Thanksgiving in 1999, is still clear in the memories of St. John’s Building Committee members Barbara Knight (also a trustee) and Joe Jones.

“I got a call about 9 p.m., telling me the church was on on fire,” Knight said. “The church was ablaze.”

She drove to the church next to a Dairy Queen. A worker there had noticed the fired and reported it.

Pastor Louis Winn of New Jerusalem Baptist Church — a former associate minister at St. John’s Baptist — came to offer spiritual help.

“We all got in a circle, where we prayed and cried,” Knight said.

Jones, who was in Albuquerque, was alerted when Scott Gardner, a fellow church member, called.

“It was a total surprise. I couldn’t believe it at first. Scott said ‘Pops, the church burned down,’ ” Jones recalled.

Officers with the federal Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agency first blamed the devastating fire on “internal combustion,” he said. “They were doing a thorough investigation. They even had a sniffer dog.”

The cause was later determined to be from the boiler exploding in the basement, said Pastor Smith.

It his sixth month of serving the church, Smith and his young family had just arrived at his mother’s home in Rayville, Louisiana, for a holiday visit.

Smith’s cell phone rang. The call was from Jewell Dalbert, church clerk.

“She said ‘Pastor, Pastor, the church is on fire!’ I said ‘Jewell, go back there and see how bad it is.’ She called back later and said ‘It’s gone,’ ”

Smith said he was “shocked beyond belief.”

The young clergyman, his wife, Shalonda, and two youngsters — Adria, 7 and Devin, 6, at that time — immediately threw their luggage back in the car and headed home to Salina. They’re now ages 30 and 29, respectively.

“We never unpacked,” Pastor Smith said.

Back in Salina, the congregation began to mobilize. By then it was Saturday morning.

“We had to find some place to have church on Sunday,” Knight said.

She reached out to a friend who worked for Saline County and inquired about having services in the 4-H Building on the fairgrounds. The church was granted permission.

“Two days after the fire, we were having church. From that day on we had services in several locations,” Knight said. “We never missed a Sunday.”

There was a big crowd at the first service, Jones said, roughly 450, when the normal attendance was less than 100.

“Some came out of curiosity. There were a lot of people, and they followed us all over town,” he said. “During that time, I think the Lord gave me the words to say. There were reasons for the church to burn. This was a faith journey.”

The congregation met in the Salina Community Theatre, Nickell Barracks Training Center of the Kansas Army National Guard near Salina Regional Airport, Kansas Wesleyan University, and many others over two years years. For nearly a year, she said, KWU allowed the church space and time for Sunday School and classes during the week.

“We called it being in the wilderness until we could get to the promised land,” Knight said.

Pastor Smith was hard at work during the drive home, preparing to lead his people in Salina.

“I called my pastor (Earl Able) in Kansas City. Number one, he told me to encourage,” Smith said. “He said ‘If they see you’re OK, they’ll be OK. They need to know that we are the church, not the building.’ ”

Among the first calls was from Tom Wilbur from Security Savings.

“He said ‘I want to walk with you through this journey,’ Tom was a strong believer” Pastor Smith said.

The old church site wasn’t right to rebuild.

“There wasn’t enough space to build the church we wanted and satisfy parking requirements,” he said. “I rode around and looked initially near the (Smoky Hill) river. God said, ‘No, that’s not the place.’ There would be children playing too close to the water.”

The new church home wasn’t far away, however.

“When I drove up to the corner of Walnut and Chicago, I knew that was the place,” Smith said. “It was an open field with grass. It was like it was waiting for us.”

Starting with $420,000 from the church’s insurance settlement, the congregation embarked on a $2 million project to build St. John’s Missionary Baptist a new home.

“We needed to raise $1.6 million for this small African American congregation,” Smith said. “The bank provided a bridge from where we were to where we needed to be.”

A $601,000 loan was signed on July 7, 2000, to build the 27,000-square foot church that is nearly seven times larger than the old one, with capacity for 400 in the sanctuary — twice as much worship room — with classrooms, meeting space, and a gym/cafeteria, where meals are served six days a week.

“We needed commitments from members and friends,” he said. “We were walking by faith. That was the only way we were going to have success.”

The church received three-year pledges from members and checks arrived from all over the nation.

“We had five-figure donations from people we didn’t even know,” Smith said.

Locally, there were significant donations, including one from well-known entrepreneur Charlie Walker.

“He called up and said ‘I grew up on the north end of Salina,’ ” Smith said. “We had donations from all over the community, some with connections to the church and some who just heard our story.”

Jones said there were some in the church who were unsure about the process.

“I personally had to convince a church leader of the spirituality of what was before us,” he said. “There were people in the congregation we had to encourage all along the way.”

The pastor was careful not to make money an issue from the pulpit.

“That’s a negative force,” he said.

Exactly 22 years after incurring the debt, Smith instructed Shirley Folsom, the church’s financial administrator, to find out the remaining balance and pay off the loan.

“That was the day God said it was time,” Smith said.

And it was announced during Sunday service.

“People were excited. It was a burden lifted,” he said.

More than a month later, the 57-year-old pastor said the brilliance of that time is still soaking in.

“Every day, every week, we recognize how significant it is,” Smith said, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to finally understand the magnitude of this journey until I am much older.”

In the wake of the payoff, the experience is recalled as “effortless” to Knight.

“It’s been a God project. It happened because he wanted it to happen.”

Jones said he’s at peace because “God was in the process.”

Today, St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church averages 125 for Sunday services.

“That was a great Sunday in the old church,” Smith said. “Before COVID, we averaged more than 200 in this church. When you have longevity in the pews and the pulpit, that creates a stability that allows you to get through the seasons that we have.”

The church has this vision going forward:

“We’re trying to change our community one child at a time, by having an impact on their daily lives,” Smith said. “A lot of things we’re doing for adults is driven by how we support them and their children.”

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Mortgage Burning Ceremony

•9 a.m., members and friends  of St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church will assemble at the former church location, 339 N. Ninth, for a walking, biking or riding parade to the current church at 215 S. Chicago.

• 10:30, a mortgage burning ceremony is planned on the west lawn of the church property, complete with music, scripture and a short program led by Pastor Allen D. Smith, Patrick Parker, chairman of the Deacon Board, and Millie Moye, chairwoman of the Deaconess Board.

A picnic and celebration will follow.

The public is invited.

A musical concert is 6 p.m. in the sanctuary

The 143rd anniversary celebration program culminates with regular worship services at 10 a.m. Sunday.