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Holy Hill Church reaps God’s blessings

By Barbara Denman

August 28, 2013

James Barker counts God’s blessings in all things.

When the BP Oil Spill hit the Panhandle coast, he found God’s handiwork as church members found employment in the clean-up. When he left his higher paying job at a local paper mill to serve his church full-time, he found God’s provision for his financial needs. When the need for triple by-pass surgery knocked him off his feet, he saw God’s blessing in his spared life.

“I look on everything God does as a blessing,” said the pastor of Holy Hill Baptist Church in Parker—located on the outskirts of Panama City. “Christ took us from law to grace. I can’t see anything other than blessings from God.”

And among the blessings he and the church have experienced is Florida Baptists’ gift of an interest-free loan for a prime piece of property where they plan to build their church.  

“We thank God for the loan. We have been blessed by the loan,” he said, calling it an “open door from God.”

The $100,000 loan provided through Florida Baptist’s generous gifts to the Maguire State Mission Offering has enabled the church to purchase 1.5 acres on the corner of Highway 98 and Ethlynn Road, located about five miles east of Panama City.

The congregation watched that piece of property for years as its price fluctuated. Although valued at more than $85,000, the church was able to purchase the land at $45,000. The additional money from the loan will provide for property preparation and set-up costs.

The property is less than a mile from the strip center where the church holds worship services. For this space in a run-down strip center the church pays $700 a month.

Its current location hinders true growth for the 60-member congregation. Barker believes more people would attend a church in a more permanent and visible location.

“People would recognize us as a church and will pay attention to our presence seeing us on the main highway. When people pass by they will see a church. As a storefront some people are hesitant to worship with us.”

Not only will the new location provide more visibility, said Troy Varnum, director of missions for the Northwest Coast Association, “having ownership removes the burdens of having to answer to a landlord and of paying rent that doesn’t lead to ownership of the property.”

“Though they will have mortgage payments now, they know that one day that won’t be the case. That is very liberating,” he said.

While the church was very creative in their current location, creating an attractive and inviting worship center, the facility lacks educational space.

Varnum said the church needs to have the freedom “to design a church plant that is more conducive to their ministries than having to adjust to a pre-existing building.”

The Holy Hill congregation was started in 1998, affiliated with an African-American Baptist convention. When he arrived as a bivocational pastor in 2001, Barker led the congregation—composed of only a handful of members--to join the Northwest Coast Association.

In that association, Barker said he found churches that “embraced us as family and threw their arms around us. The association is not based on race, creed or color, but Christian brotherly principles.”

Barker also liked Southern Baptists’ programs to help small churches grow and the Great Commission mindset. When a hurricane struck the region, Barker received a call from Florida Baptist disaster relief asking about damage the church had experienced.

“That was a tremendous boost to our church and demonstrated such caring,” he said.

When he led the church into the SBC, Barker said he determined that the congregation would tithe its income through the Cooperative Program. No matter the circumstances, their gifts have never fallen below 10 percent and sometimes represented 13 percent of their income. They gave another seven percent to the association.

Currently Barker serves as the moderator of the association, following in the footsteps of Kenric Conway, pastor of Family of God Church, who also serves a predominately African-American congregation.

Church leaders believe, however, that with a new building the congregation can attract members of different races. Varnum agrees.

“Race is not the only connection point in that community. Holy Hill is a community-sensitive body of believers. Their interaction with area residents helps them in seeing needs, meeting needs, and sharing faith,” he said.

“I can see socio-economic factors as opening up a door to the church regardless of race. The congregation has the flexibility to be an ethnically mixed work and I have seen that in practice at times.”

Barker believes Holy Hill at its core is a congregation for changing lives.

“If a church doesn’t affect its community it is not doing its job. We are a congregation of grace, regardless of race, creed or color. The greatest of this is salvation.”

“The church changed my life,” said member Johnny Jones. “God has worked miracles in my life.” As an alcoholic and drug addict, he was led to faith by Pastor Barker. Now as leaders in the church, Jones and his wife have been substance free for more than seven years and find joy in serving Christ, he said.

The congregation has a core group of students who are active in the life of the church and serve as role models in their high schools. Preparing the next generation is vitally important in the congregation as well as an investment in their lives, Barker said.

Varnum said he expects a great future for the church under Barker’s leadership.

“James has vision to see what others miss; he has determination to see something through when others get ready to bail; he has patience to wait for disciples to mature; and he has sensitivity to see where God is at work and walk with Him there.”

And he is confident that God’s blessings will give them a new church on the Holy Hill.

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