Momentous night for First Baptist

Published 9:39 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2013

From left, Luke Fowler, Grayson Hampton and Annie Copeland, students at Suffolk Christian Academy, sign “Thank You for Giving to the Lord” during an appreciation dinner for First Baptist Church on Wednesday night.

It was mostly a regular Wednesday night dinner at First Baptist Church, but it marked a turning point for First Baptist Christian School.

After 25 years of being a ministry of the church, the school is undergoing a major transition that leaders hope will give the school greater visibility to the community and the community greater investment in the school.

“This is a really exciting thing,” said Thurman Hayes, pastor of First Baptist Church. “The dream is to have a state-of-the-art Christian school. We feel like that would meet a real need in the community.”

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The school now is its own incorporated entity and will change its name to Suffolk Christian Academy. Four churches now govern it — Southside Baptist Church, Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church and Open Door Church, in addition to First Baptist. All four churches have seats on the reorganized school board.

“We’re real excited about it, because it brings a stronger base of support for the school,” said Tamra VanDorn, principal of the school. “The other churches had been asking to be involved for a long time. (First Baptist) felt … like God is moving them toward unifying with the other churches and bringing other people in to help support the school and make it a larger force in the community.”

First Baptist Church started the school in 1988 and initially had only kindergarten through fourth grade. It gradually grew, and grades six through 12 began meeting at Westminster several years ago, because the First Baptist building on North Main Street was becoming crowded. The first senior class graduated in 2010.

The transition has been about 18 months in the making, said new school board chairman Mark McGahee.

“We’ve been meeting monthly, sometimes twice a month,” he said. “Each church voted to participate.”

He hopes the transition will help people who are looking for an alternative to public schools consider the school more readily than when it was named after and governed by a specific church.

“Here at the school, they don’t teach denomination,” said Kay Jernigan, a former board member. “They just teach the Bible.”

VanDorn envisions a stronger school because of the larger base that can help provide support in the form of time, talents and resources, she said.

“This gives the body of Christ the opportunity to work together for a discipleship school in Suffolk,” she said.

Ruffin Alphin, pastor of Westminster Reformed Presbyterian Church, said he sees the transition as a “good thing.”

“We’re trying to broaden its posture, so that it’s not just seen as a one-church school,” Alphin said. “We’re getting buy-in from the community by asking the churches to get involved. It’s also a great way to show the community that, believe it or not, churches can work together.”

Stewart McCarter, pastor of Southside Baptist Church, said the move will help the school grow and improve.

“I’m grateful that First Baptist has carried this for so long,” he said. “We’re looking forward to it really strengthening the school and providing a great choice. I think it’s really great that the community can see that four churches from three different traditions can come together for a Christian cause.”

Representatives from all of the churches and the school came together at Wednesday night’s dinner. Speakers, including VanDorn and 2010 valedictorian Becca Ballance, thanked First Baptist Church for its quarter-century of commitment to the school.

“First Baptist Church, we are so thankful to our God for the 25 years of service you gave to First Baptist Christian School,” VanDorn said.

Ballance paid tribute to how the school helped her grow academically, athletically and socially.

An open house for prospective families is set for Feb. 24. For more information on the school, visit