WEST JEFFERSON-Jennifer Treski likes to say the best gift her mama and daddy ever gave her was introducing her to a little Baptist church on East 2nd Street near downtown.
Treski’s parents first took her to West Jefferson’s First Baptist Church more than five decades ago and she’s called it her home church ever since.
Even though her parents are now gone, leaving Treski with few biological relatives, she said she still considers herself blessed with plenty of family.
“First Baptist and its members, that’s my family now,” Treski said. “I don’t think I could ever have thanked my parents enough for first taking me there. They gave me the greatest gift.”
The church marked its 100th anniversary this weekend. A tribute to First Baptist’s longstanding music ministry packed the pews Saturday night, while a Sunday morning service offered a look at the church’s first century.
Born of the railroad
First Baptist can trace its history back to the very first days of West Jefferson. The town was founded in 1915 and built around a depot that supported the Virginia-Carolina Railway. That same year, First Baptist organized its first services in the same tiny, dusty space.
At the start, Reverend George Reeves was joined by just five charter members – Mrs. J.C. Gambill, Dr. James C. Gambill, Grover Dixon, Mrs. Thomas Dixon and 16-year old Dan Mullis, a young man who swept the depot’s floor and kept its wood stove stoked in winter.
Little more than a decade later, the congregation moved down the street and built a church in the spot West Jefferson First Baptist now calls home.
A succession of pastors flowed through the church in its early years, but the arrival of Rev. Rexford Campbell in 1948 brought stability and leadership that allowed the church to flourish.
“For decades the church has been active to improve race relations locally, and I think you can really trace that back to Campbell,” according to Jim Gambill, a longtime First Baptist Church member. “He opened the door to other denominations, which wasn’t always the most popular move.”
Lighting a fire
Rev. Ken Morris took over for Campbell in 1973 and continued First Baptist’s progressive march forward.
It elected its first female deacon in 1993, a relative rarity in Baptist churches at the time, according to Gambill.
In the early 1990s, Gambill said the church also sidestepped what could have been a major disaster. In the middle of a joint revival held with local African American churches, smoke began to fill the sanctuary.
“The black minister who was preaching that night was told we needed to evacuate the building due to a fire in the attic,” Gambill said. “He preached us right out the door in real orderly fashion. He later said churches often caught fire when he preached, but that was the first time a church was on fire when he got there.”
A warm welcome
First Baptist’s current pastor, Rev. Michael Lea, said he was drawn to the church by the same feeling of community that Treski said she loves. Lea and his family have called West Jefferson home since 2008.
He’s tasked, in part, with helping First Baptist lay the groundwork for the next chapter in the church’s history.
“Much of the church is already involved in local missions outside the church already,” Lea said. “But it’s our goal to strengthen that outreach, and to be a harbor of God’s love and a beacon of Christ’s hope.”
He sees the church expanding its role in projects like the backpack food donation drive and the Ashe Sharing Center.
“You want to be a place that’s hospitable to all people,” Lea said. “So more engagement in local ministries that really make an impact, I think we’re going to have a large part to play in that.”
Reach Adam Orr at 336-846-7164 or Twitter.com/AdamROrr