One of Edgefield County's biggest congregations is now officially settled into a new base of Sunday operations.
Sweetwater Baptist Church, with local roots going back to 1832, celebrated completion of its new sanctuary Nov. 3, holding a worship service and expressing thanks to (and for) dozens of boosters who have helped since the building campaign began in January 2016. The new facility had been in use since early August, but church leaders chose to wait a few weeks for the celebration, to have a full-scale celebration with a minimum of hiccups.
The groundbreaking occurred Aug. 13, 2017, and the project ran into a variety of challenges along the way, so Sunday's gathering included thanks to a pair of state legislators who helped navigate through the bureaucracy: Rep. Bill Hixon and Sen. Shane Massey. The presentation also included reading of congratulatory letters from President Donald Trump, Gov. Henry McMaster and Lt. Gov. Pamela Evette.
Massey, addressing the gathering, said, "My prayer is that this building – this sanctuary – will be a beacon in this area, that people will see this building and they will know that God is worshipped here, and the facilities will be so beautiful that people will want to come in. They will want to join you."
He added, "People may come for the facilities, but they won't stay for the facilities. People want to be part of the family because of the spirit that they encounter. People want to join the family because of love, and that is a challenge for each of us to exhibit that type of love, so we can not only show off the beautiful facilities but to lead more people to Christ and to serve more people in the area we live in."
Hixon said, "You heard a calling from God, and that calling was, 'Your church is not big enough. The community's growing, and we've got more coming. Do something.'"
The congregation has answered that call, said Hixon, who also presented, as gifts for the church, a state flag and a national flag, both of which flew over the Statehouse. "I'm so proud of what you've done. It's so wonderful, because our area is really going to be growing, and even though we all love the old church, it's not big enough, and you're preparing for the future, and we're preparing for whatever goes on in the Merriwether-Sweetwater community."
Sweetwater's pastor, the Rev. Paul Noe, acknowledged the difficulty of trying to express gratitude for every individual and organization that played a substantial part in the building project, ranging from congregation members to such entities as First Citizens Bank and the architectural firm of Harley and Associates.
"I just want to say, when we get into these recognitions sometimes, it's easy to leave someone out, or we fail to mention someone," the pastor said. "I assure you, it's not intentional by any means, and ... I say a lot, sometimes we just do things for Jesus, and the only person who ever sees it is the Lord. You don't get your name in the bulletin. You don't get your name in the associational newsletter or in the newspaper, but God knows and has the account recorded, so thank you very much for all that you have done."
Sunday's gathering, along with an abundance of prayer and musical offerings, also included a pair of baptisms. The congregation has 1,309 members on its roll (active and non-active alike), and the new building, which also features a nursery and classrooms, has a seating capacity of 600. The oldest part of the earlier sanctuary, which can seat about 350, dates back to 1863.
The building project, estimated to require about $5.2 million, generated an initial pledge of $1.8 million from the congregation, and the amount raised so far is over $3 million.
The congregation, which has had Noe as pastor since 2005, has also been one of Fox Creek High School's major boosters, having provided a locale for some of the charter school's events over the years, especially when the school was taking shape and did not yet have facilities for such occasions as football practice, basketball games, volleyball games and graduation ceremonies.