By: Sandra Hedrick, Stated Clerk
The Highlands Presbyterian Church in Gainesville, Florida, held its closing service on Pentecost Sunday, May 15, 2016. Many guests from around the presbytery joined the congregation for the occasion of celebrating the rich heritage of the 63-year old congregation and to mourn its ending. The statement of purpose, led by Presbytery Moderator Ralph Moulder, began:
“As we gather for worship,
let us acknowledge with solemn joy,
God’s gift of this place,
remembering with gratitude,
all who have worshipped here,
the faith professed at this font,
the gospel proclaimed from this pulpit,
the assurance received at this table.”
The gathered worshippers were greeted by Sandy Faison, the church’s last stated supply pastor. After Glenn Dickson (TE – Faith) shared a history of the church, Ruth Elswood (TE – Jasper) read a letter from Jack Donovan, the commissioned ruling elder who served the church for many years.
The service included scripture reading (including Ecclesiastes 3:1-18 and 2 Timothy 4:6-13), many prayers, times for contemplation and proclaiming the word, an affirmation of faith, and a litany of praise. The morning message recognized that other Christians have suffered loss, and others have celebrated the memories of God’s grace shown among a people and in a place. Following a recessional out of the sanctuary led by the ringing of handbells, the blessing and charge were pronounced in the Bashaw Memorial Garden, as the congregation was surrounded by the caring support of the friends who had come to share this tender time.
Those who attended will also remember the music and the time of sharing (food, fellowship and memories) that followed the service. Long-time Highlands’ pianist Andy Hughes gifted those gathered with his talent and inspirational music. The band (Alyson Bonner, RD Bonner, Kathy Broyard, Karen Evans and Crystal Miles) that played two pieces of special music for the gathering is a group of voluntary musicians who have played together at Highlands for the past three years. According to one of the band members, Kathy Broyard, the pieces that they played – The Byrds “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)” and “Trust” by Sixpence None the Richer – “really spoke us as fitting for the final gathering as Highlands.”
Over the years the Highlands church nurtured the faith of many and served the Gainesville community in important ways. In his history, Glenn Dickson named many of servant leaders of the church, including the first pastor, Norman McDowell, who served when the church was located at the NE corner of NE 9th Street and NE 10th Avenue. (The current building on NE 16th Avenue was dedicated in 1964.)
In the fall of 1964, a National Walkway – consisting of stones from all 50 states and Canada – was created and dedicated. The Bashaw Memorial Biblical Garden was dedicated in memory of Z. T. Bashaw in the summer of 1967, and for many years Easter Sunrise services were held there.
A number of non-profit and outreach groups have used the building over the years. For example, “the church provided leadership for the Action Network when that network began its ministry in Gainesville. Often the Action Network Board met in the dining hall here and it has helped make Gainesville a much better city.”
In his sermon, Glenn Dickson shared that, “Numerous people have been baptized here. Many couples have said their wedding vows in this sanctuary. And many memorial services have been held here. People have met strangers and become great friends and those friendships would not have developed had this church not been here. People with doubts and questions have been helped to work through those doubts and achieve a stronger faith because of the ministry of this church. It is impossible to put into words what this church has meant to so many during the past 60 plus years.”
“It will be strange to drive by this place in the years ahead and to note that this building will no longer house a Presbyterian congregation.” But also, we will carry with us “what [we] have learned and experienced here… and it has enriched and strengthened [our] faith.”
The community of the Presbytery of St. Augustine continues to pray for God’s blessing on the people who have loved and served the church over its many years. We know that the light of Christ that has shined in and from the church will continue to be a blessing in ways that we will never know but that God will use for God’s glory and God’s peace.