As many as 250 parishioners, past and present, are expected this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of First Baptist Church in Key Largo.
A series of events — including a reception, fishing tournament, comedy concert, worship services and more — “focuses on the people of our church,” said Pastor Charles Rosenbalm, who has served the congregation since 1999 coming from Tampa.
“Since we are Baptists,” said Rosenbalm with a smile, “you know there will be food.”
Events begin Friday, Nov. 7 and conclude Sunday, Nov. 9.
Some of those who are confirmed to attend are former pastors Lee Graham (1966-76), who led the effort to build the current sanctuary; Ron Lentine (1981-87) and Bob Norman (1988-91). Lester Curry, a former staff person who now has his own church, also will be there.
Started in the 1950s as a mission of Central Baptist Church, parishioners first met in the Key Largo Civic Club.
As the church grew, members were “able to take increasing ownership and stand on their own,” Rosenbalm said. With an eye to the future, in 1957 the church purchased on the land on which it now sits at mile marker 99 oceanside.
In 1964, First Baptist became fully constituted. It is part of the Florida Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention — what Rosenbalm called “the mother ship” of Baptist churches nationally.
The church has been involved in many missions aboard and supports activities locally as well.
There are youth groups, Vacation Bible School, services throughout the week, and Bible studies for men and women. The church sponsors a Boy Scout troop.
There is even a child-care center on the property, named after parishioner Jack Hill, who was a major supporter of the church. About 25 children are cared for five days a week at the center.
Right now, church members are excited to be involved in Operation Christmas Child, a project of Samaritan’s Purse, founded by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham.
“People fill shoeboxes with basic things — like socks, pencils and toothbrushes — and we pack them and send them off all over the world,” Rosenbalm said.
The shoeboxes are filled depending on whether they are for boys or girls and are age-specific.
The project has been so successful that First Baptist last year was named the “relay center” for other churches for the entire Keys.
“We hope to pack 500 boxes,” the pastor said. “It’s a big assembly line.”
People from other churches bring their boxes to First Baptist and “if all goes well, we’ll have 5,000 shoeboxes,” Rosenbalm said. Those boxes will be loaded onto a tractor trailer the week of Nov. 17 and taken to Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta for worldwide distribution.
Through the project’s tracking system, parishioners will learn where their shoeboxes end up. One year, they helped children in India.
Cheryl Cottrell, RN, chief nursing officer and vice president of Nursing Services at Mariners Hospital in Tavernier, and her sisters — Diane Griste and Faith Weaver — have been with the church since its inception.
She echoed the “people-centered” theme that the church and its parishioners value.
As a young teen, the church was a place not only of support, but a way to learn about the world through its missions. It also gave young people the skills they needed to become leaders, Cottrell said.
Cottrell said a little known fact about the Southern Baptist Convention is how it supports emergency personnel, such as feeding Red Cross workers, in disaster areas.
The value of the missions and other project is that “you can help people even if you can’t be there in person,” she said.
“Churches as a whole are more open to meeting the needs of the people,” she said. “It’s not so much how you look — it’s how we can help you and you can help us.”
She remembered a time when she suffered from a major illness and First Baptist Church parishioners were there, “sitting with me and my mother when I had surgery.”
“That’s just what you do,” she said. “Church is like an extended family.”
There were about 75 to 100 parishioners at the church’s founding, Cottrell recalled, and even in 1964, there were a lot of Miami weekenders who came down to Key Largo go to church.
There were fewer than a half-dozen churches in the Upper Keys at the time, Cottrell said. But even so, “church was one of the mainstays in family life. It’s a place where you support each other.”
Cottrell said sometimes people go from church to church, looking for the perfect one.
“You have to find the one you’re most comfortable with,” she said. “We need to be serving where God leads us to serve.”
For more information about the church or the 50th anniversary celebration, call (305) 451-2265.