DECATUR – Tucked away in a residential neighborhood in the near west side of Decatur, Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church's members enjoy a quiet campus surrounded by homes and trees full of singing birds.
For 50 years, this church has been at the same location, started by a group of Christians “for the moving of God's kingdom,” as recorded in the minutes of that first organizational meeting on July 20, 1968.
The church will hold a celebration on July 7-8, with the church's Fun Day 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, July 7, with an old-fashioned cake walk, bounce houses, games and a balloon release in memory of deceased members. A special worship service will be 4 p.m. Sunday, July 8 to commemorate the 50 years since the church's first service.
The hope is that a number of former members who have moved away from the area will be able to return.
Led by the Rev. Oliver Johnson, a group had met a month earlier to begin the “Mount Olive Mission,” and the group met at the YMCA at first, moving to the YWCA when they needed more space, and finally purchasing the property at 1720 W. Hunt St. and rechristening themselves the Greater Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church.
Gloria Jean Jones is Johnson's daughter and remembers her father being hesitant to answer the call to the ministry.
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“We knew that he was called to preach and kind of felt that eventually it would happen,” said Jones, who is one of four remaining original members. “I remember how he would be out in the garage and probably most of his best sermons might have been preached from that garage. My brother and I would be outside, and we'd listen, and he'd be out there preaching to the lawn mower, the shovels, the rakes, before he acknowledged his calling.”
She doesn't remember much discussion with the family prior to organizing the church, but she said when her father knew God wanted him to do a thing, he did it.
“(My mother) would not have opposed him,” Jones said. “If this is what God has commissioned you to do (she'd have said), I'm behind you.”
The Rev. Byron Hansbro, took over as interim pastor after Johnson's death in 2006 and was elected permanent pastor in 2009. The present church was finished in 1994. The original church building is named in honor of Johnson and is used for fellowship and offices. A second building, purchased in 1998, was named for Lilian Allen Pirtle and is used as an education wing. Pirtle was an early church “mother,” which is a term of honor for the women who serve on the Mothers' Board, a group of women who guide and mentor younger women in the congregation.
Jenette Cason, who has been best friends with Jones since before the the church's founding, is an active member and volunteer on several of the boards within the church. One of the features of the church is its involvement with the neighborhood, from Trick or Trunk at Halloween, where members offer candy to neighborhood children, hot chocolate, chili and hot dogs, to coat and shoe giveaways and vacation Bible school. When Mount Olive opened, she said, she was attending church with her grandmother, but she and Jones didn't want to be separated and she began attending Mount Olive from the beginning.
“It's a Bible-believing church,” she said. “We try to do the right things and help people and it's just a nice place to worship.”