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Bringing the Gospel to Gandy

First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg opts to build a 1,500-seat sanctuary near the interstate in hopes of shining its light on some of the 100,000 unchurched residents who live nearby.

At first, church members wanted to build the new sanctuary overlooking a picturesque and serene lake.

But maybe seclusion wasn't such a good thing for the First Baptist Church of St. Petersburg, some began to think.

According to the Bible, the church is supposed to be the light of the world, visible and out front, said Jim Latchford, who sits on the church building committee.

So First Baptist is putting up a building that people can't miss even if they try.

The new, $10-million sanctuary, to be completed in April, is rising alongside traffic-laden Gandy Boulevard. More than 100,000 drivers travel north on Interstate 275 near Gandy every day. For those who turn onto Exit 15, only a neck brace could keep them from seeing the construction site.

Crews started shifting dirt more than a year ago, but the phone calls began trickling in only recently as scaffolds and concrete blocks crept closer to their ultimate height of 68 feet.

The callers' inquiries fall to receptionist Mary Belanger.

"A lot of people are heading to work," Belanger says. "They're watching the progress."

Just as church leaders planned.

If you ask First Baptist's leaders why they decided to build a sanctuary on the cusp of the interstate, they answer by borrowing from the Book of Matthew, the part that says, "Ye are the light of the world."

"If we're going to reach the Tampa Bay area with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we need a facility that's going to be very prominent and catch the people on Gandy Boulevard," said Latchford, a First Baptist member for 10 years. "We're not hiding our light under a bushel."

The need for a new worship building had been growing for years. In the 1980s, when First Baptist was on Fourth Street in downtown St. Petersburg, the congregation hired a consultant to study its growth potential.

The consultant found that 100,000 people within a five-mile radius of the current church site on Gandy Boulevard were not members of a church, deacon Bill Johnson said.

The spiritual demand was out there, but First Baptist was in the wrong location, members decided.

"Our church downtown was going nowhere," Johnson said.

The church had grand expansion plans. Members envisioned a new sanctuary and an educational facility with a day care center, rooms for counseling and weekly meetings.

But they couldn't afford all that at first. So in 1990, First Baptist built an education building on a 20-acre lot near I-275 and Gandy. Members have used an assembly area in that building as their "temporary sanctuary" ever since.

Four years ago, they were ready to move to the next phase, the sanctuary. They would need a large one: membership has been growing steadily, with 800 to 900 showing up for two Sunday services, according to the Rev. Walter Draughon III, First Baptist's pastor.

"I think this church is growing and growing fast because God called her to grow and she is obeying him," Draughon says, standing on the steps of what will soon be the choir loft for 100 praise-singing voices.

With new faces showing up every week, Draughon said, "We'll be at 1,200 by next May."

The church had a spirited debate about where to put the new 1,500-seat sanctuary.

Members had planned to build it in the center of the U-shaped educational facility, facing the pond. But then Draughon enlisted the help of his old friend Burt Taggart, a semi-retired architect from Little Rock, Ark.

Taggart, a scripture-quoting Christian, said he saw the opportunity to make a moral statement as well as an architectural one.

Church buildings once dominated communities, he said, offering the Cathedral of Notre Dame in France as an example.

"As you rode through on horseback," he said, "it would have been very easy to discern that which people held most dear."

The tallest buildings in St. Petersburg and Tampa are bank towers _ a trend in cities throughout the nation, Taggart says.

Taggart knew he could use the prime highway frontage for exposure. He told church members he would design their new sanctuary "in such a fashion that the church makes a statement to the world that drives past it.

"Not in the sense of pounding one's chest and saying, "Hey, look at me,' " Taggart said. "That would be egocentric."

Instead, the structure would let people know "that this little congregation did the best it could to demonstrate their commitment to the God they serve."

According to Draughon, some members "found it difficult to conceive of us being on the interstate."

Eventually they voted. The way Johnson remembers it, the traffic on Gandy beat the serenity of the lake about 85 percent to 15.

As chairman of the nine-member First Baptist building committee, Johnson had a big job overseeing the sanctuary project. The church body would have to vote on almost everything, from the carpet color to the choir suite.

"Baptists are a very democratic group," Johnson chuckled.

The new organ: traditional pipe or modern-day digital?

They voted. Modernism won.

"Our church has decided to go electric," Johnson said.

Other equipment in the sanctuary will reflect a new-age worship service with audio equipment and video screens to enlarge the happenings for those in the rear and the balcony.

Still, hints of days gone by will permeate the sanctuary. Taggart integrated stone floors with carpet runners and wooden pew ends with rows of cushioned theater seats. Columns inside the sanctuary will support the ceiling while stucco walls will take churchgoers back to the centuries-old sanctuaries in southern Spain, Taggart said.

The congregation approved a series of stained glass windows, including one that will be 47 feet tall and 70 feet wide _ the tallest in the Southeast, according to Draughon. An Arkansas company is making the window, which will be behind the pulpit. Churchgoers will be able to see through a portion of the window. As they look through, they will see an empty cross standing outside, off Gandy.

Debate about another cross was touchy, however. A life-size bronze sculpture of Jesus Christ being crucified will stand in the foyer. Some considered it a form of idolatry, while others said it would be an asset in depicting the crucifixion.

The ayes carried it.

"In general, we're stepping out," Johnson said. "We're saying, "We're there to serve Jesus Christ, and you all are welcome.' "

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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