By Karen L. Willoughby
BRISTOL, Fla. (BP) — Local lore — spun by a Baptist preacher in the 1950s — has it that the Garden of Eden may have been in the Southeast.
The Apalachicola River that flows near the town of Bristol, Fla., has four main tributaries akin to what Genesis 2:10 recounts. A rare species of evergreen called gopher wood grows on the Apalachicola’s banks — the same species that Noah used to build the ark, according to Genesis 6:14.
The Rev. Elvy E. Callaway “claimed that only two rivers in the world fit this [biblical] description, one in Siberia, and the Apalachicola,” according to a Florida travel guide, which notes that the gopher wood trees “once grew worldwide before the last ice age, and why a small number have survived in Florida is a real mystery.”
The botanically rich town of Bristol — halfway between Tallahassee and Panama City in Florida’s panhandle — is at least 40 miles from the nearest high-rise urban environment. It’s a peaceful community with limited shopping; local employment largely tied to city and county governments, a school system and correctional facility; and a volunteer fire department.
Lake Mystic Baptist Church, the oldest Southern Baptist church in or near Bristol, will celebrate its 125th anniversary with a homecoming in October reflecting its commitment to both global missions and its community.
About 160 people participate in Sunday morning worship at Lake Mystic Baptist — about 20 percent of Bristol’s population. The church gives 12 percent of its undesignated gifts to missions and ministry through the Cooperative Program.
“We’re part of the community of Southern Baptists,” said Jerry Chumley, now in his fourth year as the church’s pastor. “It’s the multiplication effect: We can do more together than any of us could do on our own.
“I just believe the Cooperative Program is God-ordained and God-blessed,” the pastor continued. “I believe strongly it’s the best way to do missions.”
Supporting missions through the Cooperative Program helps Lake Mystic members be obedient in fulfilling the Great Commission, the pastor said. Chumley takes no credit for the percentage amount, which he said was in place when he arrived in 2011 and is a credit to its missions-minded members.
An additional benefit of participating in the Cooperative Program is that it “takes the attention off ourselves,” the pastor said. “As we catch a broader vision of our task and the Kingdom of God, it helps us grow here and spread outside the walls of the church.
“To me, the mission field starts at the doors of the church,” Chumley said. “It starts here and goes around the world.”
Local ministries include a two-county ministry center that provides food, clothing and the Gospel message; weekly Bible study at the local jail; and strong support for school-related assistance, such as gathering supplies for students who have none.
Vacation Bible School this year drew 100 youngsters and 74 adult and youth leaders. Five made professions of faith and 15 youngsters were identified as having no church home.
“We put a lot of emphasis into VBS,” Chumley said. “Children come from all over the community. Our music minister’s wife, Vanita Anderson, does a wonderful job of organizing, promoting and advertising it.”
A weekly quilting bee is both a time of fellowship and a low-key way of involving women who would not otherwise take the opportunity to be part of a group of Christian women. A monthly women’s study of missionaries helps spur the women in their support of missions.
Lake Mystic Baptist continually reinforces its commitment to missions and ministry. Wednesday services include Mission Friends and Team Kids, a youth ministry of 50 or more teens and an adult Bible study and prayer time.
In partnership with Apalachee Baptist Association, the church hosted a world missions conference in August that involved nearly 30 Florida, North American and international missionaries. The continually-growing youth group has been on construction mission trips in Florida and Puerto Rico and plans to return to the Caribbean islands next year.
Locally over the years, what was the first Baptist church in the central Panhandle region in 1889 has started three other churches: Bristol First Baptist, Wilma Baptist and Florida River Baptist.
In addition, “many pastors and other full-time Christian vocational workers were birthed from Lake Mystic as well,” according to a history of the church being prepared for its anniversary. “She continues to be a ‘lighthouse’ in the community of Bristol, Florida, where people come to not only hear the Word preached, sung, and taught, but also receive prayer, love, and acceptance into the family of God.”
Chumley said Lake Mystic Baptist members cooperate together as a community of believers because they believe in missions and in building up the members to serve at God’s direction across the worl.
“We’re excited about the growth of the church,” the pastor said. “It’s been steady growth because we believe that we plant, we water, but God gives the increase. It’s He who adds to the church. If we’re faithful, He will continue to bless.”
Karen L. Willoughby is a national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.