Forerunner Baptist to open Covington campus at Rialto Baptist
By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
COVINGTON — The handwriting has been on the wall for years at Rialto Baptist Church in Covington.
The almost 100-year-old church once was a vibrant congregation with more than 200 members. But as the community transitioned, many members moved away. Many of those who stayed have since died.
As of Jan. 15, Rialto Baptist had about five members plus pastor Carl Funderburk and his wife Jane. Funderburk, 79, has been pastor of Rialto for 14 years. In 2005 Funderburk led his then congregation of 13 members to make plans should the church eventually have to close its doors.
Church members voted to give its facility to Big Hatchie Baptist Association and any money left in its account to the Cooperative Program should the church cease to exist.
Though the church had a limited membership, the people gave faithfully. In the last two years Rialto Baptist sustained major damage from storms and flooding. Both the sanctuary and the fellowship hall were completely remodeled. In addition, both air conditioning units have gone out recently and have been replaced.
Recently Funderburk began having a conversation with Thomas Bester, pastor of Forerunner Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Ripley. For several years Bester had been considering starting a mission/campus in Covington but things had not worked out.
Funderburk took the idea to the members of Rialto and they were “overwhelmingly supportive,” he said. Rialto members eventually will consolidate with Forerunner, the pastor added. He noted the remaining members did not want to disband and go to another church. “They want to keep coming here,” he stressed.
Church member Carolyn Harper, who will be 74 on Jan. 27, has attended Rialto all of her life. “God has kept our doors open for a reason,” she observed, adding that there are a lot of churches with less members than Rialto that have closed.
As for leaving the only church she had known, that’s not an option. “I’m here until God takes me home or I can’t come,” she pledged. “I have never had a desire to go anywhere else.”
Bester is grateful for the “saints of Rialto” for allowing Forerunner to establish the Forerunner Covington Campus at Rialto to “do the work of God in this place.”
During a joint worship service on Jan. 15, Bester told Rialto members “God is using you to be a blessing to us and a blessing to this community.” He thanked the congregation for their desire to see the gospel spread in their community. “We want to carry on the spirit of Rialto in this place,” he stressed.
Like Funderburk, Bester has seen God’s hand at work in this transition for both churches.
Since he began Forerunner as a new church start in 2002, Bester said his passion and desire has been to start other African-American churches throughout West Tennessee. The church currently has a campus in Brownsville. He has a strong desire to train church planters to help lead the work in rural West Tennessee counties.
“It’s in our DNA to start churches,” he said.
Bester said initially Forerunner will have services at the Covington campus every other week, from 8:30-10 a.m. Bester will be assisted on the Covington campus by pastor Terrence Henning.
“We have a lot on the table,” Bester noted. “This is our opportunity to further carry the vision God gave me when we started Forerunner.”
Bester observed that the new work in Covington is an example of both church planting and church revitalization (two of the Five Objectives that are goals of the Tennessee Baptist Convention). “God is doing these things right here,” Bester said, adding that the congregation is praying “that the people of Rialto will be revitalized and that we will all worship together.”
Funderburk agreed. “We don’t want to see our church building not being used. The Lord has a purpose for it,” he affirmed.
Clay Gilbreath, director of missions for Big Hatchie Baptist Association said he is “so thankful for the vision of two sister churches to come together like this for the glory of God. I hope many other churches are inspired to work together to impact their communities and world,” he said.
The DOM observed that in a world filled with strife and competition, “these two pastors and churches are modeling for the rest of us how we should seek the kingdom of God as one body in Christ.
“It is a privilege to serve with them,” he added.