On Saturday afternoon, Gulfport police and fire trucks led the way as dozens of cars drove down College Street toward First Missionary Baptist Church in Handsboro.
A group of young church members marched past, holding a banner that read “The Man, the Myth, the Legend”. Behind them, Pastor Seymour Venson Adolph, Jr. waved from a brown Corvette.
After 31 years as the head of one of the coast’s most historic churches, Adolph retires and returns to Houston to be closer to his family. In her final weeks as the head of First Missionary Baptist Handsboro, members of the congregation say goodbye to each other and reflect on what her leadership has brought to the church.
“Every time he speaks, he teaches,” said Purvis McBride, Jr., vice president of deacons ministry.
In 1990, Adolph was working at a church in Port Arthur, Texas and applying for pastoral jobs. He was driving back to Texas one day after visiting a church in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
“On my way home, the Lord told me to ask my uncle where he had been the previous week,” Adolph said in an interview.
The next morning he called his uncle and learned that he had preached at the First Missionary Baptist Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. His uncle told him they were looking for a pastor. Adolph had never been to Gulfport before. When he visited, he was surprised to find that it was nothing like what he had heard about Mississippi.
“I applied and the rest is history,” he said. “In fact, I felt like he had been chosen for me.”
Adolph took over as head of a church that dates back to the early 1860s, when the first members began worshiping together in a log cabin near Bayou Bernard. By 1877, First Missionary had moved to its present location on Pass Road. The congregation survived several hurricanes and two fires that destroyed their building.
First Missionary is possibly the second oldest black church in Harrison County, after First Baptist Missionary Church in Biloxi, which opened in 1846.
“First Missionary was pretty easy to navigate because it was already heading in the direction I would have liked to go,” said Adolph.
A teaching ministry, a service ministry
Adolph focused on Christian education at First Missionary. He created an internal certification program for Sunday School and other teachers, then led the church to attend the National Sunday School Publishing Board Institute, which certified more than 50 teachers at First Missionary.
Larry Stewart, deacons ministry president and church member since 1989, said Adolph encourages careful reflection on all aspects of the church’s teachings.
“When you say you’re a Baptist, why are you a Baptist? Said Stewart.
Adolph also sought to develop ways for members of the congregation to use their professional skills to help others. He referred to the fifth chapter of the Book of Luke, in which Jesus uses Peter’s boat teaching the word of God to crowds of people standing on the shores of Lake Gennesaret.
The church has started a health ministry and educator group called Education Matters.
“We just wanted to make sure that our church had more to offer our community than just Sunday morning service,” said Adolph.
Under Adolph’s leadership, the membership of the church grew from 300 or 400 to over 800 people.
An emphasis on raising awareness among young people
Traycee Scott-Williams was one of many church members in attendance who first joined First Missionary because her children were involved in the church.
When her children were young, “Church was like the place to go,” Scott-Williams said.
Adolph would take young church members to Pizza Hut and teach them how to tie ties.
Alyshia Rodgers, 25, has been a member of First Missionary her entire life. His family has at least four generations in church. Adolph, she said, was good at connecting with young people. It helps, she says, that “It looks like a giant teddy bear bar, like Santa Claus without a beard.
During a difficult time shortly before graduating from college, she could count on Adolph to support him.
“I called him and he called me back and he prayed with me until I was okay,” she said. “It’s that comfort, that familiarity, that humility.”
The challenges of the pandemic
Adolph was planning to retire in 2020, but he didn’t want to leave his congregation without a leader during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In some ways, he said, the first missionary was well prepared to adapt to virtual worship. Years ago, the collapse of retail stores and the rise of Amazon had convinced him that most aspects of life could and would be brought online. The church began to evolve into a “could exist for both people in the building, as well as people watching online.
From now on, each service is broadcast on Zoom and Facebook. Church members share their greetings and encouragement through Facebook comments.
Most Sundays, attendance inside the church is limited to 50 people. Others sit in their cars in the parking lot to listen to Adolph’s sermon on the radio.
As the pandemic progressed, Adolph realized that if he waited until the end before returning with his family to Texas, he might not get there. In August, he told his congregation that he would be leaving at the end of the year. He looks forward to being close to his two children and four grandchildren.
Say goodbye to a beloved pastor
Yolanda Wallace, chair of the pastor’s aid committee, helped plan her farewell celebrations. In addition to Saturday’s parade, the church will host a round of golf on December 11 and a trip to see the Pelicans play against the Milwaukee Bucks on December 17. Adolph will deliver his final sermon as a pastor on Sunday, December 19.
Supervisor Kent Jones and former Gulfport mayor George Schloegel were among those gathered for Saturday’s parade. Jones said he wanted to honor Adolph’s contributions to Gulfport over his decades of service.
Adolph stood outside the church as cars passed, decorated with black and gold banners, in honor of his favorite football team, the Saints. Church members got out of their cars to give hugs and farewell cards.
Wallace said it was a bittersweet time for the First Missionary community: Bitter because they hate to see their pastor go, but sweet because they are happy he can enjoy his retirement.
“I told First Missionary that there are three ways for a Baptist pastor to leave,” Adolph said. “You can reject it, you can withdraw it or it can go away. And my question has always been: which one would you choose? Although I still have a reasonable amount of health, strength, and life, I would love to spend time with my family.
Over the years, Stewart said, church members have heard Adolph respond to their accomplishments with one impressed word: “Wow.”
Thinking about Saturday’s parade, he thought of all the funeral processions of preachers he had attended and the fact that so many of his colleagues had never been able to see this marching band. He felt blessed.
“Just wow,” he said.