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End of Hope's tenure at Warrenton First Baptist leaves questions, community concerns

It's been a little more than a week since Otis Ray Hope stepped down as pastor of First Baptist Church of Warrenton.

Since then, the former pastor has moved on, addressing a congregation of more than 80 - mostly members of the flock at the Warrenton church - in a McDuffie County recreation building this past weekend. He's since been removed as worship leader of that group.

Meanwhile, Warrenton First Baptist is facing the loss of a handful of deacons and potentially part of its membership rolls - one of the most tumultuous patches of its 179-year existence.

Those on both sides of the spiritual divide say the church is likely headed for a split. Church leaders acknowledged Rev. Hope's departure in a press release Monday.

"The past few weeks have been a very difficult time in the life of Warrenton First Baptist Church," they wrote. "Many rumors and allegations regarding Dr. Otis Ray Hope and the status of the church have arisen and could no longer be ignored."

In a wide-ranging series of recent interviews with The McDuffie Mirror both before and after his resignation, Rev. Hope described himself as "a dreamer and an entrepreneur." He said he hoped to "reach the world" from the pulpit of the church in Warrenton First Baptist.

Others aren't convinced, and question just why and how the man who once led a 2,000 member church in Maryland ended up facing a federal indictment and at the helm of a relatively small church in the Deep South.

The beginning

Otis Ray Hope is a study in extremes. A product of the Louisiana bayou, he holds several college degrees. He's polished, yet folksy enough to break through personal barriers. He passionately preaches in a calming demeanor. And those who have sat in his congregations usually end up in one of two camps: lifelong supporters or devoted detractors.

For his part, Rev. Hope sees it all as just part of doing God's work. And he says "wolves" will sometimes mess with the good people of the church.

"This is the hardest part - the most difficult part," he said.

Rev. Hope rose to national prominence starting in 1996 when he joined the staff of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., as senior pastor. He took to the airwaves to share the word of Jesus Christ via television and radio. Church rolls swelled, as did church coffers. The Washington Post put him at the center of the Southern Baptist Convention's 1997 boycott of all things Disney.

But it was still early in his tenure as pastor. Over the next five or so years, Rev. Hope became a lightning rod for controversy at the church and his name began appearing more and more often in the pages of The Post. Lawsuits were filed alleging several employees at the church's school were improperly fired. A church member committed suicide at the pastor's desk. There were questions about money collected for school tuition. It ended with Rev. Hope leaving the church in 2002.

But that wasn't the end of Rev' Hope's religious work. While at Montrose, Rev. Hope established Shiloh Ministries, and purchased and renovated a YMCA building in nearby Hagerstown for use as a religious retreat.

And it is that religious retreat that sits at the center of a four-county federal indictment accusing the pastor of tax evasion. The case isn't expected to go to trial until sometime next year in Baltimore.

Still, that doesn't explain how Rev. Hope ended up back in the South. That, he said, is a combination of things. After a series of failed business ventures, he discovered that his true calling was to preach the Gospel and help lead lost souls to Jesus Christ. It was at that time that he and his family made the decision to follow other family members to the Georgia-Carolina area.

The Hopes landed first in Aiken County, S.C., where Rev. Hope purchased a large home and planned to convert it into a Christian retreat. But when that idea didn't materialize, Dr. Hope decided to put the home up for sale. He then moved to a leased home across the Savannah River in Columbia County, one that overlooks Bartram Trail Golf Course. It's where Dr. Hope and his family still reside today.

Once he had a home for his family, he began looking for a church to call home. Through the Georgia Baptist Convention office in Augusta, Dr. Hope learned that members and officials of First Baptist Church of Warrenton were searching for a new pastor.

Soon, he was hired as interim pastor, then became the full-time minister. All in all, Dr. Hope pastored at the church for about six months.

During those six months, church attendance increased and crews helped spruce up the building and grounds.

"I had never been happier working in Warrenton and doing what I was called to do in my life by God," Dr. Hope said. "I met new friends and when you meet new people, you tend to bond. I served as these people's pastor just like the shepherds watch over their sheep. I loved the people of that church and ministered to those people."

Making plans

One of the ideas floated during Rev. Hope's short tenure at Warrenton First Baptist was the creation of a Christian school in the area. And even that idea generated its share of controversy and rumor.

Rev. Hope said the initial discussions were held at his home in Aiken, during a weekend gathering of some of the Warrenton deacons.

"A conversation began about what they believe is a need for a Christian school and they ask me what I thought," recalled Dr. Hope. "Personally, I value a Christian education. I liked the idea then, and I still do."

The school - if it had ever come to fruition - would not have been Rev. Hope's first foray into education. Part of his previous ministries in Louisiana and Maryland featured schools.

What it wouldn't have been, Rev. Hope assures, is a re-mastered Briarwood Academy. Rumors persisted that the Reverend and his supporters were planning a takeover of the private school near the McDuffie-Warren county line.

"It's true, I went (to Briarwood) back in the spring and introduced myself to the headmaster and we talked a little bit; but I assure you there was no mention of a takeover of that school by me or anyone else," Dr. Hope said. "Briarwood Academy provides a quality education and they deserve our respect, honor and our appreciation for so many years of service."

Briarwood Headmaster John Hammond confirmed that such a conversation took place in the school's front office and described his meeting with the pastor as "very cordial."

The beginning of the end

Soon after he received word of the federal indictment, Rev. Hope - who had been approved by the church's search committee only months earlier - told the church's deacons. It would be a few weeks more before he addressed the issue with the full congregation, the story would be picked up by area media, and the tempest that roiled behind the scenes spilled into a public split between the preacher and the church.

Rev. Hope said he decided to resign his position last Monday and wrote his letter on Tuesday. Once he completed writing it, he said he gave it to Tim Brown, a Thomson businessman, who then read the page-and-a-half letter to members of the church deacon board last Tuesday night.

"At some point, you have to realize that it's just not worth going on, trying to defend yourself," Dr. Hope said in an interview at his home last Wednesday.

The church accepted the resignation, and both sides worked out a severance package, though terms of that package were not disclosed.

Rev. Hope said he feels he was forced to resign by certain church members and officials.

"This was a political thing," Rev. Hope said. "They wanted me out of there. I feel betrayed to be honest."

In their statement a week after his resignation, church leaders said the climate of the church left them little choice.

"We would also like to thank those in our community and beyond who have prayed and continue to pray for the church during this tumultuous time," according to the press release. "We are excited and grateful for the opportunities God has continued to provide us and remain steadfast in continuing His mission in Warrenton."

What's next

It didn't take long for Rev. Hope to land in - and lose - another pulpit, and his resignation to shake the foundation of Warrenton First Baptist. The church has lost five of its 12 deacons, including one who secured the Sweetwater Activity Center for Sunday services just two days after Rev. Hope resigned from the church.

Rev. Hope led a morning and evening service at the activity center. Many of the former Warrenton First Baptist deacons attended Rev. Hope's Sunday morning sermon.

"It feels great to be back preaching the word of God," Dr. Hope told reporters who attended the Sunday morning worship service. "I don't know where this is going or if it will go anywhere."

More than 80 people - several of them longtime members of the church in Warrenton - attended the service that began at 11 a.m. and concluded shortly after noon. Several of those attending had earlier attended Sunday school services at First Baptist Church of Warrenton before traveling to neighboring McDuffie County.

By Tuesday - just two days after he led the group's first worship services - Rev. Hope was asked not to return, according to Tim Brown.

"Ray is no longer our worship leader as of today," Mr. Brown said. "Only time will tell as for keeping our worship services going."

Rev. Hope did not return repeated phone calls Monday or Tuesday.

Worship services at that same building are planned for this Sunday, too. The building is rented out by officials with the McDuffie County Recreation and Leisure Services at a cost of $75 a day.

Meanwhile, congregation members at Warrenton First Baptist are looking to the future. One member who anonymously began chronicling the church's struggles in an on-line blog in September has since left a simple message on the "Wakeup FBC Warrenton" homepage: "It is over. This church is wounded. Please pray for its healing."

Web posted on Thursday, October 30, 2008

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