WARRENTON, Ga. - He came to them when they were in need.
His words filled voids and his actions soothed hearts.
But in the end, Otis Ray Hope broke the collective heart and tested the spirit of Warrenton First Baptist Church.
Now, church members are focused on moving on and putting Dr. Hope's short, tumultuous tenure in the past.
"The whole church body was mesmerized by a fantastic speaker with a great personality," said Vernon Burkey, who serves as chairman of the church's deacon board. "..."Then we started to see cracks in the silver lining, lies, deception, stealing - yes, all of these. These are no rumors. I have documentation of what took place by Dr. Otis Ray Hope during the few short months he was here. This is not in years past - it happened here and now. I thank God that he resigned as soon as he did - before we lost complete control of First Baptist Church of Warrenton."
Rev. Hope resigned from the church on Oct. 21, just weeks after a federal tax evasion indictment became public. Within a few days, part of the First Baptist member rolls had agreed to try their own worship service - a gathering held in a McDuffie County activity center with Rev. Hope at the worship helm.
At the same time, Rev. Rusty Ricketson was delivering a Homecoming Sunday sermon to those assembled at First Baptist Church of Warrenton.
Then, as quickly as the split started, it ended. The group that pulled away from Warrenton First Baptist severed ties with Rev. Hope. And some of them returned to Warrenton First Baptist asking for forgiveness and hoping to heal the rift that arose in the 179-year-old church.
Placing the blame
They gathered as a nearly whole church body for the first time in weeks. Faces that hadn't been seen in the Warrenton First Baptist sanctuary for a while had returned. Tears were shed. Hands were clasped. Hugs were shared.
It was a cathartic meeting, one looking for reasons, answers and hope for the future.
Dr. Ernest Pursell knows exactly what happened to Warrenton First Baptist. At 82, the associate director of the Kilpatrick Association near Thomson, said it's all in the Bible. Specifically, I Timothy, Chapter 3, verse 7: "And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil" - (New American Standard Bible).
"That's exactly what happened to our church," Dr. Purcell said, urging those at the meeting to turn back to God's words and go to God in prayer.
"The healing already has begun," he said. "I assure you, this will be a stepping stone to maturity."
It's the healing that many church members want.
"My heart is just breaking," said Jamie House. "I'm sick of a broken heart."
Mr. Burkey encouraged church members to remain focused on a common goal.
"We are not here to fight against each other," he said. "We are here to fight against Satan."
John Graham, a member of the church and chairman of the Warren County Board of Commissioners, said the church had been deceived, but that it was time for people to focus on facts and healing.
"We were given false information," Mr. Graham said. "We were told untruths."
Repeated efforts to contact Rev. Hope for this article were not successful.
Time to forgive
The path to the future of Warrenton First Baptist begins with forgiveness. Last week's church meeting was an opportunity for various members and factions to air grievances and - most importantly - ask for forgiveness from God and the church.
For example, Dennis Neal read a letter from church officials. In it, the deacons apologized for any mistakes they made during Rev. Hope's tenure and subsequent departure. However, Mr. Neal read, the deacons - and the church members - were dealing with a situation they had never faced before.
He went on to say that deacons would "quickly" appoint a committee to study whether revisions need to be made in the church's constitution and bylaws.
"We pledge to you that we will continue to seek God's will for our church as we move forward," Mr. Neal said. "As we move forward, we will always strive to use the Holy Scriptures as our guide as we prayerfully serve this great church."
And he wasn't alone.
Former deacons Lane McMichael and Tim Brown followed Dr. Hope when he left Warrenton FBC. They helped organize the separate worship service. And they found themselves back at their home church last week, hoping church members would take them back into the FBC family.
"When Ray Hope came, it was awesome," said Mr. McMichael, whose father, Jim, also relinquished his position as a church deacon. He added that he was "so wrapped up" in what he felt in his heart. "I'm here to say I was wrong."
A written end
The end of Rev. Otis Ray Hope's time in the Warrenton FBC pulpit came in the form of a 2½ page letter of resignation - a copy of which was obtained from church officials by The McDuffie Mirror. It's hand-written and neat - the kind of document that reflects time, effort and careful thought.
"I am aware that circumstances from my past have been effectively used to create a division and strife within our church," Dr. Hope said in his resignation letter. "I am, just like you, troubled by the separation apparent among us. And I am grieved by how our church has suffered. I think the time has come for strong leadership and a resolution of this issue."
But his resignation came with a price tag: a six-month severance package worth nearly $36,000, according to P. H. Giddens, who serves as church treasurer.
It's an idea breached in Rev. Hope's resignation letter.
"This decision by me puts my family in jeopardy," he wrote. "God had met our financial needs while serving as your pastor and I hope that you will help us in our life transition."
Dr. Hope closed his letter, saying, "It is time for us to close this chapter of our lives and move on. I know there has been a breakdown of trust on both sides of this issue, so regardless of what you decide, let's finish this... and go our separate ways. If we do, then tomorrow can be the beginning of the best of our lives."
And for some, moving forward means seeing a new silver lining around Warrenton FBC.
"Even with the tension, I'm excited about this church," said Warrenton Mayor Tony Mimbs.
"He (Dr. Hope) woke us up. And for that, I will forever be thankful."