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Made over

In a bold move, Statesboro congregation flips a hotel


John Long

The Son’s Light Fellowship Baptist Church now operates at the former Biltmore Hotel in Statesboro as a way to reach out and present the Gospel to those nearby. In addition to being a place of worship, areas are being utilized as a thrift store and food pantry.

STATESBORO — The Biltmore Hotel has a dubious past. It did little for the community. Crime made a home there.

Locals say if a Cadillac parked in the drive was pointed in, it meant drugs were available. Out meant they weren’t.

“It was called the ‘Mafia Hotel,’” says John Long. “People would call asking for vacancies, only to be told there weren’t any even when the parking lot was empty.”

One could only imagine what happened inside its walls. Drugs bring a host of other vices, none of which build up.

In the past three years, the Biltmore has come to be something different.

Long, pastor of The Son’s Light Fellowship Baptist Church, oversees the ministries now taking residence where literal and figurative shadows once dominated. All the proceeds from a thrift store go to a food pantry – where groceries are handed out to up to 35 families twice a week. A benevolence apartment is home to displaced families for up to a couple of weeks. The Hearts and Hands Clinic provides free medical and dental care to those with no insurance.

“It’s amazing the impact God has had on this location,” says Long. “Over 90 percent of those attending our church are involved in the work here.

“Our prayer has always been for God to open doors and lead us to where He wants us to be active. I’m so overwhelmed with what God is doing with such a small group of people.”

The effort to transform the Biltmore hasn’t been a solo project. Ogeechee River Association and churches across denominations have banded together in the effort.

“It’s not a large congregation but a caring one,” said Ogeechee associational missionary Ed Johnson of Son’s Light. “I wish there were more pastors looking for ways to help people the same way they do.”

Ten years ago Long was a single dad raising three children in Missouri. When his daughter, Becky, was awarded a basketball scholarship to Georgia Southern University, the family joined her in Statesboro. Long worked in “suit-and-tie upper management” for several years and then as a bivocational pastor before being hired three years ago to lead Son’s Light.

John Long

The young church – only a few months old at the time – had been meeting in a garage. In searching for a new meeting space, he found out the Biltmore had a lease of $4,200 – way beyond Son’s Light’s budget.

However, the building’s owner didn’t want it to go into the wrong hands again or be torn down. Son’s Light could have it for $500 a month.

Through the ministries several have prayed to receive Christ, says Long. “Our primary goal is to meet physical needs and tell them about Jesus,” he adds.

February was a busy month. The Hearts and Hands Clinic had its Open House. A vision screening day was held. The dental clinic got up and running.

Since the first of April, the Christian Social Ministries Food Pantry has been operational Mondays and Wednesdays. The CSM Thrift Store is open four days a week. Georgia state leaders have toured the facilities and offered their support.

“We are now ministering to around 300 households a month, and the number is rising,” says Long.

In addition, men from the church operate two portable booths on the campus of nearby Georgia Southern University – the school that led to Long’s arrival – offering prayer for any student requesting it. Chairman of Deacons Raymond Harbuck is also serving as pastor of Agape Mission, a church plant sponsored by Son’s Light meeting five miles west of Metter.

Staying active in the community brings accolades and political backslaps, but Long is adamant about the church’s biggest sign of congratulations.

“A few weeks ago there was a gentleman here,” he remembers. “On oxygen. He said he’d never walked in a church among people and felt so loved. He offered to shake hands and a church member told him ‘no, we don’t do that.

“‘We hug here.’”