‘When You’re Riding the Fire Truck You Can’t Let Go’

By Rod Huron

Sweating, clutching a bucket of chicken in one hand and a box of Old Kentucky Chocolates in the other, the preacher mumbled to himself as he groped for the doorbell. It was 1992, and Wayne B. Smith, senior minister of Southland Christian Church, Lexington, Kentucky, was making a call.

“What am I doing in a place like this?”

Off in the distance, thoroughbreds grazed peacefully. Homes of tenants who maintained the estate were visible here and there. The front lawn stretched along the tree-lined driveway to the entry gate down by the road.

Would the maid even let him in? He swallowed; hard.

For Smith this was not just another pastoral visit. The gentle roll of the land prevented him from seeing the structure of his church building a half-mile away.

Yes, Southland Christian Church was growing. Yes, Southland had just bought more land. But could they use it?

For a conditional-use permit, the matter had to go before the Jessamine County Board of Adjustment. Last night’s meeting was a disaster. It was the first hearing, and several spoke against the permit. Among those questioning the matter was Barbara Hunter, owner of Brownwood Farm, which ran alongside Southland’s newly acquired acreage.

The moment the meeting was over, the church’s lawyer, Billy Miles Arvin, hurried to Smith. Arvin was emphatic. “Go visit Barbara Hunter. She has money. She is well thought of. If she objects to church buildings near her thoroughbreds, it could really hurt our cause.”

Now, standing on Hunter’s front porch, Smith swallowed again.

He had prayed on the way, prayed as he drove up the lane; he had prayed most of the time since last night’s meeting.

In his pocket he had a photograph of the day the church signed the deed for the 42.5 acres. What he was going to do with the picture he didn’t know. But it was something, at least. That, and the chicken and the candy.

“Lexington’s the horse capital of the world,” Smith said later. “I like horses, but in Lexington it’s easier to attack motherhood and the flag.”

He tried the doorbell once more. “Lord, I cannot handle this. I’m not that smart. This can’t be me, Lord. It has to be you.”

A woman in her late 40s opened the door. This was not the maid; this was the lady of the house.

“I’m Wayne Smith,” her visitor said, “the preacher of the church over there.”

“Oh, yes, I know who you are,” she told him, her manner refined, gracious. “I’ve seen you on television.” She glanced at the items he was carrying.

“You’re supposed to beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” he said cautiously.

She led him into the sitting room, and after they were seated, Smith tried again. “You know why I’m here. We want to do anything we can to make you our friend.”

“Yes,” she said. “I see.”

As they talked, she referred to the hearing the previous night. “Some of those objections were rather silly. I’ve been considering the matter, and the only thing I would like for you to do is to make a berm along my fence line and plant trees about every 20 feet. That will protect my horses. And they will be fine.”

The photo stayed in his pocket as he thanked her and left.

The permit was granted, and Southland’s expansion continued.

“She is a great lady,” Smith said. “She didn’t want us to scare her horses.” Then he added, “I made a trip or two after that just to thank her. I wanted her to know we were grateful. We still are.”

No wonder he was thankful. Southland’s growth did not come overnight, nor did it come easily.


Lexington Needs a New Church

IBM and Wayne Smith both hit Lexington in the 1950s. Fortunately for Smith, IBM came first, bringing an influx of new families.

Seeing the new developments on the city’s south side, Ard Hoven, minister of Broadway Christian Church on the corner of North Broadway and Second Street, thought it was time to plant a new church. Hoven was speaker for The Christian’s Hour nationwide radio broadcast and past president of the North American Christian Convention. Broadway was the largest Christian church in Kentucky.

Where to find a preacher to lead the proposed venture?

Gayle Denny, president of Transylvania Printing Company and an elder at Broadway, knew. “Wayne Smith’s your man,” he said.

Denny’s home church was Elizabeth Christian Church in the Grant County community of String Town. His family attended there and had kept him informed of the progress that the String Town and the Unity Christian churches were making under Smith’s leadership.

Smith had come to Unity Christian Church while a student at Cincinnati Bible Seminary (CBS) and had stayed following graduation. Unity was near Cynthiana, the county seat of Harrison County. Under Smith’s leadership, attendance at Unity Christian had grown 500 percent and the church had completed a new building.

Because Elizabeth Christian Church, later called String Town Christian Church, was across the county line and in another time zone, Smith preached there first, then drove to Unity. The String Town church started to grow, too.

“We ought to try to get him,” insisted Denny.

“I had received several offers,” Smith said, “but I promised Unity I wouldn’t leave until the building was paid for.”

But Denny and the elders at Broadway kept pressing.

“I met with them,” Smith said. “They all looked to be about 80. That frightened me. I told them no.”

Several weeks passed, and the men contacted Smith again. Again he drove down to Lexington, and this time he recommended a fellow graduate from CBS.

“They said they didn’t want him,” Smith explained. “They said, ‘We want you.’ So I said OK.” Broadway Christian Church agreed to provide land and a building and a nucleus from its membership and to pay Smith’s salary for one year.

This was December 1955. Ground-breaking services were held December 29 on a one-acre lot that Broadway had purchased at 371 Hill ’N Dale Road on Lexington’s south side. Smith continued at Unity until the end of February 1956, making numerous trips to Lexington and laying the groundwork for his new work there.

“On my last Sunday,” Smith said, “I fulfilled my promise. The mortgage was burned, the new preacher introduced, and I left for Lexington.”

Unity had called Eugene Wigginton, who later became publisher and then president at Standard Publishing. Reflecting, Smith said, “The church had a healthy growth under Wigginton’s leadership; in fact, attendance grew beyond what it had been while I was there.”

Wayne’s wife, Marge, finished out the school year at Buena Vista, an elementary school in Harrison County where she taught second grade. This would be her seventh year and her last. When the Smiths moved to Lexington, Marge gave up teaching so that she and Wayne could begin their family.


Making a Start in the City

In Lexington, Smith spent his time calling at people’s homes. “From March 1 to July 8, I did nothing but knock on doors with a pamphlet, inviting them to a church being built on Hill ’N Dale Road to be called Southland Christian Church,” he said.

“Going door to door is one of the hardest things you can do. When the weather warmed up, it was especially intimidating, people sitting in their chairs in the yard looking at you coming down the street. I kept thinking about that verse, ‘Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.’”

He visited each house up and down every street in the subdivision, then went to the next subdivision and did the same thing, then the next. “I had to,” Smith said. “It was essential.”

Once a month he reported to Broadway’s elders. During this time, the new church building, a 30-by-60-foot structure that would cost $28,000, was going up. Ard Hoven personally laid the cornerstone. The site was central to the developing area, and Hill ’N Dale Road was expected to become a major artery.

“Broadway gave us 92 members,” Smith said, “which was very generous. One was an elder, one a deacon.”

The elder was Dr. E.M. Emmert, head of the Department of Horticulture, University of Kentucky.

“I’d heard he was coming,” Smith said, “and it made me nervous. When I met him, I told him I didn’t know what a horticulture was and for sure couldn’t spell it.”

He still remembers the older man’s reply. With a deep voice, gentle but firm, Emmert said, “Now, Brother Smith, you just preach the Bible and don’t worry about those of us from the university.”

“So I tried not to worry,” Smith said. “But I was concerned.”

The deacon was Frank Wilford, head of the Trust Department of First National Bank. Wilford was hard-working and faithful, very sober in his demeanor. “Our constitution and bylaws were written in his office,” said Smith.


Opening Day and Crowded Already

One hundred fifty-two people attended opening day, July 8, 1956, with five persons baptized. Would this building be big enough?

The Mays family lived across the street, and Smith had been in their home often before the first service. Thelma Mays was a member of Sadieville Christian; her husband, Roy Jr., was an Episcopalian. On Wednesday evening, July 11, Smith baptized Roy and two others.

Roy’s son, Roy H. Mays III, became a leader in the youth group and quarterback for Lafayette High School, and he went on to Cincinnati Bible College and a notable career in Christian service. In 1985, after serving 12 years on the staff of his alma mater, Roy III became Smith’s executive assistant, where he continued to serve Southland Christian Church till his untimely death earlier this year.

Smith hired Ola Marion as church secretary, but Broadway’s elders said the church wasn’t large enough for a secretary. Until December they were footing part of the bill, so Ola was dismissed. Smith found a lady in the church who was willing to serve without pay. Her name was Velma Francis. Her husband, Bill, became a deacon and later an elder. After two years, the church began to pay her. Velma would serve for 16 more years.

“She was a jewel,” said Smith.

Southland bought an organ, paying $1,350, a considerable step forward for a new church. When Broadway’s elders heard about it, they told Smith to take it back.

This time Smith sought help. Cecil Harp, a consulting engineer and a deacon at Broadway, was liaison between Broadway and Southland. Smith told Harp about the organ.

“Keep the organ,” Harp told Smith. “I’ll pay half, and W.U. Turner will pay the other half.” So Southland had a new organ. Smith didn’t know anyone named W.U. Turner.

Three weeks later Smith learned that two lots adjoining the church were to be sold, and he made a phone call to Harp again.

“How much are they?” Harp asked.

“$2,750 apiece.”

“I’ll buy one,” Harp promised. “W.U. Turner will buy the other one.” Turner was a member at Broadway and owned the dairy farm that had become Southland Shopping Center. Harp was a close friend of Turner’s and had had a significant part in developing the shopping center.

Smith continued: “I didn’t meet Turner for several months, but I sure liked him.”

Later, Turner’s son Charles and daughter and son-in-law, Christine and Charles Cassity, would become members of Southland.

Sunday school space was a problem for the growing church. The homes of two church families bordered the church property, and they opened their basements for classrooms. Smith went to the other houses on the street—people who did not attend Southland—and three “home loaners,” as Smith called them, agreed to open their basements to the church for Sunday school.

“They feel sorry for people like me,” Smith explained.

When attendance reached 200, the church began dual services. “I preached the first service, taught Sunday school, preached the second service. Did this from 1958 to 1963 and didn’t think anything about it. And had Sunday evening and Wednesday night services, too.”

The church was less than two years old when the leadership decided to extend the side walls to make the building 60-by-60 feet, doubling the space.

While at Unity Christian, Smith had often held Sunday school contests with other churches. Now he challenged churches such as Broadway, Trinity Baptist, and Southeast Christian in Louisville. Everyone benefited. New people kept coming faster than they could be accommodated. By 1963 the solution was obvious: a building that would accommodate 600.


The Bank Says No

First National Bank turned the church down, saying, “Your membership is not sufficient to support borrowing $300,000.”

Smith was indignant. “I told them you can’t go by membership,” he said. “You go by average attendance.”

What was the church to do now? He consulted three other banks, and they, too, said no.

“When you’re riding the fire truck, you can’t let go,” Smith said. “I asked myself, ‘Who is the most influential person in our church?’ I determined it was the head of the water company.”

Ernest E. Jacobson was vice president and general manager of Kentucky American Water Company, which supplied water for central Kentucky. Jacobson Park, Lexington’s largest with 386 acres, is named in his memory.

Jacobson’s secretary, Theresa Saunders, was a member at Southland. Jacobson had stopped going to church in recent years, but at her invitation, he started attending there.

“Jacobson and I were good friends,” Smith said. “One day some of the men were standing outside between services talking. The weather was dry, like a drought, and you couldn’t water your yard as much as you’d like. I wanted to needle Jake in front of those men, so I asked him, ‘What do you do when your water pressure is weak?’

Jacobson didn’t flinch. “See your doctor,” he replied, his voice loud. “There was great laughter at my expense,” Smith said.

Maybe Jacobson could help. Smith phoned and made an appointment.

“I went to his office,” he said. “I’d never been there before. I said, ‘Mr. Jacobson, we’ve got a problem. We need $300,000, and we can’t get it from anybody.’”

Jacobson was surprised. “Our bank won’t give us a loan?”

“We tried, and they said no.”

This was 1963, and Smith had never seen a hands-free phone before. He was surprised when the man behind the desk made a call without picking up a handset. Smith could hear the entire conversation.

Jacobson called his friend, Dan Brock, chairman of the board at First National and a veteran power broker.

“Brock? This is Jake.”

“How’re you doing?”

“Not doing so well.”

“What’s wrong?”

“You turned down my church for a loan.”

“I didn’t know you had a church.”

“You’re d___ right I do,” Jacobson said. “Brock, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. We need $300,000. If we don’t get that money, I’m going to move the water company’s account to Central Bank.”

“Now Jake, don’t even think about that.”

Within a week, Southland Christian Church had the money.

Smith said, “We’re the only church I know built on blackmail.”

Rod Huron is retiring this year as director of service learning at Cincinnati Christian University. He will continue to pursue his writing career in retirement.


More Words from Wayne

“If you plagiarize long enough, it’s research.”

“I never said I was the smartest, but I figured I could outwork about anybody.”

”Your conscience says, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ and a voice says, ‘It looks good from here, too.’”

“You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.”

“If it doesn’t cost, it doesn’t count; the service that counts is the service that costs.”

“The phone is like your parking lot; it’s your first impression.”

“I’ve never had a problem with my position; it’s my disposition.”

“My wife doesn’t cry much; I cry when they cut the ribbon at Wal-Mart.”

“I’ve always thought that some people have two speeds: here he comes, and there he goes.”

“Geared to the times; anchored to the Rock.”

“The Christian is the only one that has a right to be happy.”

“If you want to catch a big fish, go where the big fish are.”

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