Buddy Manning travels two hours from Jonesville to Ventress each week for a special mission.
He wants to revive the once-prosperous River Baptist Fellowship, which closed in 2018 when the membership dwindled.
Manning, 66, spends four or five days each week in Ventress and camps out in a travel trailer on the site. He works daily in the church office, where he implements outreach projects to re-establish the church.
He has seen progress thus far, but it’s clearly baby steps.
“We get two people here each Sunday,” Manning said.
He has taken steps to re-establish the church’s presence in Pointe Coupee Parish.
Manning provided more than 100 plates of fried catfish to first responders throughout the parish, and he wants to start ministries to help residents battle addiction.
“Anything that helps us spread good will and bring our name back in the community is worth the effort,” he said.
It’s all part of the restructure or – appropriately this time of year – resurrection.
River Baptist Fellowship was established in the 1950s; its sanctuary was built in the early 1980s. During its heyday in the late 1980s, it drew more than 200 members.
“Congregants died and the younger generation sought other church communities,” Manning said. “I think they had two families at the time it closed.”
The task to resurrect the church went to the Baptist Church Association of Greater Baton Rouge, which reached out to the state Baptist Church Association.
Manning is a church plant minister, whose task is to form a new local church.
The situation at River Baptist Fellowship is unique.
“My title should be ‘church replant minister’ since there’s been a church here before,” Manning said. “It’s unusual for plant church to have a building like this because they usually start with bible studies at home, which leads to group formation – and as it grows, you get a building.”
Manning’s involvement began when he learned about River Baptist Fellowship though an advertisement from the Louisiana Baptist Association.
Manning answered the call, which set the wheels in motion.
“I was just crazy enough to answer the call,” he quipped.
The time at which he undertook his plan also goes against the grain.
He started in September, the height of the pandemic.
“COVID has been in our way because nobody wants a stranger in their home right now,” Manning said. “I’ve had people tell me they don’t let their children come see them.”
The trips to Pointe Coupee Parish have not been the only new part of Manning’s life. The life is a minster is a relatively new part of his repertoire.
He worked much of his adult life in oilfields, but the seeds already had been planted for his current vocation. Manning worked in various capacities within his home church, including time as a deacon and Sunday school teacher.
The work much farther away from home also played a role.
Manning and some fellow congregation members made two trips per year to Honduras to build churches. He made the trips over a span of five years.
“It was always a good time,” he said,
Manning entered the preaching ministry in 2001, which involved substitute work when the pastor was out, but he never officially pastored a church.
He has a support ministry in his home church, Utility Baptist Church in Utility, La., near Jonesville.
“They’re my home support, so they support us financially,” Manning said.
River Baptist Fellowship also receives support from Faith Baptist Church in Livonia, New Era Baptist Church in Concordia Parish and the Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge.
Initial response has brought encouragement, he said.
“When I go out to talk to people and find old members, they’re very excited that we’re reopening the church and they say ‘Oh, yeah, I’m coming,’ but they haven’t made it yet. They’re very receptive, but maybe it’s because of COVID.”
COVID is the underlying issue, but he said he fears the pandemic has become another excuse to stray from Sunday worship.
“Some people say it’s too dangerous to attend church right now, but at the same time you can’t find a parking spot at Walmart.”
The trend toward an end to the pandemic – not to mention a lot of faith – fuel Manning’s desire to continue his mission in Pointe Coupee Parish.
The church’s prominent history makes the effort worthwhile, he said.
“You don’t just want to do away with it,” Manning said. “Apparently there’s plenty of people here, so there’s no reason you can’t have a church here.”