From the smallest to the largest, just about all Baptist churches possess one basic feature and that is a balcony. In the earlier days of our country, when segregation was practiced, the balcony was a place fixed for the black church members to sit because many of our churches in the South in particular, had a large number of black members. Quite frankly, I always thought that the people who sat in that special place had the best seats by far. Most of our larger churches today have large sweeping balconies that span the width of the sanctuary and even descend to the sides of the platform. They hold hundreds of people and they are an integral part of the sanctuary.
Balconies were always a place for the young people to congregate. It provided a lot of privacy that was liked by the young people because it hid much of foolishness that was going on during the worship service. Boys sat with their girlfriends and everyone generally had a good time. Not much was remembered from the service but a good time was had by all as the old saying goes. Parents were always straining their necks trying to see what was going on in the balcony and where their young person was sitting. Yes, balconies were special places.
The First Baptist Church in Tifton, GA is the church I grew up in for most of my earlier life. My family voluntarily left First Baptist and became one of fourteen families which formed Northside Baptist Church in the early fifties. My earliest memories of church life take me back to First Baptist. The original sanctuary is one of the most beautiful and peaceful places of worship I have ever seen. The main part of it fans out and gives a panoramic view of the audience. Over to the right of the main seating area is another section which is almost square in its shape and just above and to the rear of that area is a small balcony with Sunday School rooms behind it which can be seen through windows which form the back wall of the balcony. Not many could sit up there but the young people made sure it was full each Sunday. This balcony is a special place for me for a very special reason.
When I was twelve years old, I didn't have the option to attend church as many young people assume they have today. My mother told me that we were going to church, like it or not. Well, one week in my twelfth year, we were having a revival and a man from Texas was doing the preaching. Dr. John McGinnis was the new preacher at the church having only been there for a couple of weeks when the revival was held. We went every night. There was nothing like a church revival in those days. Society was not replete with places to go and things to do as it is today and a good revival was not only a spiritual exercise but a social one as well. Revivals in those days lasted all week. No Sunday morning through Wednesday evening revivals back then. You went every night and it usually ended on Friday evening. Well, on Friday evening October 12, 1952, the Lord had something special in mind for me. I went to church as was my family duty. The social time in the balcony was fun. We wrote notes and whispered all evening. The main attraction for most of the boys were the young ladies. But, on my special Friday evening something happened. I was having my usual good time making sure my mother sitting down on the main level didn't catch me cutting up. But somewhere in the midst of the sermon that evening something began to happen to me. Suddenly, I was tuned in. All the young people in the balcony faded into the background. They were no longer the focus. I remember that preacher. He was now the focus. I listened to him intently even with the distractions of the balcony in the background. I was "strangely warmed" and felt different about being in church on Friday evening. When that Texas preacher finished his sermon, he immediately transitioned into the invitation and that's when it happened. God clearly spoke to me and said: "Bill, I want you to be a Christian. When the music starts, I want you to go to your left, go down the balcony stairs that lead right down onto the platform, and tell the Pastor that you have given your heart to Jesus." I said: "God, I will do it but I want to go down the way I got up here, through the vestibule stairs. Then, I will walk down the aisle and tell the Pastor what you said." He said: "No, I want you to go down the balcony stairs that lead right down onto the platform." I didn't want to do that because all the people in the place could see me coming down those stairs, besides no one ever went down that way. They all walked the aisle as I wanted to do. The argument went on for what seemed like an eternity but I don't have to tell you who won. I think I waited until the very last verse, but I suddenly turned and went down those balcony steps and came right down onto the platform. I remember everyone looking at me and I also remember going down the steps and approaching Dr. McGinnis telling him of what I was doing and why. That following Sunday evening, I became the third person that John McGinnis baptized as the new Pastor of First Baptist, Tifton, GA.
I have often thought of that balcony. I can tell one exactly where I was standing when God spoke to me. I was standing right behind one of the posts of the railing. The whole event is still extremely vivid in my mind. Occasionally, I revisit that exact spot and it all comes back. While standing there, I thank the Lord for the wonderful work he started right there. I thank Him for his provision and enabling over the years. It all started right there at that particular post of the balcony in First Baptist, Tifton. In that very spot I gave my life to Jesus. It was not something that I just decided to do and it didn't take God by surprise. He knew what I would do and He set the stage for it to happen. A few years ago I took one of my Nephews with me to the balcony. I told him what happened right there in that spot behind that particular post. I stood him in that place and took a picture of him standing in my "spot of salvation." Then, I let him take a picture of me standing there as well.
When God acts upon a human being, it is not something that they will forget. They will usually be able to remember every word and nuance of the situation. On that special Friday evening, Oct. 12, 1952, I am so glad that I was at the revival and that I was sitting where God wanted me to be: The Balcony.
William F. Harrell