Standing the test of faith


On a side avenue, just off the main street, stands the First Baptist Church of Savage. It was formed 85 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1917, when the streets were unpaved and horse-drawn carriages were more common than automobiles.

"The church was started by a group of mill workers [who] worked in Savage Mill," said the Rev. Paul Viswasam, First Baptist's pastor for the past seven years. "It went through two world wars, ... and [it] went through a Depression ... and really saw everything. But, they [members] were so faithful and consistent. They wanted to have a church in this community."

The church rented rooms in two Savage meeting halls for the first two years and then erected a building at its current site, on land purchased for $100.

The church building has been remodeled several times in the past 85 years. Today, its traditional appearance with 12 old-fashioned, Gothic-style, hand-painted windows reflects its past.

The church people helped each other during the boom and bust days of Savage Mill. They built the community with traditional activities. There were church picnics, taffy-pulling parties and "poundings" to supply a new pastor's kitchen with pounds of food. New converts were also baptized in the Little Patuxent River.

Today, only about 30 percent of the parishioners live in Savage, Viswasam said. Another 20 percent were born in Savage and travel from as far as Springfield, Va., to attend. About 20 percent come from Fort Meade.

Throughout its past, First Baptist was a "mission-minded" church, said Jacky Waller, a longtime member who also wrote a history of First Baptist for its members.

Not only has the church supported foreign missions, she said, but it has also helped to open three other area churches: Maryland City Baptist in Laurel, South Columbia Baptist and Hope Baptist in North Laurel.

As part of a month of activities to celebrate First Baptist's 85th anniversary, representatives of these churches and past church members brought greetings at last Sunday's homecoming service.

Viswasam brought an international outlook to the traditional church. He and his wife, Chelly, are natives of India and moved to the United States 15 years ago. Viswasam comes from a Christian family, and his father served in the British Air Force. Viswasam described himself as part of the "hippie generation" in his youth, saying he traveled with a band and rebelled against his family's religion.

While a student at Serampore University near Calcutta - a school founded by William Carey, the first Baptist missionary - Viswasam said he became a believer in Jesus Christ.

"God changed my life. He touched me," he said.

The death of his father in 1981 precipitated Viswasam's decision to enter full-time Christian work.

Before arriving at First Baptist, he traveled worldwide with a mission organization, earned a master's degree in ministry from Wheaton College in Illinois, taught at Christian schools in the Baltimore area, and was an assistant pastor at Rolling Hills Baptist in Clarksville.

"He's a real dynamic preacher [and] always available to the people," Waller said.

With Viswasam at the helm, First Baptist continues its tradition of outreach and service to the community. The church provides food to those in need with its Bread of Life food pantry. It is also planning to build a family life center that will be open "24/7" for the youth of the church and community.

"The mission of our church is to reach the lost and comfort the wounded and help the helpless," he said.

85th anniversary events: Unity Sunday with other Savage churches is this Sunday at the 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. worship services; big-screen movie, The Climb, and a hot dog social outside on church grounds will be at 7 p.m. Sept. 21; Evangelism Sunday with a guest speaker will be Sept. 22 at the 8:30 a.m. and 11 a.m. worship services; revivals with a guest evangelist will be nightly Sept. 27-29 at 7.

First Baptist Church of Savage

Denomination:Southern Baptist

Leadership:the Rev. Paul R. Viswasam

Size:350 members

Location:8901 Washington St., Savage

Date founded:1917



Worship services:Sunday worship services, 8:30 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.; Wednesday prayer/Bible study, 6:30 p.m.

Children's program:Sunday, infant care all services; Sunday school, preschool through adult, 9:45 a.m.; AWANA clubs and children's choirs (age 3 to grade 6), 5:45 p.m.; various youth programs Wednesday and Saturday nights, call for information.

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