Family Stories from a Forest
“Florida Baptist Convention Rural Pastor of the Year.” A framed certificate on the wall gives a hint but doesn’t begin to tell the tale of an entire family’s 50-year adventure in an exotic place like no other. Orange groves, alligator-infested swamps, sparkling lakes, subdivisions, trailer parks, fish camps, stately homes, rustic shacks, tourists, snakes, thoroughbred horses, cattle ranches, snowbirds, Yankees, and Florida Crackers. They were all part of daily life in the Ocala National Forest. Our family moved there in 1964 when my dad became pastor of Ocklawaha Bridge Baptist Church. The church is still there and still an integral part of the forest community. But with the large sanctuary, concrete walkways, and multi-purpose gymnasium, it’s much different from the place of my earliest memories.
I was only two and a half years old when we moved there so it’s hard to say where my real memories end and my recollection of family stories begin. According to the family legend, on the family’s first (and only) visit to the church before we moved there, my mom did not even see all of the house the church provided for the pastor. She made it as far as the living room then said, “I’ll wait in the car.” She had no idea God would call her family to serve in a Florida jungle and didn’t quite believe her husband would consider moving so far away from her family in Alabama. But the family did move there and we planted roots in the Florida sand.
This is the setting for Family Stories: A country church in a year-round tourist mecca and a small wooden house beside the church with a lake in the front yard and a wilderness campground in the back yard. Eight miles away was a world-renowned tourist attraction. One hour away was the world’s most famous beach. In pre-Disney Florida, Silver Springs was a destination. Even now almost everybody I meet who was born before 1964 has been to or at least heard of Silver Springs. It is still a beautiful place.
Some of our family stories actually happened before we moved to the Ocala National Forest. They are stories of my parents growing up in east central Alabama during the Great Depression; stories of the family’s years in northwest Florida while Daddy was a student at Baptist Bible Institute in Graceville, Florida, or at his first pastorate near Grand Ridge, Florida; and even stories of our adventures and exploits after we grew up and moved away. As the stories have been told and retold around a diningroom table situated near a window overlooking majestic oak trees draped in Spanish moss they have become intertwined with who we are and the world we inhabited. They are all family stories from a Forest and I hope you’ll agree they are stories worth retelling.