BIG CYPRESS — No one knows for sure when members of Big Cypress New Testament Baptist Church first gathered, but families that date back at least five decades to when the plain block structure was built on a bubble of land off Josie Billie Highway marked the church’s golden anniversary Dec. 3.
“The main reason for today’s celebration is to share memories,” said Pastor Arlen Payne, who has led the church for more than a decade, during the 50th anniversary celebration.
Frank Billie, who in 1957 became the Tribe’s first board president, is credited for founding the church in 1966. He was ordained as a Baptist minister in December 1980. Betty Cypress King, a granddaughter of Billie and his wife Eddie Cypress Billie, for whom the church’s fellowship hall built in 2009 was named, recalls attending services at that address when she was 12, about 50 years ago.
“I remember the chickee where the services were held. Another chickee was the kitchen. It seemed natural then to be on the reservation, at home, in a place to pray,” King said.
Pastor Payne said older members of the Big Cypress faith community remembered meeting there in the 1950s for Saturday night meetings and Sunday morning worship. Back then, the congregation was considered a mission of independent Baptist churches from Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Eventually, the churches pooled resources and labor from their own members to build the longhouse-style sanctuary that still stands today.
Pastor Payne said the Rev. Al Janney, of New Testament Baptist Church in Miami-Dade County, the Rev. Spencer Williamson, now of First Baptist Church of Hillsborough, and Williamson’s’ son the Rev. Jerry Williamson, of Calvary Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale, took charge of construction. The Rev. Bernie Rodgers, of Plantation Baptist Church, installed the roof.
“They didn’t just come with money and hire workers to do it — they came, laid the cornerstone and built the building with their own hands,” Pastor Payne said.
King said the church was provided at no cost to the SeminoleTribe. Her grandfather Frank Billie, the son of medicine man Ingraham Billie, was a devout Christian who left traditional medicine behind.
“Grandpa was adamant. ‘God is the same today, yesterday and tomorrow,’ he told us. When he converted, he converted all the way,” King said.
Vincent Micco followed Frank Billie as pastor for a short time before he was replaced by the Rev. Johnny Shomo, of the Choctaw Nation. Pastor Payne became the church’s pastor in 2005.
The anniversary celebration began in the fellowship hall with a meal that resembled Thanksgiving. Turkey, macaroni and cheese, string beans, corn and cornbread filled the buffet table. Sofkee was served on the side. After Pastor Payne called celebrants to the church by ringing the church bell, King led the gathering in her grandmother’s favorite Creek hymn “Heleluyvn Yvhikares” (I Will Sing Hallelujah).
The Master’s Touch gospel group, that includes Devon Fobb, Bruce Redbird and Henry Battiest Jr., of the Choctaw Nation, provided a handful of favorites from their CDs. The group, well-known throughout Indian Country and the U.S., have performed at Seminole reservation revivals and events since the early 1980s. Battiest, who toured with his own family gospel group back then, said he felt at home with the Seminole Tribe when he first stepped foot on the church property in 1982. He was barely 15.
“The first time we arrived here we were hot and sweaty and probably smelly after traveling so long and sleeping in a van all night, but we were given Spam, frybread and lapale — that’s when Big Cypress became a big part of my life,” Battiest said. “I feel like I grew up here.”
By the mid-1980s, Battiest had married Seminole gospel singer June Baker and the two became a duo. He is the father of noted Seminole recording artists Spencer and Zac “Doc” Battiest who grew up in Hollywood.
Battiest shared many memories of Frank Billie and longtime Deacon Joe Osceola, who he called “Siamese twins” because they were always together. He pointed to the pews where the men and their wives used to sit and he lamented, “one by one they left us.” Later, he held back tears when he led the gathering in Joe Osceola’s dearest hymn, “The Unclouded Day.”
Larry Ford, a Grammy award-winning tenor who is part of the Gaither gospel music family, also sung at the event.
Pastor Payne said the celebration likely drew a smaller than expected crowd because it was postponed twice. The first reschedule occurred under the threat of hurricane Matthew and the second date was changed to honor a mourning period.
“But as we go through life, one generation passes to the next,” Pastor Payne said referencing Judges 2:7. He recanted how Bill Osceola started churches in Hollywood, Brighton, Trail and Big Cypress; how Jack Motlow got into a knife fight during one of his first attempts to spread the word of Christ in Trail — and prevailed; and how Frank Billie and Joe Osceola grew the Big Cypress New Testament family. “They laid groundwork and they built the church. Now it’s our turn and we can’t let them down,” Pastor Payne said. “When we celebrate something like a 50th anniversary we remember the people who brought us here and we look to the future.”
Osceola’s family, now headed by Janice Osceola, filled a couple pews. Janice remembered taking the long drive from Hollywood to Big Cypress when her father opened a store next to the billiard hall — and every Sunday when the store was open, so were the doors to the church.
“This is where I brought my children from the time they were toddlers,” Janice Osceola said. “I was born into faith. It is how I was raised and I’m glad the church family is still here 50 years later. Now, we have to make sure our grandchildren come to hear the word and to learn that there is a better way, praise God.”