ARIPEKA — God, it is said, works in mysterious ways, and that’s a good thing, because for Joe Sims, the pastor of the historic little Aripeka Baptist Church, there are few things as mysterious as the internet.
“I’m a dinosaur when it comes to computers,” Sims admits, but he likes how much his parishioners are enjoying the church’s website, which went live recently.
In part because joining the information age was long overdue, and in part because some of the church’s members have been hesitant to attend services while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it was decided it was high time for the church to go virtual. The web address is www.aripekabaptistchurch.com.
The web project was spearheaded by Paul Mabry, who lives next door to the church and is its music director and assistant to the pastor. Longtime Aripeka resident, historian and assistant at the little fishing village’s tiny library Lou Charity worked on website planning and its features, while his son Wayne volunteered his time to build it.
“It was a labor of love,” said Sims, who gives 100% of the credit to the three men who “made it happen.”
Since the pandemic, attendance at the church has been off about 50%, estimates Charity. Having the website, which includes weekly videos of sermons that can be viewed from any net-connected computer or smartphone, has been important for some, he added.
The site also keeps parishioners connected to the church, which has been around since 1910 — one of the oldest in the region. Prayer requests can be submitted via the site, a feature some already have are made good use of, said Sims. Until the pandemic subsides, he’s happy parishioners have an alternative to attending in person if they are uncomfortable being in public.
Though all the services, including the Sunday school are now operating at the church, Sims understands that some, particularly the more vulnerable elderly, may be hesitant to mingle.
“If they want to come, who am I to say no?” said Sims, adding that he also doesn’t ask anyone to take a risk by coming. He said the smaller gatherings on Sundays do allow for easy social distancing.
Mabry said he’s pleased the work to create the website appears to be paying off.
“We’ve had a tremendous response to it and we’re glad to finally get into the modern era,” Mabry said.
It was a big step for a traditional small-town church like Aripeka Baptist, where attending services is such an important part of everyone’s weekly social and spiritual life, Mabry said. But given the pandemic, there’s no question in his mind that the online presence is needed so parishioners can enjoy the services from the safety of home.
“The church’s goal was to find a way to serve them,” said Mabry, adding the website looks to be accomplishing just that.
Sims said the plan is to continue to improve the website and keep adding new content, even once COVID-19 subsides or is defeated. Not only will the site strive to meet spiritual needs, it will serve as an online resource that includes history, events and other information about the town of just some 300 people.
“We want to support the community in any way we can,” he said.
Sims said anyone who wants to attend can come to a free anniversary lunch provided by the Women’s Missionary Union after the 11 a.m. service (around 12:30 p.m.) Nov. 22. The event is to celebrate the church’s 110th year. The church is at 18731 Aripeka Road, which heads west off U.S. 19 just north of Sunwest Park in Hudson.
Founded in 1873 as Gulf Key, then later Argo, the town was renamed Aripeka after the local Seminole chief of the same name in 1885. Originally within Hernando County, the town was divided when Pasco County was formed in 1887, and the village now sits in both counties. Aripeka is known as a favorite vacation spot for baseball legend Babe Ruth and other sports figures. They came to fish, play cards and drink late into the evenings. The original Aripeka Baptist Church was located on the Hernando side until it burned down. It was relocated to where it is today, south of Hammock Creek on the Pasco side.