When the Rev. GARY GRITTON moved to Urbana in August 1979 to become the spiritual leader of the then-50-member Calvary Baptist Church, he envisioned serving the congregation for at least a few years.
Forty years later, Gritton is still behind the pulpit of a church that now sports 150 believers and operates a Christian school.
On Aug. 10-11, the Calvary congregation will host a two-day celebration of Gritton’s four decades of service, featuring a special sermon by his Florida pastor son, the Rev. Jared Gritton.
Staff writer Tim Mitchell sat down with the 68-year-old minister and former member of the Oakwood Comets Marching Band for a wide-ranging conversation.
How did you end up at Calvary Baptist 40 years ago?
I was the assistant pastor at a church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and they changed pastors. I was the principal of a school with about 350 students, and when the new pastor came in, we didn’t see eye-to-eye about things.
I wanted to do more preaching and pastoring, and I needed to find me a church to do that. I contacted Dr. Gordon Edgington, who was the head of the Association of Independent Baptist Churches of Illinois, and he put me in touch which this church here in Urbana.
I was asked to come up here on Father’s Day 1979. I was 28 years old when I came up here and preached at morning and night services. As I left, they said they would vote on inviting me to become pastor. I thought this church was so small that I wouldn’t come unless it was a unanimous vote.
The next week, I got word that practically every member was present, and they unanimously voted for me. I didn’t dream I would be here for 40 years.
How is the church different now than when you first arrived?
All we had was an auditorium. You had to separate the auditorium with movable partitions in order to have Sunday school. And it was noisy in there.
Over time, we expanded the church and created our own school, Calvary Baptist Christian Academy, and I have served as administrator for the school. They built a parsonage for us in 1987.
How did the school come about?
When I came to Calvary Baptist in 1979, there were some people attending Monticello Christian Academy. Out kids would ride a bus all the way to Monticello.
At first, we supported that. After a couple of years, our parishioners experienced frustration because Monticello was so far away. Young children, including our oldest daughter, were having to get up really early in the morning to be bused clear over to Monticello and didn’t get back until 4 or 4:30 p.m. It was a long day for little children.
Some people in our church didn’t think we could support that. I thought maybe it was time we looked at having our own school here in Urbana. In 1982, we moved two modular buildings to our church property and got the school started. We offer everything from kindergarten through 12th grade.
That first year, we had nine students. We added a building in 1985 and another building in 1993. Today, our school has nine classrooms, and we have 40 students. We have two full-time teachers; my assistant pastor oversees the junior-senior high, and he has two ladies that assist him.
We have had more than 650 students go to school here over the years. I would guess we had about 70 young people earn their high school diploma from Calvary Baptist Christian Academy.
Do you have a favorite sermon that you give?
I like to preach a sermon called “God Can.” It is all about what God can do. I try to be new and fresh all the time, so I don’t repeat too many of them.
What has been your most traumatic experience during your 40 years in Urbana?
It was the day my youth pastor and six boys were killed in a van crash. In 1995, they were coming home from a basketball game in Pana, Illinois. I was sick and went home in a separate vehicle on Interstate 72, while he cut through the country because his family was going to host some of the boys overnight.
The roads were slippery south of the Monticello Road, and they lost control of the van. Air flights had been grounded at Willard Airport, and an air bus was taking passengers by bus to Peoria. The air bus slammed into our van, and the van burst into flames.
All seven of them perished immediately. It was a tough time. It was in God’s will. So many people were touched, and so many people got right with God around here.
We understand you’re the son of a minister.
Yes, my dad, Maurice Gritton, was a minister at four different churches in Illinois. My whole family would sit together in either the second or third pew, close to the front of the church, for all his services. My mom was a homemaker.
Tell us about playing in the Oakwood Comets Marching Band.
When I was in high school, my dad was the pastor at the Faith Baptist Church in Danville. He was there for 13 years. We lived right behind the church, but the line between going to Danville High or Oakwood High was one block to the east of us.
So I had to be bused 15 miles every day to Oakwood High School. I played the trumpet for the band. I have always loved music. We played at the football games and basketball games.
And I played for the marching band at Tennessee Temple University. I still have my trumpet.
How did you meet your wife, Anita?
We were both teaching at a Christian school in Chattanooga. In 1974, we happened to attend the same conference. At the time, I was a minister in training.
I saw Anita sitting there, and I decided to sit down by her and start a conversation. Things kinda went from there. From that day, we began to talk more with each other and began dating. We got married in 1975, and we have four children.
Anita taught at our school here in Urbana for 37 years and just retired. She started out as an elementary teacher, went to teach at the senior high for 23 years and then returned to elementary teaching.
And she has been playing the piano at our services for all 40 years. She and I sometimes sing duets.
Have a favorite number you sing together?
There is a hymn in the hymn book called “Face to Face.” I like that hymn real well.
How about a favorite pet?
We used to have dogs. We had a big Lab named Mickey who became a church dog. He would come over to the school and visit the kids.
One day, he developed a brain tumor, and we had to put him down. It was sad.
I used to do gardening. I had a huge garden in the back where I raised items to feed my family and the church for 35 years. When I developed some health problems and couldn’t keep it up, I started doing antiquing instead.
My wife and I go to all the antique shops around here. Our favorite is the big shop in Columbus, Indiana. We spend hours there. There are also some good antique shops in Clinton and El Paso.