Donna Ballard celebrates 50 years as the Mount Tabor Baptist Church piano player today. Although her celebration was moved because of the tornado that tore through Kathleen on Oct. 18, she's still optimistic about the future.
Amidst the rubble left behind the tornado of a few weeks ago, Mount Tabor Baptist Church is busy making plans for its next move, but not without first celebrating a major milestone: Donna Ballard, the church piano player, celebrates 50 years as the church's musician.
The original celebration for her 50 years was supposed to be held Oct. 27, but with the rubble from the tornado, it was moved to Sunday, Nov. 10.
Reflecting on the help the church has received since the catastrophic loss of the ministry center, she said, “We are going to move on. God is bigger than all this. He is bigger than that tornado.”
Ballard is a bit unique in that her family has been part of Mount Tabor since the 1880s, when her great-grandfather, John Edward Harrelson, was one of the church's founding elders. She was born and raised in Lakeland, growing up around the corner from the church on Harrelson Road.
The smiling 68-year-old “star,” as her pastor Matthew Gilmore calls her, also has a twin sister, Debbie Cloud, who led the music at the church for 40 years, until she retired, and they have a sister who is 16 months older, Vicky Johnson, who was an accomplished singer.
“We are the fifth generation to serve,” Ballard said.
Ballard and her sisters grew up singing as a trio, mostly Southern gospel music. Her grandmother, Bessie Harrelson, played the piano before Ballard was tapped to take over at age 18.
Mount Tabor has seen a lot through the years, with many of the early members buried at the cemetery next door. The church was first founded under a brush arbor, and eventually raised a log cabin.
From that came the board and batten building, and then, the frame building. The present church is the fourth building to serve as the church in the last 132 years, built in 1971.
Music over the years has changed, Ballard said, from many of the old country gospel songs, to what is now known as “Christian contemporary.” The pianist said she did not care for the praise music initially, but it has since found a home in her heart.
And did she ever contemplate leaving the church for perhaps a more lucrative opportunity?
“I had offers at times, they offered me more money,” she said, noting that she played at Mount Tabor many years as a volunteer before she was “official.”
But she wanted to stay at Mount Tabor, and with good reason.
“I had so many family members here,” she said. “This was just home.”
Occasionally tearing up as she spoke about her “gift” of music, she noted that she did have five years of music lessons.
The rest, she says, was the “spirit.”
“It's been one of the greatest blessings in my life,” she said.
She occasionally gave music lessons to others, but found that it was hard to explain to students things that she came to easily on the ebony and ivories.
Though she can read music, she said, mostly she plays what comes to her with each song, a free-flow of personal style, “from the heart.”
One Sunday, years ago, when her sister was leading the worship, she did not have music in front of her, and suddenly did not know what to play next, which was unusual.
“God showed me that he gave me this gift, and he could take it away,” she said.
The importance of a dedicated piano player is paramount to a church, she said she believes.
“Music speaks to the heart,” she said. Church pianists play at the beginning of services, to open worship and create the setting for those who come to seek God.
And at the end, she is always moved when she plays the altar call, she said, when after the sermon, “people get a chance to do business with God.”
Kathy Leigh Berkowitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 863-802-7558. Follow her on Twitter @kberkowitzthel1.