Winter Park carpenter is building churches, relationships in Brazil
Aug 17, 2014
By CAROLYN NICHOLS
Florida Baptist Witness

FAMILY AFFAIR Three generations of Hemphill men participated in the May mission trip to Brusque, Brazil. They are (from left) James, John and Robert. Robert Hemphill is minister to students at First Baptist Church in Winter Park. Courtesy/Robert Hemphill
WINTER PARK (FBW)—John Hemphill, a layman at First Baptist Church in Winter Park, went on his first mission trip 31 years ago, and he has traveled dozens of times across the Western Hemisphere to build churches and to encourage fellow believers. He also is passing on a love of missions to his son and grandson.

Hemphill began traveling with construction mission teams from his church when he was working as a senior accountant with Sprint. He retired in 1997 when the company moved to Kansas City, but worked another 12 years with MFI, a company assuring quality control of pharmaceuticals. 
 
“Now I am very retired,” he said. “I’m just a wood nut now.”
 
His retirement allows him more time to travel the world on mission. His favorite destination is Brazil, where his relationship with Brazilian Baptist churches continues to flourish. Hemphill, on one of his first mission trips, was part of a mission team to Quirinopolis that handed the pastor the key to a new church after a week of construction. He returned to Winter Park with a newfound purpose.
 
“I went there because I love the Lord and I wanted to do something more than what I was doing then,” he said. “At the end of the week I said, ‘Gee, we’ve got to get back to this.’ ”
 
Over the years he has learned the intricacies of building In Brazil’s varying climates. Construction in Florianopolis, a city near the equator, was very different from the farming country of Quirinopolis, where wooden pre-fab buildings were the norm. The same buildings would rot quickly in equatorial Brazil, so cement is the construction material of choice in a humid climate. The cost of building also jumps from $12,000 to $22,000, he said.
 
The church in coastal Brusque  tripled in size over three years and outgrew its church building that First Baptist teams built in 1987. Members prayed for more meeting space on its landlocked location, since few members had vehicles to travel elsewhere. Deacons constructed a prayer room in the church’s facility that is still used 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their prayers were answered when the city offered the church a vacant lot near its location, Hemphill said.
 
“Wherever we go in Brazil, Brusque church members join us there,” he said. 
 
His Brazilian brothers and sisters in Brusque prayed for Hemphill while he underwent treatment for lymphoma. After two years, he said he “let chemo slide for a week” so he could return to Brazil to build another church building. He served on a First Baptist Church mission team in May in Brusque with his grandson James and son Robert, who is minister to students at First Baptist. Robert Hemphill said going on mission with his father and his son “meant the world to me.”
 
“Having his leadership and experience with us was great. He could point out things that a tour guide wouldn’t know,” he said.
 
The younger Hemphill helped to build the original church building in Brusque as a 19-year-old on his first mission trip and returned after seminary to preach in the church building. The May 2014 trip with his youth group focused on evangelism through sports. The group led basketball clinics in schools and they rented the town square for a “Main Event” of basketball tournaments and a testimony by Taylor Price, who came to the Lord through the First Baptist youth group. As a student at University of West Florida, he now leads a youth group in a Pensacola church, Robert Hemphill said proudly. He and Price are discipling converts from the trip through social media.
 
“When I first went to Brazil, the only way to keep up with people you met was through letters. Now we text and are on Facebook,” Robert Hemphill said.
 
“It is a tremendous effort to take youth on mission trips—to Brazil or Belize and other places, but it’s always worth it. They are already asking to go again next year,” John Hemphill said. “I think I have passed missions on to our son and grandson, and now they are passing it on to others.” 
 
John Hemphill learned carpentry from his father, who was superintendent of construction with U.S. Sugar in Clewiston. As the only son with three sisters, he watched and helped his father with projects in the family home that “was never finished as long as I lived there.” He left home to attend Central Florida Community College in Ocala and joined the Army in 1955. The Floridian served in Alaska for three years, scanning the skies for unidentified aircraft crossing the territory’s border.
 
“That was one of the neatest experiences of my life because that was back when Alaska was fun. Every day was an exploration,” he said.
He returned to the Sunshine State to attend Central Florida Community College and to marry Barbara, his wife of 53 years. While married and working, he finished his degree at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. Hemphill, who grew up in a United Methodist Church in Lake Harbor, became a Baptist “when I married a Baptist,” he said. Together, the Hemphills minister through “Unto Him,” a puppetry ministry.
 
The 78-year-old carpenter also is active in disaster relief. He served in Jamaica twice after hurricanes and for three weeks in South Florida after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Hemphill travels mostly with groups from his own congregation, but also with groups from Woodmont Baptist Church in northeast Alabama.
 
IMB missionaries Ron and Lana Greenwich, who Hemphill has worked with many times during their 30 years in Brazil, are retiring and moving to Arkansas. The couple has already committed to speaking at a missions conference at First Baptist in 2015.
 
“These are great friends there. I don’t want to give them up,” he said. “I’ll keep going as long as I can.”
SPORTS EVANGELISM Youth from First Baptist Church in Winter Park led Brusque students in basketball drills during sports clinics in their schools. Courtesy/Robert Hemphill

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