About Our Pastor
Reverend Dr. Rayford Harper is a native of Okolona, Mississippi, Rayford is the second of three sons to Rev. Dr. Alex Sr. and Martha Harper of Lakeland, Florida. Growing up in Lakeland, Florida, he attended Rochelle Elementary School before the integration of public schools in Polk County.
In 1976 he graduated from Kathleen Senior High School. While attending Kathleen Senior High he participated in wrestling, baseball, band, and Upward Bound. It was the Upward Bound program that he credits for inspiring and preparing him to go to college.
He attended Bethune-Cookman College (now University) in Daytona Beach, Florida, graduating in 1980 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and a minor in Pre-Law. However, in 1978 as a student Dr. Harper participated in Cooperative Education with the Department of Interior (National Park Service). Consequently, this program would lead to a career that spanned over 20 years with the Federal Government. Employed as a Park Ranger, Historian, Fire-fighter, and Naturalist, Dr. Harper was stationed at National Parks throughout the United States to preserve the natural, recreational, and historical values of these national treasures. These sites include the Castillo De San Marcos National Monument in St. Augustine, Florida, Ninety Six National Historic Site in Ninety Six, South Carolina, the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi-Alabama-Tennessee, Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, the Roosevelts and Vanderbilt National Historic Sites in Hyde Park York, and Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey.
More importantly, it was Dr. Harper's love for history that led him to serve as the first Park Manager and Superintendent of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site in Topeka, Kansas, established to commemorate the Supreme Court decision to end segregation in the United States. After three years at Brown v. Board of Education, He was asked to provide oversight and planning for the newly designated New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Unknowingly, during Dr. Harper's time in Topeka, Kansas, God was gradually preparing
him for a greater call. He acknowledged his call to the preaching ministry in the fall of 1995
while he was a member of New Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. He preached his first
sermon at the Watch Night Service of Bible Baptist Church in Palmetto, Florida, on December
31, 1995. He was licensed by his Pastor Rev. Cecil T. Washington, Jr., in June of 1996.
Upon relocating to New Orleans, Louisiana, Dr. Harper joined Israel Baptist Church in Harvey, Louisiana, where he served as the Youth Minister. He was ordained in August 1997 by his Pastor, the Reverend Dr. Johnny McKinnies, Sr. Four months later in December he was elected as the second Pastor of Bible Baptist Church in Palmetto, Florida.
Walking by faith and trusting in the Lord Dr. Harper left the National Park Service in 1998 and began to teach in the Manatee County Public school system. In 2001, Dr. Harper entered graduate school and earned a Masters Degree in Education, with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction from National-Louis University in 2003.
Dr. Harper continued to faithfully serve as the Pastor of Bible Baptist Church in Palmetto until May 07, 2006, when he began his current assignment and tenure as the seventeenth Pastor of First Baptist Church of West Tampa.
In May of 2014, Dr. Harper received an Honorary Doctorate of Divinity Degree from Florida Theological Seminary and Bible College in Lakeland, Florida, where he serves as an officer of the Board of Directors. In addition, upon completion of a dissertation he will have met the requirements for the Doctorate of Philosophy Degree in Christian Education from Newburgh Theological Seminary and College of the Bible in Newburgh, Indiana.
On Thursday, November 12, 2015, at the 127th Annual Session of First South Florida Missionary Baptist District Association Dr. Harper was elected as its 16th Moderator. In addition, Dr. Harper serves as Chairman of the Education Board for Progressive Missionary and Educational State Convention of Florida, and a member of the College and Seminary Board for the National Baptist Convention International Incorporation.
"Whoso findeth a wife findeth a good thing"
Jacqueline and Rayford Harper
The Harpers met in the fall of 1984 in Jackson, Mississippi. Dr. Harper tells the story that while living in the same apartment complex, one day as he was checking the mail he noticed this young lady checking him out. And ever since that day, he's been checking the mail every day.
Six years later, they were married on September 01, 1990 at St. James Missionary Baptist Church in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the hometown of Sis. Harper. To this union God has blessed them with two sons: Cleveland (born in Topeka, Kansas) Jeremiah (born in Gretna, Louisiana) and Daddy's "Baby-girl" Rebekah (born in Bradenton, Florida).