Hunting and fishing have always been a staple for Chattanooga native Eric Stitts. Taking his father’s lead, the annual Wild Game Dinner at Bayside Baptist Church is at a record high attendance.
Parents Bob and Lillian gave their children Adrian, Lorena and Eric a very well-rounded upbringing. Eric remembers his Harrison neighborhood with fond memories. “Some of my greatest friends were in my neighborhood and we played together all the time. We are still friends to this day,” Eric says.
Though he has many fond memories growing up, life was not so easy starting out for Eric.
“Learning was very hard for me. I am dyslexic and I had some eye trouble. I would see everything backward, down and around, so school was very difficult. I remember sitting in Harrison Elementary School, just crying,” Eric expresses.
It was in the third grade when his teacher caught his learning disabilities and the eye problem that he had.
“My teacher was known as the ‘teacher you did not want to have’,” Eric laughs. “My mom and I prayed all summer long about who I would have for third grade. When I found out I said, ‘Oh no… how am I ever going to do this?’ But mom always taught me, ‘All things work together for the good…’” he trails, quoting part of Romans 8:28.
“I tell teachers that you just don’t know the impact that you have in the life of a child,” Eric says.
“God used that teacher. She had a son who also had some of the same learning disabilities that I had and she introduced us to Dr. Horner in Cleveland, Tn. He was doing the training and eye therapy and I also did an hour of therapy at home every day. My mom and I are unbelievably close; she spent hours and hours working with me,” Eric acknowledges.
“I learned how to study and I learned that you don’t quit; you persevere. With what I do as a pastor – I study all the time and I persevere. As you help people deal with life issues, you teach them that God works things to the good and that you don’t quit,” Eric states.
The theme in the Stitts’ house was always, “Stitts don’t quit”.
Eric had heard that his entire life. As he preached and mentioned that several times, a church member had made something that hangs in his house that says the all-familiar quote.
“Steady Stitts”, the family patriarch known fondly as “Brother Bob” to many, was the driving force of that mentality. Eric notes that his father was even-keel, steady and never wavering. Bob gave his family that consistency and had taught them ‘when things got tough, you just don’t quit’.
“My dad started a brand new church when I was little. They broke ground in 1971 when Mom was pregnant with me. I don’t know life without Bayside,” Eric says.
Eric always knew that he would be in the ministry in some way. At age five, he made a decision to follow Christ. In seventh grade; he was certain that God had called him to be a pastor.
“Learning was so hard for me that it was all-consuming at that time. They had to retrain the muscles in my eyes. If they asked me questions in conversation; I could have answered them, but trying to process it from my brain to paper was absolutely impossible,” Eric admits.
As Eric persevered through his learning disability, he remembers asking God why.
“God uses my experience all the time; to help that family who has a child having a difficult time or to tell a child don’t give up on learning… it isn’t always about that A or that B – and it doesn’t mean God can’t use them. It has also taught me that you have to rely upon the Lord for everything and to depend on him,” he encourages.
Eric attended Carson Newman College in Jefferson City. “College was a great experience. I had great study habits and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a great experience social-wise and ministry-wise,” Eric says.
He preached many weekend revivals and recalls when Pastor Carl Creasman in Athens had asked him to preach. Eric needed a soloist to go with him. “I asked Amy to go with me to sing and the pastor asked me how long Amy and I had been dating. We said, ‘We are not dating at all’ and he said, ‘Oh come on. You should see how you look at each other!’ and from that revival with Amy – we just knew we would be married,” Eric insists.
The smitten couple married in 1994. Amy had one more year at Carson Newman and then they started on staff at First Baptist in Alcoa.
“I did student ministry and handled organizational stuff at church. I have precious memories; that church treated us great and then we moved here to Bayside after six and half years. I did student ministry here, then became co-pastor and now I am the pastor,” Eric states.
After his father passed the baton, Eric was aware of the giant footstep in which he placed his own foot.
“Dad pastored for 33 years …sometimes that’s a hard transition but we praised the Lord that we saw God leading through that whole process. It was very humbling,” Eric admits.
Amy and Eric now have four children, John Robert, Emily Grace, Mary Beth and Matthew. The couple had tried for four years to have children with both undergoing procedures.
“I will never forget on a mother’s day in Alcoa, they had recognized all the mothers. Amy was sitting in the choir just crying; she wanted to be a mom so bad,” Eric says teary-eyed.
“Some of our friends had us over for lunch that day, they were so encouraging for us and we didn’t even realize that Amy was pregnant that day,” Eric beams.
As the second pastor of Bayside, there are many things Eric was able to carry through from what his father had begun. One of the biggest may be the Wild Game Dinner in which many Chattanoogans look forward to each year.
“In 1996 we had our very first Wild Game Dinner. God brought Tom Watson on staff with us and he told my dad about the idea and how we could reach the men in our community. My dad has always been passionate about that. Tom had this idea to do the dinner and feed all these guys wild game, give a few things away, and present the gospel to them. The very first dinner we had 175 men show up. The second one we had there were 350 men and every year it keeps growing,” Eric says.
As Pastor Robert Stitts retired, the Wild Game Dinner had attendance growth to about 1,200 men and this year there will be 2,200 men coming from all over the Southeast.
The big event begins with exhibits and there will be fun things for the younger boys to do. Pastor Stitts chides, “No girls allowed” in a joyous tone. “We have many events for women and sometimes the men get overlooked. We wanted something to do just for them,” Eric holds.
It takes 100s of volunteers to pull off the enormous event.
“We bring in different speakers who are in the hunting field,” Eric says. “This year we will have Hank Parker. Hank has probably done more fishing shows than anybody; he is in the hall of fame for hunting. It is absolutely fantastic.”
Eric was overwhelmed when he attended the first WGD while he was on staff at Bayside. “I used to go hunting with my grandfather, Charles Acree, and that was just near and dear to me. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. My grandfather took us fishing all the time at Carter’s Lake in Georgia and when I got old enough, he took me deer hunting. My very first deer was a 12 pointer,” Eric says with delight.
“God put Bayside here in Harrison to reach the community for Christ. Bayside has always broken new territory; it is a church that is on the cutting edge and, bringing in the Wild Game Dinner event was cutting edge,” Eric maintains.
Eric has braved new opportunities throughout his ministry with many firsts. A particular animal that he remembers having to eat was not at the Wild Game Dinner event. It was rat while on a mission trip in West Africa.
“It was 90 degrees inside this house and we all sat around eating a gopher rat. It was the toughest thing I had ever eaten in my life!” Eric muses.
He has tried everything offered at the event over the years such as rattlesnake stew, squirrel, rabbit, hog, turkey, deer, elk and even bear.
“I had never eaten bear meat before. Quite a few of our guys go to Canada every year and bear hunt just to bring us bear meat for this event. I tried it when it had just come off the smoker - it was so good,” he recalls.
“We do pheasant and duck too,” Eric says, “I have eaten a lot of elk – elk meat is really good. We have all types of different fish that our men will do. I really like the pheasant, but I like it all.”
A large crew of men will come early to smoke and cook the meat while some of the ladies help to prepare the manly ‘feast of beast’.
“It takes hours and hours to do. Our ladies will make banana pudding; it’s unbelievable how much banana pudding we eat!” Eric laughs.
Along with the exhibits and eating the many varieties of wild game and listening to Hank Parker, the event also includes prize drawings.
“We give away camp sites that Sportsman’s Warehouse donates,” Eric says and continues, “There's also a four wheeler, about 15 guns and multiple other things, just to thank the guys for coming.”
Many of the families at Bayside sponsor the event in order to make the giveaways possible.
“Every year we help other churches who ask us how to start a Wild Game Dinner event. We encourage other people to reach out to the men in their communities,” Eric says.
The sold-out event will start at 4 p.m. for the exhibits and 5 p.m. for the dinner with the program starting at 7 p.m.
The date of the annual event is always the first Saturday of February, which this year will be on Groundhog’s Day.
When asked if ‘groundhog’ would be on the menu Eric quips, “I didn’t think about that being Groundhog’s Day! We won’t eat groundhog but… maybe we will throw some possum in there.”