By Clayton Hardiman
The Muskegon Chronicle and AP
MUSKEGON, Mich.–When Deacon John Barrett looks back on the long, sprawling history of Bethesda Baptist Church, he can’t help thinking of the bricks that went into the building.
Not the modern sanctuary atop Getty Street hill that currently serves as a place of worship and a base of ministry for the congregation, but the old building on Webster Avenue that church members struggled to build more than six decades ago.
At the time, church members faced an uphill battle against financial hardship and racial bigotry in its quest to establish a home. Nonetheless, Barrett says they were sustained by a sturdy vision of what God had in mind for them.
So when their building materials were limited to used bricks from the junkyard, they embraced the challenge. Each evening, church members would leave their day jobs to go to work on bricks Barrett describes as “old and unattractive.”
“They would go there and chop mortar off the bricks,” Barrett says. “They built (the building) on faith. They built it on sweat. Didn’t anybody have any money, but they donated their time and what little things they had.”
For many, that is the Bethesda experience in microcosm, sweat, vision and faith.
It is an experience that has sustained the congregation for 100 years. The church is currently involved in a year long celebration of its centennial anniversary, with monthly events of music, prayer and praise, featuring preachers, choirs, musicians and other congregations as guests.
As the church, which is the oldest African American congregation in Muskegon, celebrates a century of existence, it looks back on a roller-coaster experience. The road has been both rugged and smooth. The times have been both tough and rewarding.
The Rev. Charles W. Poole, the church’s longtime pastor, puts it another way. “There have been seasons of growth, and there have been lulls,” Poole says.
It could be argued that the church currently is experiencing one of its lulls. For instance, due largely to financial struggles, the church has had to cut back on its national award-winning after-school child-care program.
But then the church has always had to cope with struggle.
The congregation got its start in June 1910 when a small group of black Christians began meeting for prayer and worship in private homes. By 1912, the congregation became an organized body, but it was before it found a permanent home.
They gathered for worship in what was once a hide-tanning building. They worshipped in an empty junk shop. Doors closed abruptly in their faces.
In one early place of worship, a church building at Fifth Street and Washington Avenue, congregational members moved after white residents in the neighborhood complained about their presence. In another, the tiny congregation had to move again after the rent was raised beyond members’ means.
The church finally purchased property on Webster Avenue near Pine Street in 1927. The congregation constructed a large basement and worshipped there for 14 years until a sanctuary was finally completed overhead in 1941.
In 1969, the church moved into its current home at 575 S. Getty.
On its way there, an interesting thing happened. Bethesda Church helped transform the community.
It has inspired the establishment of scores of African-American churches across the Muskegon area. It has also spawned a strong tradition of community leadership and involvement.