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story.lead_photo.caption Shown in the sanctuary of the historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Batesville are, front row, from left, Vickie Anthony, JoAnn Cothrine and Junita Davis; and back row, Bobby Cothrine, Slayton Thompson, Pat Young and Jackie Earls. The church was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 and will celebrate its 150th anniversary this week. - Photo by William Harvey

— To its churchgoers in Batesville, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is more than a space for Sunday worship; it’s a cornerstone in the community.

The Bethel AME Church, the home to Batesville’s oldest operating church and first black congregation, will celebrate 150 years of existence, worship and community involvement Saturday and Sunday.

“Bethel Church is very important,” said Vickie Anthony, church steward and secretary.

“It’s grounded in the African roots. It has a lot of history in it. It’s a wonderful place to worship.

It’s just strong in the community.”

African Methodist Episcopal churches began in 1787, when Richard Allen, a free black man, was told he couldn’t pray at

Philadelphia’s St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church. To create a community for black Methodists to worship, he founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia and, in the 1800s, sued for his church to be recognized as an independent institution, according to www.ame-church.com.

“Some people think boycotting businesses started in the ’60s,” said Arthur Montgomery, church trustee. “No, it started in the 1800s.”

Montgomery said he’s been involved with Bethel AME, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, his entire life.

“I was born on the grounds where the church is,” he said. “My parents married there 71 years ago. It’s a real history for me.”

Slayton Thompson, community liaison for the church, said the history of AME churches is important to him.

“If you looked like Richard Allen, you couldn’t worship in those churches of the Founding Fathers,” he said. “Whether you like it or not, it happened. For me, that’s significant.”

According to the church, which has traced its history in Batesville back to 1866, what is now the building for Bethel AME Church came to be after a fire destroyed its previous structure in 1880. The current church was built by minority stonemasons, some of whom went on to become officers and members of the church, Montgomery said. Members even hand-cut the sandstone of the building from a quarry north of town.

Montgomery said dedication among church members has kept the church going for 150 years.

“It came into existence because minorities were not able to worship wherever they so desired in that day,” he said. “They had to come up with their own places of worship.”

The church also had an educational influence, Montgomery said. The church paved the way for many of its members to attend Shorter College in North Little Rock, a historically black college founded by the AME church. Until 1966, with the beginning of school integration in Batesville, the church was also a neighbor to an all-black school, with four of the five final graduates being Bethel members.

“[Bethel] was a driving force for education for minorities for years,” Montgomery said. “In the days when you didn’t have anywhere else to go to school, you’d go to an AME school.”

Anthony said the work of Bethel AME today extends beyond its walls.

“We’re a connexional church, so we have to raise $10,000, $20,000 a year to help other churches we have,” she said. “We have churches in Africa; we have churches all over the world — in Baltimore, Delaware, Pennsylvania. We have to send our support to them. We have colleges and stuff that we have to help support.”

Anthony said she joined the church when she was young, after moving with her family from LaCrosse to Batesville. Her grandparents were already members of Bethel AME.

“The people who have the strong beliefs in God have kept this church going because we had to work so hard to keep this church in good standing,” she said. “A lot of those people have passed on.”

The existence of Bethel AME in the Batesville community is “very important,” Montgomery said.

“It has a very spiritual-type culture with the music and that type of thing, [when] a lot of churches in today’s society have lost that culture,” he said. “It’s a very upbeat-type music, and you don’t find that a whole lot.”

Both Montgomery and Anthony said the loss of young church members has led to a change in the church’s demographic. They noted that an increase in youth participation could lead to a brighter future for the church.

“I’m praying that the young people that we have in our church now will stay and help the church grow,” Anthony said.

Montgomery said he hopes people leave the church’s anniversary celebration with more knowledge of AME history.

“I hope they take away what the real reason was for its existence because so many people don’t really understand why it came into existence,” he said. “I think they need to know that.”

Registration for the Bethel AME Church’s 150th celebration will begin at 8 a.m. Saturday in the church’s Fellowship Hall, and the event will continue with a reception and dinner at 6 p.m. at Elizabeth’s Restaurant & Catering, 231 E. Main St. Registration is $20 for adults and $10 for children.

The church’s anniversary worship service will take place at 11 a.m. Sunday, with a public prayer from 2-3 p.m. and an anniversary program beginning at 3.

Thompson said he attends the Bethel AME Church with pride.

“When I walk into Bethel, I walk in with a smile,” he said. “I enjoy the people there because there’s a kinship.”

Staff writer Syd Hayman can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or shayman@arkansasonline.com.

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