Prayerful Pilgrimage

Published 1:18 pm Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Horse-drawn wagons provided by Wayne Brown carry celebrants to New Bethany after the one-mile commemorative march from Bethlehem Baptist Church, where the younger church first originated. | Contributed Photo

Horse-drawn wagons provided by Wayne Brown carry celebrants to New Bethany after the one-mile commemorative march from Bethlehem Baptist Church, where the younger church first originated. | Contributed Photo

HARRELLSVILLE – Much as they had done 150 years ago, for one day last month, two Hertford County churches became one.

On May 14, as part of the 150th anniversary of the founding of New Bethany Missionary Baptist Church, the two churches went back to their “roots”.

Rev. Dr. William C. Clark, current senior pastor of New Bethany, and the church family, kicked off its 150-Year Anniversary celebration with a special pilgrimage from the site where the church was first organized to its present location on NC Hwy 561.

According to church historians and USGenWeb, genealogy project, Bethlehem Church, located at the intersection of what is now Hwy. 561, where Moore Town Road becomes Thomas Bridge Road, had a slave gallery. The gallery was located across the church’s northern end and entered by an outside stairway. Women sat on the right hand side of the room and men on the left. A five foot high partition, running down the middle of the church, prevented any view by the opposite sex.

New Bethany Missionary Baptist Church was organized in 1866 by Rev. Emmanuel Reynolds when a group of former slaves decided to leave Bethlehem. Most of the other black members of Bethlehem soon followed and left to join the new congregation which they named New Bethany, on a site that stands about one mile from Bethlehem.

The new church was organized at its current site at the intersection of what are now NC Hwy 561, Big Mill Road and Bethany Church Road. The first church meetings were held under a bush shelter that was erected for the purpose of worship.

Reynolds and the members sought to purchase the site from John Askew, Sr. in order to erect a permanent and more substantial structure. Askew did not sell the plot of ground to them, but instead he gave it to the members for as long as they wished to use it for a church site. A deed to that effect was officially issued to the church and recorded with the Hertford County Register of Deeds office in April 1944.

For the last 150 years, New Bethany has been served ably by several pastors. Rev. C. Melvin Creecy held the pastorship for over 30 years. Clark has been the church’s present shepherd since 1995.

The recent one-mile pilgrimage recreated the journey of the ex-slaves from Bethlehem Church to New Bethany began in the morning with some 150 persons from both churches and neighboring houses of worship participating. The column of marchers was led by church youth carrying banners bearing New Bethany’s anniversary theme, “Reflecting on 150 years of Sustaining Faith”. Drummers provided the tempo for the procession as it moved along the one route, and colorful horse-drawn buggies provided by equestrian groups from Elizabeth City and Williamston also took part. Several vans carried senior church members as others made the trek on foot.

“It was really a time of reflection and a time of rejoicing,” Clark said. “I think everybody who participated enjoyed it because it brought back a lot of memories. The thing I was most grateful for was how the members of Bethlehem were so gracious and how they just jumped right in and participated.”

“This is God’s Providence in using this assembly to inspire those who are there to expand and as a result New Bethany was formed. Starting under a bush, and how we have this magnificent establishment,” the pastor noted.

While Bethlehem’s numbers were small, their enthusiasm for the event was unparalleled.

“We were just so delighted they included us in this celebration,” said Bethlehem member Helen Bazemore. “We were glad to be invited as (New Bethany’s) guests and their hospitality was so gracious. The activities were great.”

Upon arrival at the church site, the group witnessed a special ribbon cutting ceremony and the releasing of balloons. The kickoff continued in the old dining hall, formerly the church sanctuary, where Pastor Clark gave welcoming remarks and Georgia Privott along with Alice Sharpe told stories of the early church history, including morning worship and evening services that were held indoors and outside by lamplight. The oral history presentation also told of how the church attracted some of its more stubborn members by serving a Sunday dinner held there on the church grounds.

The church youth choir under the direction of Kenya Manley and Jerrell Sessoms later performed, featuring songs of praise, worship and inspiration.

Following the musical selections, the morning pilgrimage closed with the approximately 150 participants from the two churches joining together one final time and enjoying their common fellowship with one another, as well as a hearty breakfast that was served in the old church Fellowship Hall.

“Today I can stand where the original building was,” Clark said.” That is just so fascinating.”

New Bethany will have programs revolving around the church anniversary every month thru November. On Aug. 28, instead of the church’s annual Homecoming celebration, there will be a special program commemorating the 150th anniversary, according to Publicity Chair Evelyn Outlaw. Among other activities, the program will feature the return of former church members along with the family of the late Pastor Creecy.

“This is going to be our biggest event,” said Connie Richardson, who along with John N. Moore is organizing the program. “We want it to be the best ever.”