The Union Baptist Church celebrated its 183rd anniversary on Sept. 20, acknowledging a rich history and looking forward to a growing future.
The church celebrated with two services on Sunday, featuring guest speakers and a special guest musical performance for the second service, by Rev. Cora Armstrong and the Harvey Family from King and Queen County, Va.
Union also recognized its longest standing members, “The Golden Club” — elder men and women who have been a part of the body for 56 to 92 years.
“It’s a blessing, it’s a honor to run this leg of the race,” said Senior Pastor Donald K. West. “I know God is continuing, growing and birthing. What he’s continued to do these past 183 years is a blessing.”
Union was founded Sept. 18, 1832 by the Rev. Daniel Scott of Petersburg, Va, and organized the church with the help of 21 other worshippers, also from Virginia. They first met at Benezet Hall, at 7th St., near Lombard. In April 1915, the Rev. Dr. Wesley G. Parks, led the erection of their present location at Fitzwater and Martin streets, a project costing $125,000.
“It was one of the first Black churches to build it’s own building,” said James Bradford, a former Board of Trustees Chairman and member for 62 years. “The people that preceded us laid a solid foundation, so those of us who came after could benefit greatly.”
Bradford added that Union has been around for such a long time because “it’s God’s will this church be here.” He described it as a “super” place of worship.
“It has consistently followed the Bible and God’s teachings and hasn’t gotten lost along the way,” he said.
Sarah Ponder, a member for 77 years, describes her decades at Union as “beautiful” and remembers the church as a thriving center of the community.
“We were here during the Great Depression and we survived and we grew,” she said. “There were times you would come and couldn’t get a seat. [And] we were a missions [centered] church. We gave more to missions than any other Baptist church in the city.” She continued that in the future of the church, she “would like to see it thrive.”
Currently, the membership is lower than what it was in the prime of Ford and Bradford’s days at the church and ministries are being restructured. West describes the current state as a phase of “Kingdom building” that will focus on “God’s business” first and foremost.
“Jesus says to his disciples, upon the profession of faith of who he is, that he will build the church, however we have taught and gone through courses — lifestyle evangelism, where we are able to, through relationships, just work toward the kingdom,” he said. “And by building the kingdom, God will then take care of this house by way of families, friends, neighbors and coworkers. Whoever we receive, we always want them to come and be apart of Union but it’s more important that they are a part of the Kingdom. If we tend to Kingdom business, God will tend to our business.”
One of the ministries that West mentioned growth plans for is the youth ministry. In the future, Union would ideally offer youth opportunities to “express” themselves, in the form of such things as a “summer arts program.”
A recent addition is a fitness ministry, for which one of the church members, who is a personal trainer, offers services to members and anyone from the community who wants to participate.
Three Fridays out of the month, the Outreach ministry provides a free meal, clothing, books and housewares to those in need.
West said he is “proud” of Union members because they continue to do such work and maintain other aspects of the church.
“They give of their talents, their gifts and their resources. They give of themselves,” he said. “This building is 100 years old and we don’t have professionals come in to do anything, it’s maintained by members.”
Louise L. R. Smith, the church pianist and a member since 1970, agreed, describing Union as a working church.
“We are here striving to uphold the Kingdom building, we are walking in the spirit and reaching out to lost souls,” she said, pointing to a gentleman who’d just joined that Sunday, as an example. “This man — [James Brown] — he is a candidate for baptism and I was so happy to see him join this morning. He is one of the people we reached out to.”
Brown confirmed that he was motivated to join after one of the members — “Ms. Little” — urged him to “‘Come visit some Sundays and sit with me.’”
Another key aspect of Union, said members, is Rev. West’s leadership. He is their 22nd pastor and in October will celebrate eight years serving the church.
“[Rev. West] is such a down-to-earth person,” said Board of Trustees Chairwoman Theresa Woodard-Pearsall, a member for 45 years. “He lets us know sinners make mistakes, that you can’t lose your salvation and God is not going to stop loving you if you fall short.”
Youth member Nyjae Noble, 12, a member for two years, said West makes Union “interesting” because in his sermons, he “adds a lot of detail.”
On the Sunday morning of The Tribune’s visit, guest speaker Rev. Dr. William L. Banks based his sermon out of the book of Revelation and told Union to keep their eyes on Jesus.
“Hold fast to Christ, to His Word, to His name, “ he said. “In doing this [you] cannot go wrong.”
West agreed, noting that “Jesus Christ” is what makes Union special.
“It’s his house,” he said. “And His name is to be lifted up. If anything is special about anybody or anyplace, it finds its root and its purpose and its cause in God. And it’s through Christ that we have our strength.”
Source: Philadelphia Tribune | Samaria Bailey