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Tallahassee's Bethel Missionary celebrates 152 years

Valerie Crowder
Rev. Tracy Ellis of Charlotte, N.C. delivers a sermon during the 152nd anniversary service at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, FL on Sunday, Oct. 23, 2022. Ellis is senior pastor at Good Hope AME Zion Church in Camden, S.C.

One of Tallahassee's oldest predominantly African American churches is celebrating its 152-year legacy.

"It’s a beacon here on this corner," said Bethel Missionary Baptist Church's Chairman of the Board of Deacons James Mathews. "It’s still going, and it will be here another one-hundred and fifty-two.”

In 1870, the first congregation began meeting. The church played an active role during the Civil Rights movement under the leadership of Rev. C.K. Steele. Throughout the church's history, a number of Civil Rights leaders have visited and spoken behind the pulpit, said Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., who's led the church for 36 years.

"Coretta Scott King, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Dick Gregory, Mohammed Ali," Holmes said. "The list is huge of men and women who came here."

Today the church provides a variety of community services, including affordable housing to seniors, a mobile medical unit, a mental health clinic, housing for low-income families and a Christian school.

"We're here to serve humanity," Holmes said. "We're here to make a difference. And that's what makes Bethel great."

Celebrating a legacy of serving youth

In addition to Bethel Christian Academy, the church offers an after-school mentorship program for boys called "Respect Yourself."

Ten-year-old Freddie Gaines, a student at Astoria Park Elementary School, says the program has helped him.

Erich Martin
Rev. RB Holmes Jr. poses with Freddie Gaines (right) and another member of the youth at Bethel Missionary Baptist Church's 152nd anniversary service.

"I first did not know how to listen. I would always talk back," he said. "I'm respectful now, and I was barely respectful. I used to get into a lot of fights, but now I don't because now I know what to do: Having a problem? Walk away or try to fix it by being respectful."

Gaines says his favorite part of the program is working with college student mentors.

The church also founded the now-closed Steele-Collins Charter School in the 1990s. That school was the first charter school established in the city.


Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Rev. Tracy Ellis is from Ft. Lauderdale. Ellis lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Valerie Crowder hosts and produces state and local newscasts during All Things Considered. Her reporting on local government and politics has received state and regional award recognition. She has also contributed stories to NPR newscasts.