Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Eric Dejuan
In the 1960s, Dorothy Purdue and her six children would set out their “Sunday best” shoes and clothes on Saturday night so they would be ready to catch the church bus the next morning. After all, they had family to see. Like many before and after them, opening the doors of their church meant walking into a warmth they’d feel immediately.
Purdue, 82, has been a part of Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church for 60 of its 151 years—long enough to tie church history to the birth of her children. Her oldest was a year old when she first got on the church bus to go to Pleasant Hill in 1956, and her sixth and youngest was born the year the church moved in 1964 to its current location between Tarrant and Roebuck, within sight distance of the home she has lived in for 60 years now.
Having grown up in a Methodist church “in the country” south of Montgomery, Pleasant Hill’s small size and traditional service instantly felt like home to Purdue. Nestled back in the woods, the wooden building housed a church service on the second and fourth Sunday; on the other weeks the pastor was at another church in the area, also just like in the country. Purdue, like many before her, was baptized in the creek that ran by the church. On special Sundays, they would bring baskets and boxes of food to share with everyone. There was no bathroom inside, and they relied on a coal heater in the winter.
Like many black churches, Pleasant Hill first came into being in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in 1863. In 1865, 11 African Americans left Ruhama Baptist Church, a white church in East Lake, to start their own place of worship, then called Blue Springs Missionary Baptist. The log structure had an open fireplace, and the first pastor, Father Henry Wood, rode two days on a mule from Talladega to get there. Today, the original church’s cemetery is still there, a few miles from the building on Lawson Road where it moved in as the population had shifted.
“The African-American church has always been [a pillar of hope],” says Rev. Philip Parks, the church’s current pastor. “Slaves and freed men had a place they could come to be equal, and a God they could glorify. The old church used to have a slogan, ‘Hold your hope,’ so if you hold on to what you believe in Christ, it’s going to be alright.”
Since its founding, the church has seen history from the front lines. Reconstruction happened. The Great Migration of black people from the South to North from 1890 to 1930 happened. The African-American church grew. Jim Crow did its best to subvert hard-won rights in the South. The Civil Rights Movement happened. An airport was built just streets away from the church’s neighborhood. Through it all, Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church had the same motto: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
Like the first Sunday Purdue walked in its doors back in 1956, today the church is still small, with fewer than 100 members. It’s still traditional. It’s still a family. But some things look different and feel different than Parks and Purdue remember from back in the day. “We shared and cared more than we do now,” Purdue says, reminiscing. Back then, most of the people in the church lived right around it, but as driving further away has become the way of life, now many come from further away and the streets around the building only have a sprinkling of church members.
When Parks first arrived at the church 20 years ago, most of the congregation was age 65 and older. Church pillar Hannah Horton arrived every Sunday at 7 a.m. After that, she would say, everyone else was late, even though Sunday School, the first event of the morning, started at 9:30 a.m. She drove herself there at 5 miles per hour every Sunday until three weeks before her death at age 96 a decade ago. “All she had was this church,” Parks says. “You don’t have that no more.” Now, the church sees, there are many other things in life competing for people’s devotion, and many church members don’t come every Sunday. Parks draws a contrast to how it was when the church was “the center of the lives of African-Americans at that time.”
Today a lot of children who grew up in Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist have left Birmingham for cities like Dallas or Atlanta “because of economic reasons,” Parks says. Three of Purdue’s children live out of town, and one in town goes to a “huge” church. Church member Ashley Rogers’ older brother, age 32, and sister, age 30, moved to Las Vegas and Dallas, respectively, for jobs. Still, Rogers, 26, said the same encouragement her sister found in the church growing up that helped her decide to move is what keeps Rogers coming back herself.
“They instilled a drive in her to pursue greater job growth and to be all that she could be that put her where she is now,” Rogers says. “For any venture or anything you are trying to do, they are always there to keep you encouraged and keep you uplifted about it. You gain a lot of wisdom from members of the church.” When Rogers went off to college, the church gave her dorm bedding supplies, and now that she’s back in town working in communications for the Birmingham Business Alliance, she spends time with the church’s youth teaching them about their heritage and encouraging them to be all they can be, just as others did for her.
Like the encouragement Rogers sees, other aspects of the church remain the same as the past. Parks and Purdue both use the word “traditional” to describe the church over and over again. They still sing some of Purdue’s favorite hymns: “Amazing Grace,” “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” They still foot stomp and clap their hands in praise. “There’s nothing like old hymns out of the old book,” Purdue says. On the first and third Sunday of the month, adult choir sings. “I love singing the praises,” choir member Dorothy Frieson says. “If we can touch someone through our songs, then that’s a wonderful thing.” As a family, they share Sunday suppers that feel like Thanksgiving, only without the turkey. “How are you going to have a Baptist church without chicken?” Parks says, laughing.
Parks still preaches about what he thinks should be shared from the Bible. He says it’s not 100 percent fire and brimstone, but it is 85 percent. “Very few large churches preach about hell, preach about sin, preach about immorality, because (if) you make the crowd mad, the crowd doesn’t show up next week,” Parks says. “I preach about things pertinent to people’s lives, that attack the weaknesses they have, and if they are willing to accept the message and make the change, then they will be better. But if you don’t do that, you just get a better crowd.”
And everybody still knows everybody. With the small size, Parks says he can put his hands on everyone, and anyone can call him on his cell phone if they need him. “When anybody’s out, they are missed,” Purdue says. “I try to call them if I can.” In fact, for the church’s 150th anniversary celebration last year, Purdue called up all the children she knows who grew up in the church and live elsewhere now, and most of them came. There is now, of course, a group photo to document the day.
Like always, you will see far more women than men at the church on Sunday mornings, and all the church’s musicians are female. That, Parks says, is the way it’s always been for the black Baptist church, even if it’s not the way they want it to stay. “That’s something we are trying to work on now is getting more young men in the church,” he says. “It’s just almost impossible to get a young man in the church anymore. I don’t want to say it’s the video games, but it’s the lack of interest or parents not challenging or bringing their kids to church. There’s so much violence and disruptive activity [that it’s hard for them] to sit down and listen.”
Usually it’s around ages eight to 10 when boys stop coming to church, and as it’s been for years, it’s even harder when they get their first jobs and start working on weekends. The youth choir only has two boys in it. But still, Parks’ voice raises with joy as he talks about having a good number of middle and high school students in the church. “When they are here, they are very excited and energetic,” he says. “We have the youth choir. They love to sing and love to dance. They are just vibrant. You have to have that young blood within your church to keep it in step.”
Frieson remembers when she herself was a third grader singing at church. Today she might not live right up the road like she did as child, but she doesn’t give a second thought to driving from where she lives in Irondale on Sundays and Wednesdays, just as Rogers doesn’t about driving from Liberty Park. It’s their church, after all. “We are just a loving church,” Frieson says. “We’re just a church on the side of the road, that’s what we call ourselves.”
When Parks preaches to his church on Sundays, he sees both the church Frieson remembers from her childhood and the one whose choir she still sings in at the same time. “The church is still a pillar of hope, a beacon of light, a citadel of righteousness, the body of Christ,” he says. “The church is a wonderful institution. We have been spoiled, we have been polluted. We’ve endured a lot the last 50 years, especially the black Baptist church, but we are still recognizable in our community and we are vital.”
Tags: january 2017