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Historic Bethel AME Church celebrates family and friends week

  • Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jim Tatum/Journal Scene Rev. Johnny Byrd shows the Bible that survived the 2005 fire that destroyed the entire sanctuary.

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Bethel AME Church’s Family and Friends Week kicks off this evening and the public is invited to join the celebration.

The church, founded in 1868, is taking this opportunity to reach out to the community as well as honor people connected to the church’s storied past.

“We’ve put a new twist on it,” Rev. Johnny Byrd, the church’s current pastor said. “The theme is ‘Reflecting on the Past but Looking Forward to the Future.’ We want to honor the names of those who have contributed so much to this church. Those names should never be forgotten. And Bethel has a history that should never be forgotten.”

The church has much to celebrate, Byrd noted. For one, the fact that it has literally risen from the ashes – twice – says much about the congregation’s faith and its resilience. The church, founded in 1868, started, as so many did in the years right after the Civil War, as a “bush hopper,” Byrd said.

“Back then, black people weren’t allowed a place to worship,” he said. “So the church was a “bush hopper” – they would hold these tent meetings out in the “bushes” – they gathered wherever they could.”

Bethel moved into its first sanctuary, not far from where the present sanctuary is today, in 1884. That building was destroyed by fire in 1938; a new brick building was built and dedicated in 1941.

Then just a few years ago, in 2005, history repeated itself. This sanctuary, too, was destroyed by fire, Byrd said.

“There were two things that miraculously weren’t lost,” Byrd said. “One was the original plaque dedicating the Fellowship Hall, which was named for Rev. Josh William and Lucille Gadsden, who we will be honoring during Family and Friends Week.”

The other – pulled unscathed from the smoldering ashes of the sanctuary – was the church’s Bible, he said.

The present sanctuary was built in 2007, with its first service held March 11, 2007, Byrd said.

As a part of those efforts to remember those who have gone before and contributed greatly, the church will place a plaque in the conference room honoring Rev. Josh William and Lucille Gadsden and a plaque in the Stewardess Room honoring Sister Dorothy Simmons, Byrd said. The church will also honor Joseph and Edna Noisette and Brother Jordan Simmons.

Simmons was the builder of the church after the sanctuary burned in 1938; Joseph Noisette was the builder of the Gadsden Education Building in 1980, Byrd said.

“There are a lot of people who have made contributions to the church called Bethel, and we cannot forget their names,” he said.

At the same time, the church is also seeking to grow its membership. To that end, the church is becoming more involved in community events as well as inviting the community to come worship and take part in special events such as this one, Byrd said. The church is also trying to reach out to the youth in the community.

“They are different, they see things differently,” he said. “We need to get them involved.”

Family and Friends Week starts Aug. 13 at Bethel AME Church, 407 South Main Street Summerville. Services will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. A banquet will be held Saturday starting at 4 p.m.

Services will be held Sunday at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

For more information call 821-3622.

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