Reserve church celebrates 150 years

Published 12:11 am Saturday, October 17, 2015

RESERVE — A local Baptist church is gearing up for an important anniversary.

Bethlehem Missionary Baptist Church, located at 147 East 20th St. in Reserve, is celebrating 150 years of worship. The current pastor is Rev. Forell Bering Sr.

The current church was built in 2006 across the street from the second church built in 1967 that was destroyed in a storm.

Vadie Nelson has been a member of Bethlehem since 2009,  and has researched much of the church’s history.

“What I’ve found out is that the church was founded in 1865, which was the same year the Civil War and slavery ended,” Nelson said. “The church was founded by Rev. Dennis Burrell. I did some research for the anniversary, because it’s a milestone, and I found out he was the first African American State Representative for St. John Parish. He was elected in 1868.”

Nelson also said Burrell served as a delegate to re-write the state constitution, adding he was a former slave.

“Representative Burrell was first elected to the State Assembly to re-write the constitution after the Civil War and the succession,” said State Rep. Randal L. Gaines, D-LaPlace. “They had to re-write the state constitution to get back into the union. Burrell was elected from St. John as a delegate in 1867 for the re-write.

“Then in 1868 he was elected as the State Representative from St. John and served until 1870.”

Gaines said he was the first black resident elected to the position since the post Civil War reconstruction.

Gaines said he has been attending Bethlehem since 1998.

“It was one of the first churches for free slaves in Reserve,” he said. “The church survived all this time and it’s still thriving.”

The current State Representative was the head of the building committee that re-built the current church. Gaines said he didn’t know about the historical connection when he was asked to lead the building committee or when he ran for office in 2000. He recently found out a year ago after doing some research.

“It comes with an obligation to serve and make sure the church continues to be a beacon of light for the community and to thrive,” Gaines said.

The church has big plans for the celebration of 150 years.
“The anniversary will be held on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 3 p.m.,” Nelson said. “We are going to have a march first; a historic march that will start at 2:15.”

Participants will march two blocks to the church, where there will be a ribbon cutting.

“Then the anniversary program will start,” Nelson said. “The church history is going to be re-enacted, so we will have a play. We’ve had 11 pastors at Bethlehem over the 150 years; so 11 men will portray the pastors and tell the history.”

Music will be provided by the Bethlehem Anniversary Choir directed by minister of music Melvin Adams Sr. and Rev. Johnnie Magee Jr. from the First Baptist Church in Vacherie will be the guest speaker. Being part of the oldest African American church is Reserve means a lot to Bethlehem attendees like Ann Harvey.

“I’ve been attending Bethlehem for 24 and a half years,” Harvey said. “It’s awesome to be part of this historical event. I was part of the dream team that built the new edifice. It’s gratifying to know that I can do and assist with the work of the Lord.”

According to Nelson, everyone is invited to attend the celebration Nov. 22 at the church.

By Raquel Derganz Baker