For the most part, the oldest landmarks are gone. The bayou-side brush arbor never was meant to last, and the old “Baptist Hill,” site of a wooden box-like chapel, now is occupied by the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
Antioch Missionary Baptist Church, though, never really was about buildings anyway, despite its current imposing Clay Street home. Antioch, its members will tell you, always focused on the soul.
Next month, Antioch, Houston’s oldest African-American Baptist congregation, will mark its 150th anniversary with a gala of celebrating leaders of the city’s black community and a rousing affirmation of faith manifest in preaching, prayer and song.
“It speaks of the resilience, the courage and faith of free slaves who had no direction to look to but to God,” Antioch’s pastor, the Rev. O.B. Winkley, told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1lQc0mv ) of the coming celebration. “We today are living their legacy. We keep the same faith. We have an intense thankfulness to God.”
Founded by a score of worshippers just months after the Civil War’s close, Antioch for generations would prove an anchor to Houston’s African-American community.
“The people who started this church believed in education, property ownership, stability and moral character,” said Camilla Jackson, chair of its heritage committee.
While its early pastors were traveling clergy or formally associated with other congregations, Antioch found a man who embodied those values in John Henry “Jack” Yates, who, around 1868, became the church’s first elected, full-time preacher. Today, his progressive spirit still is felt and his stern visage looks down on worship services from a second-story, stained-glass window.
“My great-grandfather obviously was a visionary,” said Martha Anne Goddard, a Yates descendant active in the church. “He always led by example. That meant that what he said was how he lived. That meant that what you saw was pretty much what you got.”
Like many of his successors, Yates, a literate Virginia-born former slave who came to Houston at the Civil War’s close, was both man of God and an astute secular leader.
With the help of teaching missionaries, he oversaw the creation of Houston Baptist Academy, the city’s first school for African-Americans. The academy, which taught reading, writing, mathematics and vocational skills, later became Houston College for Negroes, which, church historians said, was a precursor to today’s Texas Southern University.
Under Yates’ direction, Antioch in 1872 joined with Methodist Episcopal Church to buy land in the city’s Third Ward for Emancipation Park, a tree-shaded enclave for the enjoyment of African-American residents.
In 1879, Yates supervised the church’s move to its present location at 500 Clay St. – initially a one-story structure designed and built by church members. The chapel, enlarged with a second story in 1895, was the first brick building owned by black Houstonians. Today, the Gothic revival structure with the words “Jesus Saves” emblazoned on its belfry is surrounded by skyscrapers on the edge of the rapidly changing Fourth Ward “Freedmen’s Town.”
In terms of growth, Antioch from the beginning was a veritable rocket for Christ. In its earliest years, membership grew in quantum leaps. By the beginning of the 1930s, membership stood at almost 2,000, drawing the faithful from every quadrant of the city. Today, said Winkley, the church, which offers a Sunday morning worship service and Wednesday and Thursday Bible study, claims about 300 members.
Its theology is resolutely evangelistic.
“Our primary aim is to recover the lost, reach for the fallen and rejoice with the saints,” its Web page notes, adding that it purveys a “Christ centered” message that delivers, strengthens, embraces and “keeps” its members.
“This church was always a leader in the Houston community,” Jackson said. “Most of the significant things that happened in this city, Antioch was part of it.”
The church was the religious home to many of the city’s black leaders.
In 1907, church member and businessman John Bell played a major role in creation of the city’s first public library for African-Americans. His leadership in the National Negro Business League, a group headed by Booker T. Washington, assured Houston’s place in national black leadership circles.
In 1918, church member Dr. Henry Lee joined other community leaders in building Union Hospital, the first such medical facility for black patients and physicians.
In the early 1930s, Houston teacher and Antioch member Lula White began working in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Houston chapter to abolish Texas’ notorious “white primary” law, a Jim Crow-era device to bar black participation in public governance.
In 1939, she became president of Houston’s NAACP chapter, a position she held seven years. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down white primaries in 1944, White became active in educating new black voters. In 1949 she became director of the Texas NAACP.
In 1971, Houston architect and church member John Chase fought to open his profession’s doors to other people of color by co-founding the National Organization of Minority Architects.
Chase, the first African-American to receive an architecture degree from the University of Texas, arrived in Houston in the 1950s to join the faculty of TSU. After repeated rebuffs from the local architecture community, he founded his own firm, and later became the first black person admitted to the Houston Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and to the Texas Society of Architects. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter named him to the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. He was the first black person to serve in the position.
His firm’s commissions included the George R. Brown Convention Center, TSU’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law and the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia.
Beyond the role of members in shaping life in Houston, Antioch was a regular stop for traveling celebrities.
Among those who made a point of visiting the congregation were civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, Houston-born U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan and fabled contralto Marian Anderson.
While the “firsts” achieved by church members are significant, for Goddard, Jackson and other members of the Antioch’s congregation, the church’s real value lies in its religious foundation.
“My family has been blessed by this church,” Goddard said. “We have been through many trials and storms, and God has seen us through it all. I would like to envision this church as still providing the spiritual nourishment that our community needs. We believe in Christ. He is our guide. He put us here for a reason, and it’s to bring other souls to him.”
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com
SOURCE: Associated Press – Allan Turner