BROOKSVILLE — As Brooksville's oldest African-American congregation prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the pastor credits no one but the Lord for its longevity.
"It has been God all the way," said the Rev. Cecill Hubbert of Bethlehem Progressive Baptist Church.
The Brooksville City Council honored the congregation Monday with a proclamation recognizing the anniversary and the church's achievements. The County Commission plans to do the same.
On hand to receive the city proclamation were Hubbert, the church's pastor of 18 years, and three active members: Viennessee Black, Ruby Hart and Hattie Redding.
As noted in the framed document, the church has come a long way — not only in years, but also in overcoming trials and tribulations.
According to Hubbert, the theme for the anniversary celebration, "The Triumphant Church," aptly describes Bethlehem's journey from its roots as a group of African-American believers relegated to the gallery of a church used by slave masters, to a church segregated by choice, to a church that now opens its doors to people of every race.
A history put together by church members, including Black, in 2008 tells the story of the congregation's early days, dating to 1858, when the African-American membership of Union Baptist Church on Broad Street made application to hold communion services separate from those for the white members.
Until that time, the slave membership had attended church the third Sunday of each month. Gallery seating was provided, and a separate membership list was kept.
After their request was granted, says the history, black members felt the need to hold entire services separate from the white members. A building was provided for them in 1861, and the group eventually became Bethlehem Progressive Baptist Church, which by 1869 would be one of 15 black Baptist churches in the state that formed the Bethlehem Baptist Association.
The founding pastor was the Rev. Arthur St. Clair.
In 1911, the church trustees purchased a wooden building on S Lemon Avenue that had been the first school built in Brooksville.
"During this time, it was not unusual for school buildings to be used by churches and churches used by schools," adds the history provided by the church.
"Our current building on S Brooksville Avenue was built in 1961," said Black, who is a descendant of one of the church's former pastors.
While there are no written records from the tenures of several pastors, it is noteworthy that in 150 years, the church has had only 10 pastors.
"They had stalwart preachers who helped the church along, and for a black body of believers to have had just 10 pastors in their history, that's a sign of the hand of God being on them," Hubbert said.
"Bethlehem's earliest ministers must have been visionaries stationed there by God to lead his people," says the history. "Through hard trials and great tribulations, their faith and trust in the Lord enabled them to persevere. A firm foundation was laid. From 1861 to 2008, we have come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord."
One of the hardships endured by the church was the murder of St. Clair in 1877 after he presided over the marriage of a mixed-race couple in Brooksville. He had been a popular leader in the black community who worked to shatter racial barriers.
While both black and white people decried the murder, Hubbert said the incident, and others, caused hard feelings between the races that still linger.
"We're still trying to overcome these old grudges that people have against each other, as well as those who are Caucasian," Hubbert said. "I tell them to forget that. God is merciful. That should be passed over by now. You've got to forgive and forget and not continue to harbor ill feelings because of something that happened (more than) 100 years ago."
St. Clair was chosen as 2007's Great Brooksvillian.
Another deceased church member, Sarah Davis, was named last year's Great Brooksvillian in August because of her philanthropic service to the community and her work as a teacher.
"She was murdered in her home (in May 2010), and it was said to have been done by (a man) with a tattered past," Hubbert said. "It stirs up all kinds of feelings and emotions."
Until Hubbert became pastor, the church was having services only two Sundays a month. Old habits are hard to break, Hubbert said, and adjusting to having a service each week has been difficult for members.
For the most part, though, Hubbert says the church has progressed beyond its difficulties. There have been some splits in the congregation, but most of those were over missionary endeavors to reach more people.
Black pointed out that the church hosts community events, such as financial seminars, and offers tutoring programs and scholarships for graduating high school students.
"This summer we're hosting a seminar as a follow-up to the Sowing Hope conference we had in January," Black said. "Our church has progressed in terms of different services that we've instituted throughout the community."
Hubbert hopes the church will continue to grow in areas of service.
"I'd like to get it where people have an opportunity to go out and evangelize the community, where they are serving the community consistently throughout the week," he said.
Though the congregation of about 150 is largely African-American, there have been white members, and all races are welcome.
"If you come in our doors, you are welcome," Black said. "We're all God's children. It doesn't matter what your skin color is. The church belongs to the Lord. It's his church."
Hubbert wholeheartedly agreed.
"My hope is to bring the church to a full-circle environment," he said, "where people can have a real Christian community."