Sunday services at Allen Chapel AME Church felt like a homecoming at times for Ann Williams, who spent years following her husband as he reported for duty at one Army base after another.
"I visited a lot of churches during my travels but I never got the same feeling I would get when I came home," said Williams, 72, who returned to Plant City for good in 1982. "It was like reconnecting and finding out how the church had grown."
Through the industrial revolution and the jazz age, the Great Depression and Great Recession and spanning the civil rights era, Allen Chapel at 1109 E Laura St. stuck to its calling, ministering to generations of worshippers through baptisms, weddings, funerals, prayer meetings, picnics and Sunday services.
Sunday marks another milestone for the storied African Methodist Episcopal church, one of the oldest in the city: It will turn 120 years old. The celebration, or "Founders Day," will occur over two days.
The church stages a rap-gospel concert Saturday and welcomes a guest speaker, the Rev. Orenthia Miller, on Sunday. The program also will include a special musical program from the choir.
Allen Chapel's pastor, the Rev. Ricky A. Polk, said the church's history mirrors that of the community it served. Not just a respite on Sunday mornings, Allen Chapel served as a meeting place where members floated and debated the day's issues, spiritual and otherwise.
The church proved a refuge during turbulent times. Worried mothers and grandmothers sought a comforting word there, and many in the community turned to Allen Chapel amid day-to-day struggles and cultural and political changes.
Simply put, "It was our church in the black community," said Allen Chapel stewardess Eddie Mae Mitchell, 68, who helped organize Founders Day.
Polk, 55, said black churches traditionally filled roles of spiritual and social healer because they served as the only refuge for many blacks.
"That's all we had was the church," he said.
Allen Chapel played that role too, weathering changes as the community around it changed.
The church's current site is its third. Allen Chapel started at a home on Lake Street, then moved to donated land on Laura. It relocated to Laura and Warnell streets in the 1920s, Mitchell said. The pale-blue stucco building was renovated in the late 1990s.
Through it all, its focus of saving souls stayed the same.
"Really, it's a haven," said Mitchell, who has attended services there for nearly 60 years. "It's where we came together and worshipped and served the community by helping those in need, the poor and taking care of the sick, but most of all by saving the unsaved."
The challenge now as Polk sees it is to save a young, unchurched generation heavily influenced by music, video games, TV and movies.
He's having some success. Since Polk, who was born and raised in Plant City, became pastor two years ago, church attendance is up by about 100 members, including many who had left but returned.
He attributed the boost to prayer and steady preaching. He also pointed to a spiritual hunger among some young people.
Getting them to persevere in their faith is the real challenge, Polk said.
"We're not trying to make people just join the church," he said. "We're trying to make disciples."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.