For decades, generations of Huntington residents have risen early on Sunday mornings to worship at Bethel A.M.E. Church, one of the oldest in town and the first to serve an African-American congregation.
Incorporated in 1843, the small, white wood-frame building, rich with Colonial revival and gothic details, sits atop a hill on Park Avenue, across from Huntington Hospital. The church, in the town’s Old Huntington Green Historic District, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
As it has for almost two centuries, Bethel — which means house of God — comes alive each week with music, praise and worship, a central part of the lives of its 178 members.
“We’re a devoted, loving, close-knit, family-focused and oriented church,” said the Rev. Larry D. Jennings Sr., pastor for the past eight years and the church’s 33rd leader. “It’s a welcoming, loving place.”
The congregation began celebrating its 172nd anniversary with services and celebrations that kicked off in November.
Members of the congregation include those whose family roots in town date to the post-Civil War era.
Known as “Bethel” in the shorthand, or “the church on the hill,” and affectionately referred to as “she” by Jennings, the church has also been both a gathering place and refuge in and out of the building.
Willie Cooley, 84, has attended Bethel since 1959, after arriving in Huntington from Alabama. She said she immediately found a kinship and fellowship with other members she described as interesting and progressive.
Cooley said the church is a calming presence even when she’s not there. Over the years she has had several operations at Huntington Hospital, and said seeing her beloved church out the window as she recuperates gives her peace.
“One thing about the church on the hill, I could look out at the cross and get an uplift,” Cooley said. “For those who believe in God, to see it is comforting and reaffirming.”
Bethel was built by people who worked in the brickyards in what is now Lloyd Harbor, and by those in agricultural labor or who worked as chauffeurs, cooks and domestics. For its first 60 years, it was the only church in town for African-Americans.
Those who have walked through its sanctuary over the decades include educator and orator Booker T. Washington, who taught Sunday school at the church. Washington was a former slave who went on to found Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, and was the first African-American to dine at the White House.
Paul Robeson, the singer and actor who later became involved with the civil rights movement, gave a fundraising concert at and for the church in 1946.
Noteworthy members include community activist Dolores Thompson, mother of the town’s second African-American town board member, and the late Samuel Ballton, an entrepreneur in Greenlawn who became known as the “Pickle King” after selling 1.5 million pickles in one season. Ballton’s great-great grandson, Richard Robertson III, was the town’s first black police officer. Thomas Watkins was a Buffalo Soldier, a member of the storied all-black infantry units that helped liberate Italy in 1944 during World War II. When he died in 2012 at the age of 94, he was thought to have been the last Buffalo Soldier veteran on Long Island.
“We have always been an integral part of this community,” said the Rev. Jennings.
‘Not built to keep anyone out’
The A.M.E. — African Methodist Episcopal — denomination was founded in 1787 in Philadelphia by Richard Allen, and was formally organized in 1816. Allen founded the church in the city after a discriminatory incident at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church, which allowed blacks to worship as long as they remained in a separate gallery. One Sunday, Allen witnessed two black congregants who had been praying at the altar get pulled away and told they could not worship there. As a result, members of the Free African Society — which Allen co-founded and which provided economic, educational, spiritual and other aid to blacks — decided to turn the society into their own congregation.
There are hundreds of A.M.E. churches across the world. Bethel A. M. E. Huntington is part of a network of 22 churches in the Jamaica-Long Island district.
Jeanette T. Johns, the church’s unofficial historian and wife of one of its former pastors, the Rev. Clarence B. Johns Jr., who served from 1991 to 2003, said being a part of local history is an important and empowering responsibility. She said a church is not just a building, but its people, and that the congregation is open and welcoming to all.
“Please don’t be fooled by the ‘A’ in our name,” said Johns, of Farmingdale. “The A.M.E. church is a product of the times in which we lived when it was established. It was not built to keep anyone out; it was necessary for us to have our own church.”
The year after the Huntington church was incorporated, the congregation purchased property on Park Avenue, including a building that had been used as a Sunday school by the Huntington Methodist Church. In 1924, the current building was constructed.
In 2006, with a tightening financial outlook and uncertainty over the future of the church property, it was put on the market and the congregation rented a larger, modern facility in Huntington Station. But it didn’t sell, and two years later the congregation returned to Huntington.
“I was happy to return home,” said Beatrice Rodgers, who has attended Bethel since the late 1930s. “It brought back memories of when I was a child attending with my parents at night service. It wasn’t the same at the other place, and I missed it.”
This year, Old Huntington Green Inc., a community group charged with preserving the character of the neighborhood where the church sits, will apply for grants to restore a dozen of Bethel’s 13 stained-glass windows.
“The church windows have been in awful shape for some time through no fault of the congregation, and they are deteriorating,” said Paul Warburgh, president of the group. “So we will apply for as many grants as possible, including the state’s Sacred Site grants. Right now we are waiting for an appraisal on the windows, which was just completed.”
At a celebration in November, the Rev. Jennings said about a dozen “bedrock” families were honored for their connection and dedication to Bethel.
He said the future is bright for the congregation to set the stage for the next generation of worshippers.
“I see the church moving to another level, continuing her involvement and connection to the community,” the pastor said. “She will increase her involvement in social activities and helping those challenged with such things as housing issues; she is a life member of NAACP; we’ll continue to be in the forefront of fighting for equality for all persons, but particularly African-Americans.”
Rodgers said she hopes Bethel’s next generations come to love the church as much as she does.
“If I don’t go I feel as though I am missing something,” she said. “I just love the church and the people who make it up. It’s family.”