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Copiague's Bethel AME Church, oldest African-American church on Long Island, celebrates 200 years

Rev. Patricia Ware of Copiague participates in service

Rev. Patricia Ware of Copiague participates in service at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Oct. 25, 2015. Photo Credit: Raychel Brightman

Copiague's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, regarded as the oldest African-American church on Long Island, will celebrate its bicentennial Saturday with an evening gala at Crest Hollow Country Club in Woodbury.

With its deep roots, Bethel has been an institution of community and religious life for generations of African-Americans and American Indians on the South Shore and beyond. It has hosted meetings of the NAACP and of the Boy Scouts, provided day care for young children and meals for the elderly.

Soon, under the leadership of its pastor, Keith Hayward, it will broaden its mission to include affordable housing by building and renovating homes to rent to low-income single mothers.

"We are a not a weekend operation," Hayward said in an interview last week. "We're a seven-day operation."

The church originated in the Bible classes a few of the faithful held in 1815 in their homes, located near what would become Amityville Village. Years passed before the congregation got its first pastor, Benjamin Bates, who is said to have walked from Jamaica, Queens, every Sunday before worshippers pooled money to buy him a horse.

There wasn't even a church building until 1850, when a simple white clapboard structure was built on Albany Avenue. The current church building, larger and modern, stands on Simmons Street and serves about 345 people.

The first worshippers had names like Squires, Bunn and Green, said Babylon Town historian Mary Cascone. They farmed and worked in hotels near the beaches or small factories that stretched from Amityville toward Lindenhurst.

Some, like the Squires and Brewsters, were descendants of Long Island's American Indians. Some were likely descendants of slaves or were themselves formerly enslaved, said Lynda Day, chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, who wrote about Bethel in her book "Making a Way to Freedom: A History of African Americans on Long Island."

"The church is an important center, for community life, for connection, social networks, belonging," Day said.

Some members of the congregation trace their families' involvement to the beginning, like Mildred Simpson, 78, Bates' great-great-grandaughter, and Theresa Brewster Bedford, 76, a descendant of the original Brewsters and of the Leftenants, who moved from North Carolina in the early 1920s.

They were born into the church and never left it. Bedford watched her grandfather leave the house early to build a fire at the church before services on winter Sundays. She decorated the altar with corn stalks and pumpkins for harvest festivals as a girl. Her marriage filled the old church. Her children's christenings were held there.

"We took great pride in the church, in seeing everything was in place," she said. "It's been that way throughout my life."

A retired social worker who was called to the ministry in 1996 and has preached at Bethel and in missionary programs around the world, Bedford said her experience at the church has been formative. "I was really groomed for leadership, teaching, training," she said.

Hayward, 55, said he wants the church to do more of that in coming years. "Our major concern is the health and development of our community," he said. His most pressing goals include ensuring that every member of the congregation has a job, owns a home and has an education, he said.

That's work for what Simpson called "the younger generation." Her own needs are simpler, she said: "As long as I can attend my church, and I can get a scripture and a sermon, I'm happy."

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