Community Voices

Neighbors in Religion: Coconut Grove church readies for 100th anniversary celebration

Bea L. Hines
Bea L. Hines

I believe some things, like our traditional black churches, are worth preserving. Back in the day, the church is where the majority of blacks went to find solace in a time of turmoil and injustice. It was a place where neighbors met for fellowship and social gatherings; a place for Sunday afternoon picnics and potluck dinners; where friendships were made and nurtured for years.

St. James Baptist Church of Coconut Grove, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary during the month of January, is such a church.

The church was founded in 1916 by a group of Bahamian settlers who met in a small frame building in the area of the parking lot of the present church. Led by the Rev. Samuel Higgs, the church was first called Second Baptist Church, but Higgs later changed the name to St. James Missionary Baptist Church.

The church was born during the height of the Ku Klux Klan era. And because Higgs was active in the Marcus Garvey movement and a known activist in the Bahamian community, he became a target of harassment from the racist KKK. Because of the threats on his life, Higgs soon moved back to the Bahamas and in January 1917, the Rev. Samuel Demeritte, one of the founding members, became pastor.

By 1926, construction on a new brick building was started. But before the new edifice could be completed, it was demolished by the destructive 1926 hurricane.

The dedicated group of Bahamians wouldn’t let even the strong winds of a hurricane defeat their efforts to build a church. In 1927, construction was started on the new building.

Following Demeritte’s death in 1928, the church was home to three other pastors from 1928 through 1932. Still, the church thrived, becoming the center for local organizations such as the Queen Esther Lodge and the Silvertone Singing Convention.

In 1935, another hurricane partially demolished the church and the present sanctuary was erected, with additions and improvements being made over the years.

From 1936 through 1985, eight pastors were called to the church, including the Rev. J.J. Knowles, who was called twice — in 1936 and again in 1947.

During that time, Gustavis Martin and his wife, Cherry, moved from the Bahamas to Coconut Grove with their children. Gustavis served the church as a deacon until he died nine years ago. Cherry Martin, at 95, is the oldest living member of the church and unable to be interviewed. Reynold, one of the Martins’ children, remembered growing up in the church.

He remembers that although there were not a lot of members, it was a close-knit congregation. “That church nourished me and my siblings. And now it is nourishing my three children. They all got their foundations at St. James,” Martin said.

Martin said he left the church for a while in the late 1960s, when he attended college. “But I am still a member ... I’m still there because of the foundation I got at the church as a child.”

In 1969, the Rev. Fred R. McClendon became the pastor of the church and served until he retired in 1984 due to poor health. In March 1985, the Rev. Alphonso Jackson Sr. was called to be the pastor and served the church until 2000, when the current pastor, the Rev. Kenton L. Williams took the reigns.

Born in Clewiston, Fla, Williams had served as an associate minister at Antioch Baptist Church in Miami Gardens before becoming interim pastor at Covenant Baptist Church in Florida City, where he served two years.

“When I wasn’t selected to be the pastor at Covenant Baptist, I joined St. James,” he said recently. “Now I believe it was the will of God for me not to become the pastor of covenant. St. James is where I belong.”

As spiritual leader of a church in West Grove, where there is an abundance of wealth as well as high crime, Williams said his work is cut out for him. “When I became the pastor of this church, there was a surge in membership. Now, there is a decline,” he said. “The church has to be a reflection of the community and I know that we have to change our method of ministering to the people, while keeping the mandate of the Master.”

Williams said while being the pastor of St. James is a challenge, he is excited about its 100th anniversary. He believes that in the coming years, the status of the church can be turned around.

“We are going to have to do more outreach and even change our style of worship to fuse the traditional with the contemporary,” Williams said. “This church has been a part of this community for a century. That’s a long time to have your roots in one place. As a place of worship, the community and the church needs to strengthen our roots. That’s a big job in itself.”

Williams said he prays that the 100th anniversary celebration will help everyone see how valuable the church has been and is to the community. He said he has invited the city officials to join in the celebration. “This church has been a big part of the city’s growth. They should celebrate with us.”

The month-long anniversary celebration will begin at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 8, with a praise-and-worship service.

At 5 p.m. Jan. 9, there will be a Youth Explosion with Betty Davis, meteorologist for Channel 10 News, serving as the mistress of ceremonies.

The schedule for the rest of the month-long celebration will follow in another column.

For more information, call the church office at 305-443-4440; program chairwoman Betty Kinsey at 786-712-9697; or Sherrill Martin at 305-301-3256.

BAPTIST CHURCH GETS NEW PASTOR

A warm goodbye goes out to the Rev. Saint-Louis Felix, who is retiring as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Baptist Church, one of the largest congregations in the South Florida Haitian-American community. Felix has been a minister for 65 years.

His son, the Rev. Dr. Keny Felix, will be installed as the new minister at 10 a.m. on Dec. 27 at the church, 17601 NW Second Ave. in Miami Gardens.

During his long career as a minister, St. Louis Felix led congregations in Haiti and Guadeloupe before coming to the United States. For the past 35 years, he served as the senior pastor at Bethel Evangelical Baptist, where he is also known for his commitment to supporting the Haitian refugees during the height of the immigration crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

According to information from the church, Bethel grew “tremendously” under his tenure as senior pastor. The church, which started in a small room at another church, now runs several ministries and owns a $4 million historic landmark which once housed the Cloverleaf Bowling alley. , but has been as high as 1,200.

The young Rev. Felix is a graduate of the University of Miami and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He comes back to Miami after having served as dean of schools of counseling and psychology and assistant professor at Richmont Graduate University in Atlanta. In addition to being a minister and professor, Felix is a licensed mental health counselor.

In addition to Felix being installed at the spiritual leader of the church, the Rev. Alain Boucard will be installed as pastor of Adult Discipleship and Outreach, and the Rev. Clement Chery will be installed as the pastor of Student Ministries and Administration. The retiring pastor will be bestowed the title of pastor emeritus.

NEW YEAR’S EVE BURNING BOWL

The annual New Year’s Eve Burning Bowl Ceremony at The Universal Truth Center for Better Living, will be at 6 and 9 p.m. on Dec. 31 at the church, 21310 NW 37th Ave. in Miami Gardens.

The service is an effort for those attending to learn how to leave any unhealthy habits, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in the past and “courageously move forward into a healthier spiritual, mental and physical way of living.”

The community is invited to the church, which, according to a news release, is a metaphysical new thought church for thinkers.

On Jan. 4, the church start its winter term for its Better Living classes. Registration is now open and will end two weeks after the start of classes, which are designed to help participants develop and grow so they can learn to live a life that works.

Classes are held once a week on various days and times and will last about 12 weeks. Some classes are free, while others cost a small, one-time registration fee. A certificate of completion will be issued to those who attend and finish the course.

Call the church at 305-624-4991 to register and for more information.

CHRISTMAS DAY LITURGY

The Rev. Fr. Andrij Romankiv invites the community to the Assumption of the BVM Ukrainian Catholic Church as it celebrates Christmas with a Liturgy and full choir performing traditional Ukrainian carols.

The service starts at 10:30 a.m. Christmas Day and all are welcome. The church is at 39 NW 57th Ct. Call 786-592-1563 for more information.

Send all items at least two weeks in advance to Religion Notes, c/o Neighbors, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Doral, FL 33172 or email bea.hines@gmail.com. Pictures are accepted but cannot be returned.

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