June 22, 2014 at 1:00 am

Bethel Baptist Church celebrates 150-year connection to Detroit

Bethel Baptist Church in St. Clair Shores is the North American Baptist Conference's oldest church in Metro Detroit. (Photos by Steve Perez / The Detroit News)

St. Clair Shores— A gray cornerstone embedded in Bethel Baptist Church’s front hallway stands as a stoic testament to the long history of a notable worship center.

The stony section was laid in 1888 at what became the second Detroit building for the church, which an ardent group of German immigrants founded nearly a quarter-century earlier. The piece and its metaphorical home have survived several relocations, decades of change, social upheavals — lovingly sustained by longtime supporters.

Today is the 150th anniversary of Bethel Baptist’s official launch — a milestone members have marked with a banquet, photo displays, visits to former sites and even recognition from politicians including Gov. Rick Snyder.

Like preserving parts of church history, celebrating the sesquicentennial is a solid, significant symbol to participants.

“It’s just amazing to think the church has been around that long,” said J. Robert Cosand, Bethel’s pastor since 1995.

Bethel is the North American Baptist Conference’s oldest church in Metro Detroit; only 13 other active ones among the more than 400 in the United States and Canada affiliated with the group are older, said Daniel Hamil, interim executive director and CEO.

“The remarkable nature of celebrating a Baptist church with 150 years of history serving the same community cannot be overstated,” he said. “Bethel Baptist Church, with a steady hand, a compassionate heart, and a clear mindset, has navigated 150 years of changing cultural dynamics in the U.S. to continually love God and love others.”

The church was formally organized on June 23, 1864, in Detroit — the outgrowth of a few foreigners’ earnest interest and fateful connections.

A small cluster first met at local homes until a chapel was erected near St. Aubin and Mullett in 1870, according to church historical records cited in an anniversary booklet.

As more immigrants arrived and membership climbed, what was then the First Regular German Baptist Church of Detroit relocated to another brick structure near Joseph Campau and Arndt in 1888, the document shows. Its name changed to First German American Baptist Church in 1894.

In 1922 the church officially became Bethel Baptist Church of Detroit — a nod to an ancient Israeli city and a Hebrew word meaning “House of God,” Cosand said.

As members moved to newer sections of the city, the church relocated by the late 1920s to an English Gothic-style, stone-trimmed building at Iroquois and Mack in the Indian Village neighborhood, according to Bethel and Detroit News archives. There, worshipper numbers swelled to 700 during World War II, church records show.

When Detroiters streamed to the suburbs, Bethel followed them. In the 1950s, the Indian Village site was sold to another Baptist church and members bought 3½ acres on Little Mack in St. Clair Shores, church leaders said.

A newly constructed building, with a fellowship hall, educational wing and offices, was dedicated in 1960; a sanctuary followed in 1972, Cosand said.

Today, the church has two worship services each Sunday. A youth group, children’s club and adult Bible study also meet at the church on Wednesdays.

Paul McCann of St. Clair Shores started attending with his family more than four years ago. His wife “fell in love with the people,” McCann said, while he admired “the complete centeredness on Christ. … Many churches and pastors today really get sidetracked with motivational speaking and success. … This is so much different than that. They’re centered on the truth of God and what Jesus is all about. ... It’s not about success and comfort — it’s the glory of God.”

Part of that involves community outreach. Among its efforts, Bethel has helped support missionaries working abroad and joined with other regional churches to help found Macomb Christian Schools, Cosand said.

On Saturdays in the summer, church members to head door-to-door across St. Clair Shores distributing the Bible’s Book of John, Cosand said.

Membership has remained steady around 120 members for the past decade, Cosand said. “We try to continue to reach out to the community to maintain a solid congregation.”

“It’s like a family,” said Peggy Tucker, 79, of Clinton Township, active there for more than a decade after leaving another church. “We help each other.”

That spirit continually lures newcomers such as Sii-Monni Chabi. The college instructor, who immigrated from Benin in the 1980s, fondly recalls an early visit with his family: the welcoming smiles, a genuine eagerness to introduce each other.

“People were so kind to us,” he said. “We said: ‘This is where we belong.’ ”

For followers marking the anniversary, retracing founders’ footsteps and glimpsing past moments was “interesting,” said Ross Awrey, a retiree from Clinton Township who has attended for nearly 70 years, wed at the church and raised his daughters there. “It’s been exciting.”

mhicks@detroitnews.com
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Pastor J. Robert Cosand speaks Sunday during a service. He has been the ... (Steve Perez / The Detroit News)
Bethel Baptist Church in St. Clair Shores (Gary Malerba / Special To The Detroit News)
A gray cornerstone embedded in Bethel Baptist Church was laid in 1888 at ... (Gary Malerba / Special To The Detroit News)
Pastor J. Robert Cosand, 61, of St. Clair Shores leads a bible study group ... (Gary Malerba / Special To The Detroit News)