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Detroit's Dexter Avenue Baptist Church celebrates 100 years

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
Pastor Charles Twymon of Detroit's Macedonia Baptist Church gives his sermon during the100th anniversary of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Detroit — Dexter Avenue Baptist Church’s motto calls for it to be one that “cultivates love.”

The other could be simply: "We exclude no one."

In its 100th year, the church on the city's west side, which has drawn visitors such as civil rights icon Rosa Parks, Mayor Coleman Young, U.S. Rep. John Conyers and City Council member Maryann Mahaffey, boasts a community center with a food pantry, efforts to feed the homeless across the city and even a housing complex for low-income residents.

“Jesus met the people where they were. The low, the least, the lost and the forgotten about,” said Dushon Watkins, who started attending the church about five years ago with her family. "That’s what we need to be about right now, the church in 2019: reaching out.”

The nearly 300-member congregation last week starting marking the milestone with the first of several celebrations.

Leaders of the church are exploring ways to extend its reputation as a "light on the corner" to create a hub for community-based programs.

“That’s our greatest goal: to do more to really help the community,” said the Rev. Richard White, III, who started leading in 2015. “We want to be able to do more to empower the people in our area and let them know that Dexter is here and help them to not just meet their spiritual needs but physical needs.”

At its adjoining community center, Dexter has a food pantry stocked primarily by Gleaners open every few weeks. In the last four years, the number of clients has tripled, from 30-40 people to more than 100, said Watkins, who oversees the operation.

From struggling mothers to others facing hardship, word spreads because the site does not have strict qualifications for who can load up on goods, the Bloomfield Hills resident said. “We exclude no one.”

Church leaders hope to renovate a nearby property it owns that once housed a medical complex, where the pantry could operate full time alongside a resource center where residents can seek help with everything from GED classes to job training, White said. “Any resources that could benefit the community, we want to be able to have that information handy.”

At various times, the church has hosted a senior citizens program, Alcoholics Anonymous, voting booths and neighbor meetings, officials said.

Volunteers meet there to pack filled with toiletries and other items they distribute each quarter at homeless shelters in the city, said Cellestine Carter, a longtime member often involved in the initiative.

“One of our missions is to help the unfortunate,” said Carter, who joined the church in the 1980s after marrying her husband, another member. “You’ve got to go outside in order to get the people. … We’ve got to look at our society."

Much has changed in the region since the church launched as Mt. Moriah at a home in Highland Park in March 1919.

The congregation remained in the city for more than 30 years and moved at least once thanks to growing membership. After Haney became pastor in 1945, attendance skyrocketed and prompted another relocation, in 1958, to its current spot, where membership at one point totaled nearly 2,000, said Deloris Kilgore, a member for more than 50 years who is compiling a history.

Over the years, the brown-brick structure also drew well-heeled neighbors such as doctors, lawyers and judges as well as leading Detroit figures, she said. . “We had a lot of prominent people over the years."

Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Detroit celebrates it's 100th anniversary this year.

Dexter’s stature allowed it to acquire what would become the community center, named after Haney, as well as a nearby building that eventually became DC3, its low-income affordable housing complex, White said.

Through changing conditions in the neighborhood and members dying or moving away, the church is "still the light on the corner for Dexter and Davison," said Wanda Harper, a longtime attendee who chairs the centennial committee.

The church hosts annual Thanksgiving dinners and giveaways, Watkins said. “The church needs to be about not shunning. It’s about giving a helping hand. All of us at one time or another need a helping hand.”

That spirit buoyed the congregants as they convened Thursday for the second night of a centennial celebration. More than 100 flocked to the red-carpeted sanctuary, swaying while singing along with a white-robed choir singing an anniversary song composed for the occasion under stained glass panels depicting biblical scenes.

Sister Felicia Kemp leads the centennial celebration song with the Dexter Mass Choir as the congregation takes part in the 100th anniversary of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Before a guest preacher delivered a fiery sermon illustrating the church's longevity, assistant music minister Felicia Kemp stood at the pulpit adorned with “100 Years” in white lights to toast the milestone for the spot she called “the lighthouse in the hood.”  

“Now, if faith didn’t exist around here, this day would never have come for Dexter,” she said as the crowd murmured their approval. “Even at this 100-year mark, our faith still has us looking ahead, believing that God will continue to do great things on this corner.”

Essie Anderson, who has attended for nearly 50 years and was involved in the centennial committee, beamed from the pews while sitting near her son and cradling a friend’s young child.

To her, Dexter’s century-long procession of worship, funerals, weddings, holiday gatherings and outreach only underscored its relevance in an ever-changing world.

“It’s just a good church,” she said.