Grand Rapids’ oldest Black Baptist church turns 125

Jeffrey Kaczmarczyk
Grand Rapids Press

Grand Rapids — Messiah Missionary Baptist Church in Grand Rapids was the realization of one pioneering woman’s dream.

In the 1880s, Catherine Carter moved to Grand Rapids with her husband, Newton, a barber.

In a city with fewer than 1,000 African-Americans at the time, Carter worshiped with an African Methodist Episcopal congregation. Missing her own Baptist tradition, Carter began organizing like-minded people to launch a church of their own in Grand Rapids.

On Sept. 16, 1890, Messiah Missionary Baptist Church came to be with assistance from the Rev. Jacob Holt, a Baptist minister from Amherstburg, Ontario.

The oldest, continuing black Baptist congregation in Grand Rapids celebrated its 125th anniversary with a banquet last week and a worship service Sunday morning.

Today, some 800 people are members of the church that has flourished because of “God’s grace, good leadership and strong membership,” according to the Rev. Eric Williams, associate pastor.

“We have four generations of families here now,” Williams said. “Great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and children.”

Two of its senior pastors, Rev. Albert Keith, who served from 1933 to 1969, and its current senior pastor, Rev. Clifton Rhodes Jr., who was called in 1972, have presided in the pulpit for nearly 80 of those 125 years.

Three churches have occupied the same site since the original wooden-frame church was built in the 1890s under its first pastor, Rev. Robert Gillard, a former slave, who served the congregation for five years before retiring from the ministry.

In 1922, the wooden-frame church was torn down and a brick veneer building seating 350 people was erected on its site by church member Alfonso Williams Sr. at a cost of $20,000.

Rhodes, who grew up in Grand Rapids and graduated from South High School, eventually would earn his doctoral degree from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary at Cornerstone University.

“He was one of the first African-Americans to graduate from the school there and went on to become a part of the board of trustees,” said Williams, who is executive director for equity affairs at Grand Rapids Community College.

Within a few years of Rhodes’ arrival, Messiah Missionary Baptist Church tore down its second church and built a third church that opened in April 1979.

“When this church originally was built, it was designed to seat 350 to 400 people,” Williams said. “By the time we moved here, we had outgrown it.”

Over the years, Messiah Missionary Baptist Church has shepherded in other churches and has hosted a foreign exchange student from Liberia who attended Messiah while studying at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary.

“We really are a church with doctors sitting next to people with a high school education,” Williams said. “Some have moved further away, but we still have folks who walk to church.”

Messiah Missionary Baptist Church continues to be a community-leading organization. Past visitors have included former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm and Grand Rapids Mayor-elect Rosalynn Bliss.

“Folks running for office, this is a stop,” Williams said. “But if you’re a part of our community, we want to see you. Not just when you’re running for office.”

Williams is a former member of the church, now living in Lansing, who has returned to assist in ministry.

“We’ve created a sense of family here,” he said. “This place is home, and you always can come back.”