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This weekend marks 150 years of serving God and making a difference in the community for St. John African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The church has grown exponentially from its humble beginnings on Suggs Street in 1868 and has become a driving force in many areas including education and community outreach to the most vulnerable. Parishioners say the church has also been a leader in youth programs and a champion for economic development.
“With the feeding ministries and various other ministries which have been implemented in the church, we want the community to know that St. John has been and continues to be a spiritual force in the Wilson community for 150 years,” said the Rev. Charlrean B. Mapson, who was appointed last October and is the first female pastor in the church’s history.
On Sunday, church members, community leaders and state and local dignitaries will gather in praise and worship to celebrate not only St. John’s history, but its future and love for Christ and the Wilson community. The anniversary worship service will begin at 10 a.m. The public is invited.
“The 150-year mark in any congregation is significant and a cause for celebration,” Mapson said.
‘THEY ARE SPECIAL’
St. John is the only church 93-year-old Inez D. Bell has ever known. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My church family is a vital part of my life,” said Bell, who was christened there as a baby. “I love my St. John family, who stand by my side continually.”
Bell has seen the church change and grow throughout the years.
“I have persevered and enjoy working in the ministries of the church and the community,” she said.
Bill Myers, retired educator, musician and community leader, said in terms of growth, St. John became aware of things that were needed in the community including outreach programs that still exist today. The church and its partners at Peace Church and Marsh Swamp Free Will Baptist Church, as well as city volunteers, serve more than 24,000 meals to the hungry each year.
“Our outreach program has been a big accomplishment,” Myers said.
Myers, who was St. John’s minister of music for 25 years, said he’s always been a people person.
“They are special,” he said about his fellow church members. “They love the Lord.”
Myers said the church has such a rich history and members who are from all walks of life, from business owners to educators to volunteers.
“All this makes for a good membership,” he said. “You have people who have different ideas and who can put them all together.”
RISING FROM THE ASHES
St. John is the fourth-oldest church of its denomination in the state and is known to be the first black AME Zion congregation in Wilson, according to church historical documents.
In 1865, the New England Conference of the AME Zion Church sent the Rev. James Walker Hood, a missionary, to North Carolina. Hood established several churches and eventually made his way to Wilson.
According to St. John’s documented history, public sentiment was unfavorable toward establishing an African-American church in Wilson.
The task at hand was not simple, but Hood prevailed in 1868, and St. John was established on Suggs Street, where its building also served as a school.
In 1909, the church suffered a setback when its frame was destroyed in a fire. While there was a small amount of insurance money, church leaders worked together to rise out of the ashes, and in 1915, St. John was rebuilt on Pender Street.
While the architect is unknown, many believe church members helped with the design. The building, an example of Gothic Revival architecture, still has its original stained glass windows. The church is also a historical landmark.
‘THE CHURCH THAT WILL DO YOU GOOD’
The Rev. Michael Bell, who came to St. John in 2004 and pastored there for more than a decade, said it’s such a loving, welcoming, embracing and encouraging church.
“In short, the church that will do you good,” said Bell, who is now the presiding elder of the Wilson District of the AME Zion Church.
Bell said the mission of St. John is consistent with the Great Commission.
“The mandate given by Jesus the Christ to reach others and make disciples is still pivotal to the church’s mission,” he said. Bell said the church must be constant in “helping hurting people find hope in Christ, education, housing, employment and community development.”
Bell said the church has made many contributions to education over the years.
“With free slaves migrating north to escape the South’s adamant practice of slavery, St. John became a refuge for many,” he said. “To educate free slaves became a significant push for the church; hence, they started a school. The educational evolution from the early 19th century to present has seen a youth program transformed into Sallie B. Howard School for the Arts with JoAnne Woodard leading the charge.”
Bell said he’s proud of St. John’s legacy, which will continue for many years to come. He said St. John has been able to survive for 150 years due to the “tenacity and resilience of the faithful, who maintained that “‘quitting is not an option.’”
COMMUNITY OUTREACH AND PROGRAMS
Leadership throughout the years has proven vital for the church’s spiritual growth and helped the congregation’s vision become a reality.
In the mid-1990s, the Rev. William L. Neill was instrumental in establishing the nonprofit St. John Community Development Corp., which enhanced the church’s outreach ministry. In 2004, Bell continued that mission for more than a decade. The church purchased several properties adjacent to St. John that helped alleviate blight, church officials said. St. John currently owns three city blocks and has become a leader in downtown revitalization efforts.
The church has received more than $8 million in grants along with community support from corporations and individuals as a part of St. John’s CDC. The church also purchased the historic Terminal Drug Store building, which is now called the St. John CDC Wilson Renaissance Center, and leases to Wilson Value Drug Store, Triple “C” Flower Shop and SaYum Jamaican Restaurant.
Save-A-Youth, an academic and vocational after-school program, serves more than 300 children each year.
The St. John Transitional House for Men provides a safe place for homeless men.