Vermont’s Only Black Church Fights for a Resurrection

Members of New Alpha gathering around the altar for prayer (OLIVER PARINI)
Members of New Alpha gathering around the altar for prayer (OLIVER PARINI)

The sparse crowd didn’t appear to dampen the spirits of Margaret Burgess as she welcomed congregants to New Alpha Missionary Baptist Church on a Sunday in late August.

“Praise the Lord, everybody,” said the deaconess, who helps oversee church operations.

“Praise God,” 10 congregants intoned in response.

It was a regular Sunday service for Vermont’s oldest, and only, church that worships in the African American tradition. The windows and doors were open wide, admitting a cool breeze — and one curious reporter — into the sanctuary. The congregants found chairs inside the brick chapel beside the First Congregational Church in downtown Burlington, from which New Alpha rents space.

Most of those in attendance said they’d been coming to New Alpha for years, even decades.

“It’s a very loving church, in spite of numbers — which I don’t worry about,” Burgess, a South Burlington resident, told Seven Days later. “I see growth, I see movement, but everything’s on God’s time.”

For 28 years, New Alpha has been a place of community and worship for Vermonters grounded in the black Baptist tradition of gospel music, emotive preaching and fervent prayer.

The church, though, is in transition. Since last December, when longtime pastor Rev. Leroy Dixon retired, it’s had no paid employees and membership has been declining. The New Alpha website redirects to a “currently inactive” message, and the Facebook page is rarely updated. On this particular Sunday, guest preacher Don Ray came from Plattsburgh, N.Y., where he pastors a black church, New Jerusalem Baptist.

New Alpha is trying to resurrect itself. After a year off, members are planning its annual Gospel Fest, a community celebration of gospel music open to other churches and groups, for March 2018. They’re forming a steering committee to hire a new pastor.

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