Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Freehold, New Jersey, Celebrates 170 Years

The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has outlived slavery, both world wars and segregation under Jim Crow.

This week, church members celebrate the community’s everlasting traditions over the past 170 years.

“It fostered the African American community coming together,” said the Rev. Ronald Sparks. “It didn’t come together because they were a black church, though. It came together because they were trying to develop a place of worship for everyone.”

Church members hosted a “Paint-N-Praise” anniversary event Friday night, geared toward young people in the community, and planned a gala Saturday night. The anniversary celebrations will culminate with Sunday services. The Rev. Andre McGuire of New Beginnings Agape Christian Center in Freehold and the Rev. Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia will be guest preachers.

Many in Freehold Borough recognize Bethel as the church on the hill on Waterworks Road. But its history dates back to the 1690s, when free blacks formed a village called Squirreltown.

Bethel offered a safe space for black worshipers who were excluded from predominantly white churches for Sunday services and who, decades later, encountered racism in the borough’s slowly desegregating schools.

“I’ve been alive a long time, and I’ve endured a lot of things that have gone on. I guess that’s one of the reasons why the church really appealed to us,” said Bigerton “Buddy” Lewis, 93, a World War II veteran. “It’s the one place where we could find sanctuary. We could be equal.”

Preserving that legacy hasn’t always been easy. Over time, church members have moved out of state for work or college, making participation a struggle with each new generation.

Lewis’ family has stuck with the church, generation after generation. His granddaughter, Kelly Guerra, is a trustee at the church. Her daughters, Neesa and Heaven, juggle school and church activities throughout the week, just like their elders.

“It’s pretty big when you think about it,” said Neesa Mackey-Guerra, 19, of Freehold Borough. “It’s cool to see they all had something in common while coming here, and it makes you feel like your family is a big deal.”

Mackey-Guerra is a sophomore at Farleigh Dickinson University in Bergen County, but she drives home sometimes for church events on the weekends. She’s president of the Young People’s Department, a ministry for members up to age 26.

“People think that our church is old. It does have a lot of seniors, but we are in the works of making new things,” she added.

Bethel is where Mackey-Guerra says she started speaking in front of crowds, helping lead Sunday service with other children. It’s where she started singing before trying out for school musicals and performing the national anthem at public events.

And it was church members who would show up to her performances.

“Then I started doing plays and talent shows, and they started going out,” said her sister, 11-year-old Heaven Guerra.

Honoring the ‘groundbreakers’

In the church’s all-purpose room hangs two rows of photographs called the “Memory Wall.” They include photographs of their great-great-grandparents, Biergton Lewis Sr. and Sadie Hawkins Lewis, as well as a picture of their great-grandmother, Ruth E. Lewis.

The names of other late members are on display on a blue and yellow quilt stitched three decades ago.

Corliss Smith came up with the idea after visiting another church with a quilt. A group of women sold squares on the quilt with donors’ names and collected an estimated $10,000.

“It’s all the people that were before us. They were the ones that did the actual planning and getting things ready to build this church,” said Emma Haynes, 77, of the township. She printed the names on the squares and stitched it together. “When you think about that, the memory wall, those people there, they were really the groundbreakers.”

“Because they were there at the start,” she added. “They were the ones that said we need a new sanctuary, and they took it from there.”

One of them is Anna Straws, who was a stewardess at the church. Church members plan to celebrate her 106th birthday with her in November.

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