Priestly and Prophetic: Black churches fortify CU community


Farrah Anderson

Reverend Rickey E. Parks delivers a sermon at Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday, Feb. 20.

By Farrah Anderson, Faith Allendorf and Matt Troher

On the corner of Champaign’s Fourth and Park streets sits a church. A wide, one-story tall building with two sides made out of brick and two made out of horizontal siding pitch together in a pointed roof. A white cross stands tall, almost as tall as the church itself, next to the church’s western wall. Here is Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

One mile north, right off of Champaign’s North Sixth Street, sits another church. A square, brick building with a white steeple pointing toward the sky stands in its own lot. Here is Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

Merely a mile away from each other are two centers of Champaign-Urbana’s Black community – two historically Black churches serving as places of worship and community for students and CU residents alike, whose histories span as long as the University itself.

In context: the growth of Champaign-Urbana

The 19th century saw the Great Migration – a period where millions of Black Americans moved from the South to Northern and Midwestern cities to escape poor economic conditions and racial persecution rampant in the Jim Crow-era South.

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Chicago was a primary destination for Black Americans migrating from the South. Downstream from the big city grew another vibrant Black community in Champaign-Urbana.

The Illinois Central Railroad connected southern cities such as New Orleans, Jackson and Mobile to Chicago, with one main line crawling up east-central Illinois. Champaign’s Illinois Central Railroad Depot – which stood across the street from where current Illinois Terminal now stands – was one of the stops along the route to Chicago. 

Oftentimes, the economic conditions that led to the Great Migration meant families didn’t have enough money to afford a ticket all the way to Chicago and would get off in Champaign. 

According to census records, between 1910 and 1970, Champaign’s population grew 357% from 12,421 to 56,837. This rise in population can likely be attributed to a coalescence of multiple factors: the Great Migration, post-war economic prosperity and expansions of the University. This population growth resulted in a large Black community within Champaign-Urbana.

During the Great Migration, newly-arrived Southerners would join pre-existing congregations in Northern cities, bringing Southern perspectives to a new community and expanding a given church’s congregation.

Dr. Nichole R. Phillips is the director of the Black Church Studies Program at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, where she studies the intersection of religion and American public life, focusing on community and congregational studies. Phillips expounded on the challenges associated with heading a church during the Great Migration.

“Imagine leading a church in this Great Migration, and having to be the place of safety as well as the place where Southern Black migrants would go, hoping to mimic much of their belief and worship practices,” Phillips said. “Even though the churches still ended up being a place of socialization and refuge, there were culture clashes.”

As Champaign-Urbana grew throughout the early 20th century and the University expanded, the area’s Black churches became strong centers of community for Black students navigating a predominantly white institution. 

Congregants and religious leaders helped young students find off-campus housing and garnered financial support. Despite being located off campus, the story of the University cannot be told without the Black churches of Champaign-Urbana.

Bethel AME: A storied history

Founded in 1863, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Champaign is one of the oldest institutions in the area. Older than the University of Illinois itself, Bethel AME became the first predominantly Black church in Champaign County.

Before the church had a building to serve as a worship center, members of the church met in basements and living rooms to discuss the liturgy and worship with each other. In 1871, the physical church was built on the corner of Champaign’s Fourth and Park streets. The original dedication was torn down in 1959 and rebuilt on the same plot of land to accommodate an expanding congregation, where the church still stands today.

Bethel AME is part of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a predominantly Black Methodist denomination, and the first established Black denomination in the United States. The AME Church began when Black members of the Methodist Episcopalian Church experienced rampant discrimination within their own denomination.

“At one point, the Black parishioners in the Methodist Episcopal Church were able to worship alongside their white colleagues,” Phillips said. “But at a certain point, they were told they could no longer worship alongside their white brethren and told to worship in the galleys. As a result, they ended up walking out, and the formation of the (African Methodist Episcopal) Church happened around that.”

Barbara Suggs Mason is a life-long parishioner at Bethel AME. Mason was baptized at Bethel and grew up in the church, as did her parents and grandparents. Mason takes pride in being a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

“Those who belong to the AME Church had a sense of uplift that they were not only were they going to uplift themselves, but they felt the responsibility to lift up other African Americans, other members of the race,” Mason said. “Those in the church focused in on education . . . Some people call it the education’s church because education was highly stressed.”

One of Bethel AME’s most significant congregants was Albert Lee, a man to whom education was paramount. 

Lee was born in 1874 on a farm just outside Champaign and attended the University for one year before continuing his studies in private. Lee returned to the University as a worker in the University President’s office, beginning as a messenger before being promoted to an assistant-clerk and again to chief-clerk. 

Lee became known as the first unofficial “Black Dean of Students” due to his involvement with the University’s Black community during the early 20th century, providing mentorship and guidance to those who needed it. Mason recounted the time her aunt, a student at the University during the 1940s, received help from Lee in dealing with a racist professor.

“By then he had quite a bit of influence at the University, and so he was able to solve that issue for her,” Mason said. “His goal was to see that the African American students who came to the University succeeded, despite the barriers that were presented before them. The generation ahead of me, my parents’ generation, my aunt, they all speak of Albert Lee, as a person of influence and a person that they could go to for help.”

Lee’s influence was also present within Bethel AME, where he served as the church’s Sunday school director and president of the church’s choir for 36 years. He sang tenor in the church choir, and was an influential member of the NAACP’s Champaign branch which met at Bethel AME.

Mason says that no matter what walk of life you come from, all are treated equally within the walls of Bethel AME.

“It is a congregation of people who are teachers, postal workers and domestic workers,”  Mason said. “Everybody, regardless of the position in their job, worships there together and works together.”

Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church: ‘A place where you grew up’

As people file into pews on Sunday morning at Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, they exchange familiar hugs and waves from across the large sanctuary.

Congregants enter holding canes and strollers dressed in bright colors and holding onto the hands of small children with curious eyes. 

Everyone in the congregation is masked. From disposable surgical masks to black fabric masks with sparkling text saying “I love Jesus,” eyes light up as the organist plays introductory notes. 

The choir belts out lyrics from “Amazing Grace” while many in the congregation stand and clap with joy. 

For many, the sanctuary they’re worshiping in isn’t the sanctuary they were baptized in. The new addition to the church was added in 2014 because the congregation outgrew their former sanctuary. 

Connie Carter has been a member of the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church since she was 12 years old. It’s the church her mother went to and where she attended Sunday school. She’s now been an usher for 15 years. 

“Black churches, to me, are where you grew up,” Carter said. 

The church has grown in recent years, Carter said, and couldn’t fit any more people in their old building. 

“There was Sundays when there was no seats (and) we had to seat people in the choir stand,” Carter said. 

Etha Reid is the longest surviving member of the church. Reid joined when she was 10 years old. It’s the third building she’s worshiped at as a member. 

Reid also serves as the Mother of the Church. A Mother assists the pastor and sets an example for the young people entering the church. Now, she has four generations in the Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church. 

“My mother and father’s gone, but their legacy and what they laid out for me was to be attending church all my life,” Reid said. “A lot of people have gone on since I’ve been here, of course, but we still here, and we still loving on one another and trying to hang a banner for Jesus Christ.”

Two of Etha’s children, Mardee Hines and Debarah McFarland, have been members for most of their lives, too. 

For them, the church has been omnipresent in their lives and the lives of their family. 

Debarah, who runs the Sunday school, said supporting and teaching the young people is one of the most important things the church offers. This, McFarland said, is because they’re the future. 

“People my mother’s age poured into us (and) the other generations,” McFarland said. “And hopefully they will do the same.”

For those who visit the church, Hines said they always say it’s a welcoming environment – even for people who aren’t Black. The church has many congregants who aren’t Black, and everyone – regardless of race – is welcome to attend services. 

“A lot of people when they come, they say, ‘We just feel love when we come into your church,’” Hines said. 

When the COVID-19 pandemic made gathering inside the church dangerous in the infamous March of 2020, Reverend Rickey E. Parks hosted “Park and Praise” events where congregation members would sit inside their cars and listen to sermons in the parking lot. 

There, Carter said they were still able to see each other and worship as a group. 

“He literally did his sermon outside of the parking lot,” Carter said. “He’s always tried to make sure we continue to have service in some kind of way.”

In addition to worship, Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church members said they are widely active in the Champaign-Urbana community. Debarah McFarland said they do everything they can to help others, from visiting the sick to taking kids to school. 

When issues in the community arise, McFarland said someone in the church is always willing to lend a hand. If anyone in the Champaign-Urbana community ever needs anything, McFarland said their church is the place to go. 

“That’s the fiber of us,” McFarland said. “We don’t care about getting recognition. We’re back in the corner (and a lot of people) don’t know where we are.

“But we believe in giving back because what was given to us is meant to be shared.”

Priestly and Prophetic: CU’s Black Churches in the community

McFarland’s attitude toward getting the church involved in the community reflects an important aspect of churches’ missions.

Phillips explained that churches have two functions: the priestly and the prophetic. Priestly functions focus on caring for those within the church, while prophetic functions focus on challenging power structures, advocating for societal change and helping those within the community. However, these two types of functions are not mutually exclusive.

“With respect to priestly functions like taking care of those inside of the church walls, it may not necessarily change societal laws or bring about societal change, but changing or impacting families can in turn impact communities,” Phillips said. “Take, for example, churches that provide food pantries. These priestly functions also work to be prophetic because it is impacting the families that make up the church as well as the community in which these churches reside in.”

Both Bethel AME and Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church partake in priestly and prophetic functions. Recently, members of Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church have used their positions in the community to advocate for an end to gun violence and establishing after school programs.

In 1961, Bethel AME members organized a boycott of the Champaign JCPenny over racist hiring practices. Presently, Bethel AME members serve on various community boards and task forces, expanding the social views of the church into the community.

“I really do believe that the focus is not just to increase Christianity but also social justice and seeking to make life better for African Americans in the Champaign Urbana community,” Mason said. “This was a pivotal part of the mission of Bethel AME church, and I believe it continues that way.” 

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