Black History Month: A look at Champaign’s First Black Church

Black History Month

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA)–In 1863, Bethel AME came to Champaign.

It was the city’s first black church. Pastor Terrence Thomas says the church has worked to uplift voices that are otherwise unheard. 

“One of the things the AME church is known for is being a social justice church. It’s in the DNA. It’s founded in protest and its roots in the struggle for freedom and equality,” Thomas said. “And that’s kind of how Bethel is. Bethel is the mother church in Champaign. All black congregations have their roots here.” 

Those roots are found everywhere around Champaign-Urbana. Bethel AME’s senior members say the church has been more than just a staple. Since its founding, the church has provided community outreach, housing for displaced black students, and remained a safe space. The community hub stands out as a major part of its history. 

Today, the church remains a platform for activism.

Over the summer, Bethel AME collaborated with HV Neighborhood Transformation, an activist group in Champaign-Urbana. It has a mission to condemn police brutality, and end cycles of community violence. 

One of its founders, William Brown said the church is just as important to political activism as it has always been. He says Bethel AME’s spiritual leadership helped guide their movement forward. 

“Bethel AME is, for HVNT, a beacon of what that should be. We study our history, and we walk through our history, every increment of change or activism is spear-headed by the church.”

Over the last year, the spread of coronavirus has drastically changed the nature of church services across the country, including for Bethel AME. But Pastor Thomas said he sees the situation as an opportunity to grow, and now the church is just as determined to carry out its spiritual mission as ever. 

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