New facelift for historic church

bethel anniversary

Update: 10:00 pm, 4/1/17, Saturday

CHAMPAIGN — You could hear music from a few blocks away, and it was coming from the Bethel AME Church.

Its history started before the founding of the University of Illinois, so people packed in to see the beginning of its new era.

There’s a long history, a lot of spirit and plenty of friendly faces packed inside this 154-year old church.

“It started because of a need to pray,” said church member Joycelynn Phillips. “All the black people wanted to do was to pray, and they were denied that. As a result of that, they developed a church of their own.”

It’s the oldest black-led church in Champaign County. Through the years, members say there’s one thing that makes this church so special: the people. That’s why Phillips comes all the way from Charleston to worship here.

“I think that they are sincerely about the business of doing God’s work,” said Phillips. “They, indeed, are the hands and feet of Jesus.”

They come together to celebrate, not just new expansions, but a tradition of influence. From a black-led congregation, came emerging black leaders.

“We have a school named after a previous member, Kenneth Stratton, so Stratton Elementary School. Right here, in this church came the first African American police officer for Champaign police,” said long-time member Debrae Lomax.

Lomax is proud to be a member of this church and its legacy. She’s a teacher here. She said this church was a gathering place for black university students to study and learn.

Now, it remains a place of learning, and a place several generations call their home.

“We have not stopped, because many of the people that I have spoken of, their family members are here,” said Lomax.

Phillips said there’s a simple reason for that.

“This church is really more than about the building. It’s about what we hold in our hearts,” said Phillips.

Church members said this was the busiest they’ve ever seen their parking lot.

Original: 10 pm, 3/31/17, Friday

CHAMPAIGN — An old church is getting an expansion for its anniversary.

It’s been a part of Champaign’s history since the 1800s!

It is 154 years old…so it was in town four years before the University of Illinois was founded.

The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has undergone four major renovations in its history.

It’s known to some as an “education church.”

That’s because it had a room called a lyceum that had a library where people could learn to read and write.

When the university was founded, black students came there to study together.

We met Eunice Rivers, who told us why the church is so special to her.

She said it was one of the first places she ever knew.

“When I was born, that’s where my parents went, and so therefore I went there,” said Rivers. “My mom just forgot me one day and left me at the church in a buggy, and then she had to come back and get me. The joke in the family was she just kind of gave me to the church.”

Rivers has been a part of the church ever since.

She said she hopes newer AMEs coming to town will join her community.

The renovations include new bathrooms that are handicap-accessible, as well as a new kitchen and a larger meeting hall.

The rededication ceremony will happen Saturday at 4:00 p.m. at the church.

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