EUTAWVILLE, S.C. (AP) - The members of Unity Missionary Baptist Church in Eutawville look back on their history with pride and joy because the church has lived up to its name after 150 years and continues building upon its foundation in changing times.
‘STILL MOVING FORWARD’
Located at 14152 Old Number Six Highway, the church celebrated its 150th church anniversary on March 28 in the church parking lot.
Church pastor, the Rev. Aaron T. Brown Sr., said the church’s survival after 150 years is noteworthy – and a blessing.
“It says a lot about the people of Unity Missionary Baptist Church. For 150 years, the church has been built on a solid foundation of God’s word and continues to stand and be of a service and blessing to the community as well as to our members,” Brown said.
“It’s truly a blessing to be in existence after 150 years. So many things have happened. This church has survived through so many things, not just in the community but in our country. Members have seen and been through a lot, and we are still moving forward with the grace of God,” he said.
Brown continued, “That we’re still moving and standing shows the power of Unity being in unity with God and being in unity with ourselves.”
The church’s anniversary theme is “The Lord has Done Great Things for Us.”
The anniversary celebration on March 28 included recognition of members age 90 and older, along with a memorial service for deceased members. New church members were also be recognized and retired members honored.
“We’re planning to do something probably every three months until the end of the year,” church member Claretha Ravenell-Eaddy said, with a black tie banquet in December to be the culminating event.
Unity Baptist Church was formed in 1871 by slaves. They gathered under an oak tree on their plantation in Berkeley County, Springfield Plantation, and named the first church Jim Lak Baptist Church.
After the slaves’ singing became too unbearable for their slave holder’s wife, he took them to another place, Unity Bridge, located north of the plantation on Highway 45. The second church was renamed Unity Baptist Church after the bridge.
A third church, a pole church, was built in 1881 but went on to be badly damaged by an earthquake.
Several church buildings were constructed throughout the church’s history, with Isaac Howell being chosen as the church’s first pastor.
The federal government notified the church about the Santee Dam that was going to be built in 1939. The church would have to be relocated because the waterway would flow through Springfield Plantation.
The church held its last service on the old slave plantation on Highway 45 on the fourth Sunday in December in 1940. The church continued to hold services without a building until mid-January 1941, when the church made arrangements with Mr. Rutledge Conners, who gave the church permission to hold services in Belmont High School.
A new church was open for service on the first Sunday in June 1941 on Highway 45 in Orangeburg County. The membership built a new sanctuary under the leadership of the Rev. S.T. Nelson. The first worship service held in the current church at 14152 Old Number Six Highway in Eutawville was on December 25, 1977.
Much was accomplished at the church under Nelson’s leadership, including upholstered church pews; the installation of a sound system and new heating and cooling systems; the purchase of an organ; pavement of the church grounds; the installation of stained glass windows; and the purchase of an van and land.
Following Nelson’s resignation because of health reasons, Brown, a native of Moncks Corner, was elected pastor in 2010. He currently serves as the church’s 12th pastor.
The organization of the A.T. Brown Praise Dance Ministry, the dedication of the fourth Sunday for Youth Ministry services and a new roof for the church are among the work that has been done under Brown’s leadership. A Brotherhood Ministry and finance committee were also organized, and a new fellowship hall was completed in 2012.
Brown said the anniversary theme is indicative of the church’s continued praise of God for his blessings, with the pastor attributing its success to its approximately 400 members’ devotion and willingness to work together.
“The Lord has blessed us tremendously at 150 years, and he still has. It gives us time to reflect on our journey, where we have come from and where we are, with the expectation of greater things to come.
“So we’re appreciative of where we have come from, where are now and believe great things are coming. So it’s a celebration that we are still standing, we’re still moving because of the great things that the Lord has done for us and is still doing for us,” the pastor said.
The church has several ministries and auxiliaries, including an usher’s ministry, senior’s ministry and a Young Women’s Auxiliary, which leads the church every year in its Family and Friends Day celebration on the third Sunday in August. The church also has a newsletter, with a mass choir, male chorus and youth choir among its choirs.
‘A REMARKABLE MILESTONE’
Members said the preservation of their history is important, particularly as it intertwined with the church’s mission to foster community outreach. Voter registration drives and workshops addressing everything from grief to employment and financial literacy have been held.
“We try to do a lot more community outreach,” said Harold Gillens, a member of the church’s Brotherhood Ministry.
“Every time we do something, we just don’t want to do something for Unity. So we try to make sure that when we’re planning something, whether it’s a financial outreach, a grief ministry or whatever we’re trying to do, we invite the community in because we have to educate the community,” he said.
Maintaining relationships with the several churches in the community which have come out of Unity Missionary Baptist Church is key, Gillens said.
“We have to actually keep the foundation of the community strong. If we are the foundation of these others, this foundation has to remain strong and be solid in their eyes. In all of the things that we do, we have to always know that our community is watching and invite them into the fold all the time,” he said.
Gillens added, “When we do things for the community, we don’t do things for the sake of wanting them to come here. We just do things because it’s God’s will. That’s what I really like about where we’re going.”
Debra Wright said, “All of those things that we’ve done in the church means the church is still there for the members and for the community. This is something that I’m proud of.”
Wright said the history of the church is particularly inspiring.
“As I read the history of the church, it was just simply amazing to see where we as a church came from. From slavery to Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era to civil rights to voting rights to women’s rights. It’s like the church has always been there,” she said.
Wright said while she’s proud of the church’s accomplishments over the years, the work continues.
“With all that the church has gone through, we definitely need to pass that down to the next generation because the young generation doesn’t realize the struggle that our forefathers had to go through in order for us to get to where we are today. We’re still fighting voter suppression and all this stuff,” she said.
Mae Donna Nesbit said, “The church is the backbone of the Black community. Unity Missionary Baptist Church. When you read our history, the names keep repeating. That’s part of our strength because those people are going to make sure that this church is here for generations to come because their foreparents ensured it was here for them. So I find strength in the names repeating. There’s some names that will never leave this church.”
Deacon Harry Middleton said he appreciated the church’s “awesome members” who promote a family atmosphere, along with the way the church sticks together in good and bad times.
“There’s nothing that we ask our members to do that they wouldn’t do. So I just like the connection that this church has family-wise. When one person hurt, everyone hurts. I wouldn’t take no other church for this church family. I’ve experienced bereavement before, and I was actually surprised how this church came and supported me during my time,” he said.
Lillie Doctor said the church’s survival is remarkable.
“It has survived through a lot of different times, coming from a small church from slavery to up to the present time. It’s taken different forms during that time, but it’s gotten to be one of the larger churches in the community. It has some other churches coming out of it — it’s like the mother church in the community.”
She added, “It’s located right on the county line between Orangeburg and Berkeley counties. We pull members from both counties because of that location. I think it has some of the old church tradition, but then it also has some of the present-day appeal for the younger generation,” noting that she’s been a church since she was a teenager.
“I joined as a teenager and I’m in my upper 60s now. I have special ties. I was baptized there. I got married there, my children have been christened there. They all became members there. My husband was a deacon there, and his funeral was there. Even my grandbaby was christened there,” she said.
Joshua Ravenell, 21, said he appreciates the closeness the church’s members share.
“Everyone knows each other. It’s almost like a big family church. When you walk in, it’s not like you’re a stranger. You’re greeted as if you’ve been there for years. It’s just that close connectivity that everyone has with each other. That’s probably the best thing that I love about Unity,” he said, noting that the church’s longevity was also noteworthy.
“That’s a blessing in and of itself. It’s an even bigger blessing for me to a part of something like that. For a church that I grew up in to reach 150 years is such a remarkable milestone,” he said.
Ethel Smalls, 91, is a longtime member who now resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
She said the anniversary milestone is a work of God.
“I can truly say according to my belief in the word of God that it is the work of the Lord in action. For Unity to have lasted that long, it is because of family ties. I did not grow up in Unity church. I became a member after I got married, but that was one of the places where I found a hoard of family members,” Smalls said.
She added, “I believe the church itself is a group who shares a common life in Christ. He is a forever God, and we remain there in Unity. It grew from the bush tents to where it stands now. God has taken care of us these many years and has kept us together in our belief.”
VISION FOR THE FUTURE
While the pandemic derailed some of the church’s outreach activities, many are still planned, including job fairs and recognition of the church’s armed service members, complete with the delivery of care packages to those serving across the nation.
“We were also highlighting our youth and their accomplishments in school. I was blessed … to do a Zoom conference call with our college students. We are planning to do more of that, to have more interaction with them to let them know that the church is not just here when they come home,” Brown said.
Eaddy said the church also takes particular pride in its seniors, even holding a “senior” prom for them.
“They really enjoyed that. We were so amazed that a lot of them never got to go to the prom. Our seniors are our pride and joy. We learn so much from them. We love to have activities for them to show them how much we appreciate them,” she said.
Brown said, “What also makes our church special is just the way we have empowered not just our members, but people in the community. Unity is a special church because we reach out. Our doors are open, and we love to embrace not only our members, but whoever comes in.”
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