New Bethlehem Baptist Church has been serving the Lord since its founding in 1916 and many of its members have helped to carry on and adapt that long tradition to the changing needs of the flock and the surrounding community.
One of those longtime members is now leading the congregation, as the Rev. David Jenkins grew up involved in the church and its activities at 4039 Aspen St. in West Philadelphia.
“It’s basically traditional,” the 68-year-old minister said in describing his church. “I came up as a young boy. Came here when I was just about 6 years old and I’ve been here ever since.”
Over the decades, Jenkins has seen six pastors grace the pulpit of the church before he got his turn.
“Things have changed but we’re a great church with a great love for the Lord. One of our motto’s is that we do great things outside of these great walls,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins recalls his parents bringing him to New Bethlehem as a young boy. Though he could have went elsewhere as an adult, he stayed. Why?
“I think it’s just the love of the people [here],” said Jenkins, who married his wife, Donna, 46 years ago, and now counts a daughter and two granddaughters in his nuclear family.
“I often say that if there is real churches of the Lord and the pastor is teaching the Word biblically and is on point with that, and the people are willing to follow those preachings, then you can stay and go anywhere.
“Once those particular dynamics break down, you begin to lose that and that’s what causes a person to go from one place to another place,” he added.
Asked if he ever expected to someday lead the New Bethlehem flock while growing up, Jenkins laughed and said, “That’s strange because my mom in my early years said I kind of did some quasi-preaching as a young boy.”
“I went through the ranks here as a youth leader, a missionary leader, I served on the trustee board for a while, served on the deacons board for a while, taught Sunday School here for a while – so I’ve kind of gone through the gamut of leadership here,” he recalled of his years as an involved congregant.
Jenkins said he was called to the ministry in the late 1990s, having received his license in 1997 and being ordained in 1999. His religious credentials were bolster with his graduation from the Philadelphia Biblical University in 2003.
Despite his lengthy connection and strong ties to the church, the pulpit wasn’t just handed to him. He had to apply for the position of lead pastor just like anyone else.
“It wasn’t just, ‘David, you’ve been here all of your life, come on in,’ “ Jenkins recalled. “No, I had to apply, submit a resume and go through everything else that others had to do to acquire the position.”
He emerged as the choice in 2005 to replace the Rev. Patrick Cheston, who retired after five years of leading New Bethlehem. Since then, Jenkins has had to manage a changing landscape inside and outside the walls of his church.
“This church at one time was full from door to door because of the community. Everybody who attended lived in the community. Now that we have the transportation concerns and people moving and relocating. Now we have to deal with that in this particular community,” Jenkins said in listing some of the challenges.
New Bethlehem is doing its part to reach out to the changing community, engaging with members of local schools and interacting more with neighborbood residents. For example, the church provides free meals to all who enter its doors on Tuesdays.
While many churches in the area offer meal programs, New Bethlehem adds an interesting twist: checker boards.
“We have the men, women or children come in and play checkers. So that’s another way for us to reach into the community,” said Jenkins.
The board games are played over lunch inside the church during the winter and switch to the outdoors during the warmer seasons.
During the summer, the church’s community engagement extends to a Vacation Bible School for area youth.
M.J. Moore, who chairs the deacons board, came to New Bethlehem under similar circumstances as Jenkins. He began attending the church 45 years ago with his parents and an aunt.
“What has kept me here is that this is a loving church, a friendly church and a teaching church,” he said.
Moore said that throughout the decades and the various chief pastors, one thing remained consistent: “We are learning every day.”
Changes in the community have caused a loss of members mostly because of relocations but Jenkins has lead an effort of going out into the community to seek new members, Moore noted.
“My Pastor David Jenkins was raised up in this church and he is a teaching pastor. He is not someone who has come from the outside,” Moore said. “His family is here, his wife was here, his mother-in-law was here, his daughters are here, Pastor Jenkins is New Bethlehem Baptist Church.”
The Rev. Felicia Hayes joined the congregation 20 years ago, switching from another church.
“I was directed to come here. My brother was coming here and that’s another reason for me to come. What keeps me here is that this is a family. I am able to grow. The doctrine that is taught here is exceptionally good,” said Hayes.
“It’s a family. It just feels like a family where the love just doesn’t stop. A lot of times we might fall out or whatever, but we still come together and get things back in order just like family so this is a family affair for me as well as serving the Lord,” she added.
Not only are New Bethlehem members loving and caring, said Hayes, but they place a heavy emphasis on education. And there’s a good reason for that.
“We have a lot of retired principals, retired teachers and doctors,” she said. “So we have a little of everything going here that helps us to grow.”