You don’t get to be 100 years-old without having experienced some bumps and bruises. Despite a natural disaster that tore the roof off the church and a forced relocation because of gentrification, New Beulah Baptist Church at 1631 W. Cayuga St. continues to minister to the faithful after 100 years.
The 100th anniversary service was a time of fellowship and worship. Members took the opportunity to enjoy a special service that honored some of its long-time faithful members. There were shared moments of reflection on the church’s past achievements and history. Many joyfully lifted their voices in praise to God for having led them to one century of existence.
Pastor Bishop Benjamin Thompson III has led the congregation for 30 years following the retirement of the Rev. T.C. Kilibrew. Thompson was at Mount Nebo Baptist Church at 1229 Christian St. for 10 years prior to joining New Light Beulah.
“Our church is a very inspirational, Word-oriented church,” Thompson said. “We’re very in tuned to what is going on in our community and our city.”
For 99 years, the church was a vibrant part of South Philadelphia. Many of its members resided there. Despite several moves, the church maintained a South Philadelphia presence.
But that was before gentrification.
“That’s why we’re are no longer in South Philly,” Thompson said. “We were there on that corner of 17th and Bainbridge [streets] for 62 years. Gentrification definitely affected us. It forced us to sell our building and relocate to the location we are now [at].
“Our church consisted of 80 percent seniors and we had a decline in membership because a lot of our seniors passed on and we maintained the nucleus of people we had but we couldn’t draw from the community.”
That’s because the South Philly community that New Light had ministered to and fellowshipped with since its inception had drastically changed.
“There was no one in that community that was really looking to be a part of our ministry,” Thompson said.
Thompson can recall what the church did in South Philadelphia before the community changed into something different.
“We had food giveaways, school supply giveaways, we had an annual community day where we closed the streets down, had vendors set up and had banks, the police department and other people come in to just talk to the people and familiarize them with our ministry and what we were doing,” Thompson said.
There was also support from the elected officials representing the area.
“Of course, people like [state representative] Jordan Harris and [city councilman] Kenyatta Johnson were always actively involved, helping us in the community in any way that they could,” Thompson said.
But relocation was inevitable.
“There was no one there who looked like us,” Thompson said.
When New Light moved, members like Vilma Ray, a member for 30 years had to adjust.
“I’ve just been there all of my life and I just refused to leave because I love my church and I love my Bishop,” Ray said. “First of all, being at New Light Beulah all of my life, we’ve been through a lot of transition.”
Ray said obstacles began forming during the gentrification process. For example, tickets were issued to drivers who attended church services. The church van was even ticket. Things like that didn’t happen before.
“They would constantly try to push us out,” she said.
Along with the troubles with parking authority, there were problems in the building which needed constant repair. At one time the church had to repair its pipes in the basement. A torrential storm blew the roof off the church making it unusable.
The church worshipped at a nearby church, Yeshua Ministries, 23rd Street and Snyder Avenue, for a year until the roof was repaired.
“We saw that the neighborhood was being gentrified but I, myself, didn’t know where this was going to lead us,” she said.
Things were looking bleak, but Thompson was led to the church where they are currently located. Not only do they have a place to worship but also a parking lot, something sorely needed in South Philadelphia.
“And we’re still with a lot of the same congregation that we started with,” Thompson said.
Thompson says he looks forward to getting to know the people at the new neighborhood. The church will have been in its current location a year in August and they plan on doing intensive outreach to introduce themselves to those who reside in the area.
Thompson knows the forecast for far too many churches is bleak.
“Many of our churches are dying and closing their doors because they can’t do ministry like they need to and a lot of that has to do with the changes in the culture,” he said. “The culture has changed totally so it makes it difficult for churches to keep their doors open.”
Thompson believes that one way of addressing this change in culture is for churches to get back to doing what they once did, minister to people in the community.
“What I really would like people to know is that we want to be that community church,” he said. “We want to be that church in the community where people can rely and depend on us and know that we are there for whatever the situation might be.”