Diaspora

Bethel Baptist Church, pillar of Black San Diego, is 100 – The San Diego Union-Tribune

A lot can happen in 100 years.
In that time, San Diego has grown from under 100,000 people to the eighth-largest city in the U.S. Residents have come and gone. So too have community organizations.
Yet one constant in San Diego’s Black community has been Bethel Baptist Church.
What began with 10 men and women going from house to house to hold prayer services blossomed into a congregation still bustling, and still a pillar of Black life in San Diego, more than 100 years later.
Through the years, that congregation has stood together through the civil rights movement, the construction of new church sites, dozens of mission trips across the globe, a pandemic and much more.

It was in January 1922 that those 10 people, the Baptist Mission, had raised $385.05 — enough to rent a tent and site to officially create the Bethel Baptist Church.
Surviving even that first year wasn’t easy, especially after a rainstorm destroyed its rented tent on the day after it held its first services there.
Soon came a storefront location in southeastern San Diego with only two small windows and no plumbing. Wooden boards were placed over boxes and Coca-Cola crates to create a pulpit and a few chairs for the pastor and any visitors.

Church records from the time describe San Diego as a place with such a small Black community that everybody knew each other.
That community, needing a place to commune, rallied to help Bethel buy a site to build their first church at Commercial and Hensley streets in Logan Heights.
By 1925, they had raised $5,000 to build it, with congregants themselves shouldering the work. When they finished it the next year, its homemade pews could seat 275 people — signaling the grand ambitions of a church that then counted just 50.

Since its inception, Bethel has become a church rooted in outreach.
In its community, that has meant providing food vouchers and rental help for homeless people and giving young people academic scholarships.
Beyond its community, that has meant sending missions teams to six continents, including to Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami and Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

“The core emphasis on family and emphasis on ethical and moral behavior — those are the kinds of things that distinguish this church,” said Rev. John Ringgold, the senior pastor.
This outreach has also meant counseling congregants through the civil rights movement, in which Ringgold says Bethel played a major role in San Diego, encouraging nonviolent activism.

Today, he says, Bethel is still committed to fighting for those rights, largely through encouraging congregants to exercise their rights to vote.
“We have always fought for social justice and racial equality and … fought to be a positive influence towards making all of that better,” Ringgold said.

In the 1960s, the face of that fight at Bethel Baptist was Rev. Charles Hampton, the longtime pastor and Ringgold’s predecessor.
In 1964, Hampton was on the inviting committee for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic visit to San Diego. He encouraged congregants to hear him speak.
Education
Ceremony to include students who saw 1964 address

Hampton had by then already shaped and grown the church for decades.
When Hampton first became Bethel’s fourth pastor in 1931, he was only 29 — but his two-hour sermons drew in large crowds. Bethel would soon outgrow its location, and in the years to come, it would build a new church nearby at 29th Street and Clay Avenue.
Hampton quickly grew the congregation, organizing new ministries and taking leadership roles in state and national Baptist conventions. In the coming decades, he would help add youth ministries, a men’s chorus, a children’s choir and Sunday schools, too.

Ringgold took over after Hampton’s death in 1979 and has now served as pastor for 43 years — nearly half of the church’s history.
In 2004, the congregation moved from its home of 68 years on Clay Avenue to its current home on Euclid Avenue in the Ridgeview/Webster neighborhood — building its church on what was then an empty six-acre plot of former missions land.

A lot does happen in 100 years. Bethel’s membership has fluctuated over the past century, and today, it stands at about 500 congregants — far from its roughly 1,200 faithful in 1970 and from the dozen or so who first gathered in a rented tent.
The church is growing again, Ringgold says, and there are plans to expand and build a larger main sanctuary at the current location to welcome all its members.
Some of those like Lelya Sampson — who at 101 is just older than Bethel — have been with the church nearly all their lives.

Sampson joined Bethel at 25 and has been a member since then, through three of its seven total pastors. Over those nearly eight decades, she’s done everything from work in the Sunday school and sing in the choir to teach future church leaders and vacation Bible school.
“I did whatever needed to be done,” she said. “It really was a joy in my life.”

The church’s 100-year celebration, held over a week in September, was the first time the church had truly come together since the beginning of the pandemic — complete this time with a choir performance and a banquet.
In that 100 years, many congregants agree one thing is true: Bethel Baptist Church has been a home for many generations of its community.
Even newer members like Ashley McCollough, who joined a decade ago as a teenager and is now its secretary, agree.

“If you grew up in church, you knew about Bethel,” she said. She had initially had reservations about joining but was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming everyone was.
“When you come over here, you feel like you’re at home.”
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