Beale Street Baptist Church in Memphis Tennessee has a long and rich history. In October 1866, Reverend Morris Henderson and his small congregation purchased the lot at 379 Beale Street. They hired an architect and began construction soon after. Often regarded as “the Mother of Black Churches,” Beale Street Baptist Church was the first southern church built by Blacks and for Blacks. By 1880, south Memphis had a strong, wealthy and growing Black population. Beale Street Baptist would have been considered a mega church back in those days with membership that exceeded 2500 people.
Prior to my visit on September 26th, I only knew that it was a historic Black Church. When we decided to attend the night before, I went to the internet for information. There was no website but I did find a poorly managed Facebook page and a phone number. When I called the number, I left a message but the recording did not provide any other information. We didn’t really know what to expect but showed up at 10:30 hoping for the best and thinking there would be a large crowd.
As we climbed the entrance steps, a tall, thin man welcomed us and held the door. We later learned he would soon be 90. He escorted us in and with great pride, he took us to the fellowship hall. I immediately noticed that down the wall on the left was a crude display of photos that dated back many decades. My new friend began to explain the photos and with tears in his eyes, he lovingly pointed out his grandmother and then his mother explaining that his family helped to start this church. About midway, he pointed to a photo telling us with joy that the 12 year old boy in the picture was none other than himself the day he was baptized.
About that time, we heard the music begin and we were escorted to the second floor sanctuary. Not wanting to miss a single thing, I lead the way down the aisle to row three. I was a little surprised at the small number of people in attendance. There were only 2 in the choir and 2 played instruments. A lady came up to us with a huge book and pen requesting we register our attendance and then handed us a bulletin.
The songs were obviously hymns but there were no hymnals or words on a screen. The music was lively and reverent and far from anything I would find in my home church. With the music over, a young man came up to the pulpit to explain the pastor was out due to illness. Revealing he was the pastor’s son, he assured us that God had given him the message we were about to hear.
“Open your bibles to Luke 17,” he said and everyone stood. I cannot explain what happened next other than an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Tears began to run down my face. I wasn’t upset or hysterical. I wasn’t sad or hurt. I was simply overcome with emotion. I tried to concentrate on the scriptures and followed along as the young man’s voice, loud and clear, read each word from verses 11-19.
We sat down, the tears would not stop. And honestly, I didn’t want them to. For a moment, I imagined the enormous struggles the people of this congregation endured through the years. I thought of cross burnings and cruel lynchings and unfair accusations and crooked politicians. I continued to cry. I felt so grieved at the history of my brothers and sisters in Christ. The young man at the pulpit startled me back to attention.
Ten lepers. All of them call out to Jesus for healing. All ten are healed. All ten keep walking toward Jerusalem to present themselves to the priest. But one. One turned around. He wanted more than the ritual of the day, he wanted a relationship. Nine chose religion. One chose Jesus. Ten lepers healed that day but only one found Jesus. Only one found eternal life. His words were powerful and compelling. The tears would not stop.
As he wrapped up his message, I realized I had been mesmerized by his words. Not because he was a good orator – which he was – but because his message was a divine message. He taught truth – straight from the word of God. I was convicted and challenged and comforted. It was a gripping message because God’s truth is timeless and penetrates our heart.
And then……it was over. The tears dried up. I knew I would never forget the message or the lesson. My new 90 year old friend wanted a picture so I began to smile. It was genuine and heartfelt. I silently thanked God for such a beautiful experience. This small little congregation left the imprint of Jesus on my heart. Our worlds were so different and miles apart but we were forever joined together by the blood of Christ.