In search of a new church for more than 12 years, Adell Brown made a visit to Mount Zion First Baptist Church of Baton Rouge and found everything he was seeking.
"It was welcoming," Brown said. "There were a lot of members I knew, and they encouraged me to come. And I needed a church home. I felt like it was home. At that time, it just made good sense to go to Mount Zion."
Brown, a native of Gilbert in north Louisiana and a former vice chancellor at Southern University, also found a church steeped in history.
Mount Zion is the oldest black church in the city. It has been pastored by icons — the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor in the 1940s followed by the Rev. T.J. Jemison.
The church was instrumental in the civil rights movement — including the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott that later would serve as a blueprint for nonviolent protests, including the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama — and has hosted Martin Luther King Jr. as well as other state and national dignitaries and leaders.
This weekend, Mount Zion is celebrating its 160th anniversary. A special gala is set for 5 p.m. Saturday at the Marriott Hotel, 5500 Hilton Ave. The celebration continues with the 9:30 a.m. Sunday service at the church, 356 T.J. Jemison Blvd.
The Rev. Clifford Jones, of Friendship Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, will speak.
"It (the gala) really will be an awesome revival and praise service all wrapped up in one," Brown said. "Then Sunday, we're going to bring it home to the sanctuary, reading the Scriptures, saying the prayers, singing the songs and just having straight-up good church."
The theme for the anniversary is "Such a great cloud of witnesses … We celebrate all past, current and future witnesses" taken from Hebrews 12:1.
Mount Zion's rich history is a witness to the goodness of God, said the Rev. René Brown, the church's pastor since 2007.
"It speaks to God's sustaining power. He's the only one that could do this," the pastor said. "A hundred and sixty years? How did this church make it that long? Only by God's grace, because a lot of churches didn't make it. … When you start thinking about 160 years and how long that is and it sustained itself through Jim Crow and the burning of buildings and the lynching of people, and this black church is standing."
René Brown, a native of north Louisiana and a Southern University graduate, came to Mount Zion from Lawrence, Kansas.
"We have a great congregation of people," he said. "It's a great church, and it's in the spirit of the people. Even though people die, their spirit is still in this church."'
Adell Brown, who has no relation to the pastor, said he's amazed at that history.
"To me, as a student of history, to envision a black church that really got started in 1858, before the Civil War, to continue to be in existence for those 160 years is nothing short of a miracle," he said. "All the ups and downs of life and all the ups and downs of churches, it's a strong testament that the hand of God is upon it and it will continue to flourish."
René Brown, 52, said he's also gotten caught up in the historical significance of the Mount Zion.
"I recognize the importance of history," he said. "I'm still discovering more history and learning more connections. It's an ever-evolving lesson. Every year, it's something new. I gain some more insight. It's been a great ministry for me."
Adell Brown said Mount Zion's family atmosphere has helped him grow with people and also grow spiritually.
"I think what Mount Zion does — what church does — is keep you conscious of what you ought to be doing," he said. "It's about understanding, and being around like-minded people, you will become better. The more you're around people who talk about Christ, who live a good life and you can associate with, you're better off. … We're there to support one another and that's importance to me."
The church had its beginnings in 1858 when Isaac Palmer, a black minister, and John Brady, a white minister, came up with the idea to start Mount Zion First African Baptist Church. Palmer was the first pastor, followed by Hannibal Williams, Washington Taylor and J.A. Bacoats. Gardner C. Taylor pastored for five years before moving on to New York.
Jemison became pastor in June 1949 and helped lead many movements in the Baton Rouge community, including the bus boycott.
"We've had seven or eight super pastors," Adell Brown. "They have all been involved in education, not just Christian education but in secular education. Also, whatever social issues, they've been involved."
In June 1954, the Mount Zion First Baptist congregation moved into its present building.
Jemison served Mount Zion for 54 years as pastor before retiring in 2003. He was succeeded in 2005 by the Rev. Anthony Kelley, who served just over a year before René Brown was called as the church's eighth pastor.
René Brown said Jemison gave him some insight on Mount Zion during a National Baptist Convention in New Orleans in 2003.
"He told me, 'You're a great man. You're going to be the next pastor of the Mount Zion First Baptist Church.' It was prophetic," René Brown said.
Adell Brown had known René Brown as a student at Southern and his family in neighboring parishes in north Louisiana. He said he has enjoyed having him as a pastor at Mount Zion.
"He's a leader," Adell Brown said. "As an educator, you're always looking for students — even though he wasn't my student — you want to go off and do well. He did well. He got his education, he got his church and he came back to Mount Zion."
Adell Brown said one of the challenges of Mount Zion, and black churches in particular, is getting back to being an integral part of the community.
"The church has to go back and reposition itself as the anchor in the community," he said. "And we have to do it collectively. It's got to be the body of Christ — everybody. All the churches in the community have got to think about how we can collectively impact the community."
Another day, another blessing
This is my personal devotion from Jan. 15: As painful as it was to see the Saints lose the way they did on Sunday (Jan. 14), I quickly asked God to help me keep it in perspective. Too many times we measure our days and attitudes by things that don’t matter in the long run.
Too many times, when the Saints, LSU, Southern or others lose, or if our plans didn’t work out as we wanted, we sometimes say, “I had a disappointing weekend” or a “disappointing” day. Yet, here we are waking up to another Monday morning that God has seen fit to bless us with. There’s no disappointment in surviving another weekend where all kinds of danger, harm, sickness and even death — I’m talking real disappointment — could have come our way.
The Saints’ season didn’t end like we wanted, but remember the great season they had. Also remember that this journey called life is different than games like football; it doesn’t matter how many good seasons we had or how many so-called wins we enjoyed in life, all that matters is how we end.
If you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and savior and head coach, you win at the end. No matter the score or deficit now, YOU WIN. I’m reminded of the “saints” that our pastor mentioned during a recent funeral. He preached from Psalms 116:15: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”
The verse emphasizes how much God loves and cares about each and every one of us, and how he hurts when one of his “saints” die. That also reminded me of my mother and brothers who were big Saints fans. No Saints loss is life or death. It could not possibly be as hurtful as when I lost them. We have too much to be thankful for to be saddened by the loss of a game.
Faith Matters runs every other Saturday in The Advocate. Reach Terry Robinson at (225) 388-0238 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.