It’s an age-old question: Is a church a location or is it the people? As it prepares to celebrate 100 years, New St. John Baptist Church in Baton Rouge believes it’s both.
Founded two years earlier in a nearby benevolence society hall, the church has been at 1455 South Blvd. since 1921, even as its membership has come from farther and farther away.
The 500-member congregation, however, has not considered abandoning its roots, said the Rev. W. Marshall Myles, pastor.
“We are a community-based church. We’re about the community,” Myles said. “We’re not about just meeting here on Sunday morning. Even though the congregation does not live in the community anymore, they still come back to the community, and they still do things in the community.”
That connection is reflected in volunteer efforts at Dufrocq Elementary School, a Head Start preschool program, a boys’ academy and a battered women’s outreach program, Myles said. The church helped house Hurricane Katrina evacuees from New Orleans in 2005 and brought meals to those affected by the 2016 Baton Rouge-area flood.
“One of God’s commandments is to love one another, love your neighbor, and that’s what I feel here at New St. John,” said Linda Gautier, chairwoman of the 100th anniversary committee and a lifelong member. “It’s just about love.”
A century is one milestone of the church’s stability but not the only one.
There's the building — the church’s first sanctuary was built in 1921 and replaced by its current facility 30 years later — and the leadership.
It doesn’t take long to call the roll of pastors who have served the south Baton Rouge congregation. Myles has been in New St. John’s pulpit since 1982. The Rev. E. Doyle Billoups led the church for all but one of the previous 54 years. His son, the Rev. Leo Billoups, died in 1977 a year after replacing his father, who then returned as pastor. The Rev. Octave Mitchell was the church’s first pastor. Not many churches have so little turnover in the pulpit.
“New St. John has always been a church that loved and respected their pastors,” said Myles, 72.
The elder Billoups, who became president of the district and state Baptist associations and vice president of the National Baptist Convention USA, was a dynamic preacher who also made the children feel loved, said Patricia Keith Sterling-Davis, a lifelong member.
“He would always give you quarters or 50 cents when he would see you,” Sterling-Davis said. “He would make sure that you were in school, make sure your grades were up to par, and if you needed help, he made sure that he found something for you to do in this church to make money. … Just a genuine person that loved people and did for the community. He was involved in politics. He had us get involved in politics. He brought sunshine. He brought light, love, compassion, caring.”
“He might not have been a big man, but he was a man of huge stature,” added Larry Hudson, deacon chairman. “We looked up to Rev. Billoups. He had a great inspiration on my life. … He was just a giant in this community.”
Myles joined Billoups’ staff in 1978 and became pastor when his mentor retired in 1982. Following someone so established and beloved can be difficult, but things continued smoothly, both at the church and in Myles’ denominational leadership.
“The two pastors were so alike that there was no reason to have problems,” Sterling-Davis said. “They were so dynamic in everything they did. Rev. Myles … saw a community of children without food. He made sure that they had hot meals every day at vacation bible school — no cookies, no punch. We had balanced meals. … He provided so many things for this area, and we’re very appreciative.”
Those ministries are a big part of the church’s legacy, said member J.W. Vaughn.
“I always tell people it’s not how long you’ve been in a place, but what have you done since you’ve been there,” Vaughn said. “What contributions have you made?”