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“A Little Link in a Great Chain”: The congregation of the Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church prepares to celebrate its 160th anniversary

Photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church, 847 Ohio St., will celebrate its 160th anniversary next week with a series of weekend events.

It’s not every day you come across a community facility that has been around for 160 years – but then again, not every church is like Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church.

Founded in 1863, the church is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year and has no plans to slow down anytime soon. The church is one of two black congregations from early Lawrence history, along with St. Luke’s AME, that remain active today.

People who want to celebrate the occasion with the Ninth Street community will have ample opportunity to do so over the next week. A reunion concert is scheduled for Friday, March 24 at 7:00 p.m. and the community will host a games night and chili cookoff at 5:00 p.m. the next day. The 10:45 a.m. service on Sunday, March 26, will be guest speaker Rev. Rene Brown – a former Ninth Street minister – who will lead the choir from his current congregation at Mt. Zion First Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. will bring. The community will start the party with a picnic Sunday afternoon from 2 to 6 p.m. in the Flory Meeting Hall at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, 2120 Harper St.

Takisha Derritt, who serves as coordinator for the church’s reunion concert, calls the program a “blast from the past.” It will feature songs that the congregation will be familiar with from earlier periods in church history, with old musicians and former choir directors being prominently featured. Derritt told Journal-World that the reunion choir would be several times larger than the church’s usual choir, which has about 10 singers. The group for the reunion concert signed up 42 people last week, she said.

Photo by: Nick Krug/Journal-World

In this file photo, Takisha Clark, front, now known as Takisha Derritt, and other choir participants sing their praises during rehearsal for the 2012 Wise Women Build Conference on Wednesday, August 22, 2012 at the Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church, 847 Ohio Street.

People will travel to Lawrence not only from Baton Rouge, but also from Florida, Texas and Missouri. Derritt said the community has also extended an invitation to the Lawrence City Commission and expects some commissioners to attend.

“It’s going to be a full house,” added Karen Presswood, who serves as the coordinator of the anniversary celebrations.

Adaptation to Change

Much like the rest of the world, the Church’s recent history has been shaped by how it has responded to COVID-19. Guidelines passed by heads of state across the country halted in-person worship during the height of the pandemic, and it was no different for the Ninth Street Missionary Baptist.

But that didn’t matter much. In fact, the congregation never missed a Sunday service despite being unable to physically gather for a period. Presswood said that to circumvent COVID restrictions, Pastor Eric Galbreath began pre-recording his messages — first at home and eventually in the empty church’s pulpit — and edited them along with other elements to create a video of a continuous service. These videos were then uploaded for the community to view. They later all tuned in together via Zoom for a live streaming watch party.

“We didn’t miss anything,” Presswood said. “When we say it’s the 160th[anniversary]it really is. It kept going – it never stopped.”

And it ended up turning into something positive for the community. While many people are still more cautious about gathering in person, Presswood said Ninth Street has attracted members from across the country who continue to attend the hybrid services online today. For example, their children in Colorado and Texas can tune in, or former parishioners who have moved to cover the distance.

Some parishioners have never set foot in Lawrence – they have been active participants, but on a purely virtual basis.

“If service is your passion, I think the whole pandemic has really shown that, you know?” Galbreath told Journal-World. “…There is no other way but to find a way.”

Photo by: file

In this file photo, Pastor Eric Galbreath (center) greets members of his congregation during the service at Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church, 847 Ohio St.

Watch the story unfold

Although no one lives today who witnessed the Church’s early decades firsthand, there are some members of the congregation who saw many of the younger ones. These include Daphne Payne, a member since 1961, who joined Lawrence at the age of 24 to become a teacher.

In Payne’s more than 60 years of service to the congregation, she has been involved in many ways, from serving as organist and pianist for decades to serving as chair of the congregation’s usher. She said she may be the oldest active member of the congregation and she still serves as a deaconess and on the committee that plans the Jubilee events.

“I never get lonely,” Payne said. “I live alone, but I never feel lonely.”

Over the years, Payne has seen firsthand how the Ninth Street Missionary Baptist has served as a “transitional church” for students at the University of Kansas. With its proximity to campus, it became a hub for students looking for a service they could attend regularly while living away from home.

“They stay for a while, some are active, and then they go their separate ways to their jobs and all that,” Payne said. “And some of those, I think, will be some of the people who come back for our anniversary.”

Photo by: Glenn Foster

This photo shows the Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church congregation around 1880.

Galbreath was one of those students himself. He is a former KU football player with a strong connection to the college ministry.

Because of these connections, Payne said, it’s even easier to meet people with a connection to Ninth Street Missionary Baptist when traveling to other states. For example, on a visit to Annapolis, Maryland, she met a US Naval Academy chaplain who had previously attended the church.

“If you go anywhere, you will meet someone associated with our church,” Payne said.

What’s next

It’s hard to say what the world will be like a century from now, but for now, at least, Galbreath said he was glad to have played even a small part in the first 160 years of Ninth Street Missionary Baptist Church’s history.

“I’m just grateful to be part of a small link in a big chain,” Galbreath said. “…For this season that we’re here and God has allowed us to be in, we’re going to do our best and I’m just grateful for the opportunity to serve. Maybe in 160 years someone else will say the same thing.”

After taking the time to look back, the church will quickly look ahead. Derritt said the church will focus on continuing services and partnerships such as the church’s relationship with Lawrence nonprofit Family Promise and faith-based advocacy group Justice Matters. Ninth Street is very committed to hosting families in need of a place to live through Family Promise’s Homelessness Prevention Program, often hosting them at the counseling center next to the church.

Other outreach opportunities are returning after an absence, like a nursing home ministry, or are brand new, like an interfaith mental health ministry in partnership with the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

“One thing[Galbreath]focuses on is that we are a ‘service-oriented’ church,” Presswood added. “So all the different things that we do tie into that focus, and he’s had that focus since he started here in 2015.”

But another big piece of the puzzle in the near future will ensure that the church building will be preserved for generations to come – and that requires some renovation work. Church administrator Cynthia Eubanks told Journal-World earlier this week that while nothing is set in stone yet, there are many needs she hopes the church can address this year.

“We know we have some needs, and we’re in the process of finding an architect,” Eubanks said. “We know that we need to do some renovation work on the existing church building.”

This includes the walls in the parish hall in the basement of the church, she said. They’re made of plaster, and they’re crumbled and broken in such a way that there’s more plaster on the floor than on the wall. The church is also considering a range of other renovations and repairs — adding energy-efficient lighting, replacing floors, and completely renovating the church’s kitchen.

A particularly important request is the creation of better access from the parish hall to the chancel, which are currently separated by a staircase. Eubanks said this ties in with other accessibility efforts that are on the list, like installing ADA-accessible toilets. There is also no ADA-accessible way to access the sanctuary from other parts of the building; The only ADA-accessible entrance to the Sanctuary is a ramp located outside of the building.

“All of this…is just the beginning,” Eubanks said. “With a very old building, you can imagine that there is a lot of maintenance and a lot of things that we have to do to make it meet the needs of people today. This is our beginning.”

Eubanks said the church plans to launch a fundraising campaign before the end of the year and also plans to receive some grants. She said if people want to give some support, it would be especially helpful to have guidance on where the best places to look for grants that might make a dent would be.

“The church prays, we analyse, we talk to architects, we do everything we can because we want to ensure that the choices we make for the future last for the life of the building. ‘ Eubanks said. “Because otherwise people would say to us, ‘Well, my God, why are you putting so much money into this old building? You could just buy another building that meets all your needs.’ But there is a lot of history in this building – it means a lot to us.”

For more information about the anniversary events or upcoming renovations, contact the church at [email protected] or 785-843-6472.