Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church celebrates 156 years

Published 6:00 am Sunday, August 27, 2023

By Clark Curtis, For the Washington Daily News

The humble beginnings of Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church began under a big cedar tree at the corner of 5th and Respess Streets in 1866-1867. It was there that the church was officially organized without a building to hold its services. Its first elected pastor, Rev. John Washington and some of its new members, erected a bush arbor on 5th Street between Van Norden and Bridge Streets, where members of the organization would congregate and hold their meetings. During these early years the members decided their new church should be named Mt. Gilead Baptist Church. As the organization continued to grow and prosper, the decision was made to build a church to replace the bush arbor. A small framed structure, large enough to accommodate members and friends for regular services, would become its new home.

Under the guidance of Pastor Washington, the church continued to serve the community and saw its congregation grow exponentially, so that the small framed structure could no longer accommodate its growing membership. Fundraising efforts began and a plot of land was purchased on Gladden Street between 5th and 6th Streets. Located near a stream and a summer backdrop of wild flowers, it seemed the ideal place for the new church, which would be erected between 1918-1920. Over the years those who passed by would often refer to Mt. Gilead as the Spring Garden Baptist Church because of the tranquil and colorful setting. The name rang true with the congregation and eventually the name was changed to Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church, which it remains today.

Pastor Aaron Lewis, the current pastor and his wife of 32 years Angela, were born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland and have been living in Washington since 1999. For 15 years Pastor Lewis served simultaneously as a youth pastor in Bertie County and a senior pastor in Williamston, commuting back and forth from Washington. In 2017 he was asked to come and lead the Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church, following the passing of Dr. E.R. McNair, who had pastored there for the last 48 years. “I am truly humbled that I have been given this opportunity to pastor here,” said Pastor Lewis. “I knew of the church and its storied history, as I would oftentimes sit in the back of the church to listen to Dr. McNair. I literally prayed that some day I would find a church similar to where I grew up in Maryland, where you could live close by and just walk to church. Knowing the neighborhood here in Washington, the community, and the people, I knew this was it,” as he beamed with thankfulness.

For Pastor Lewis and his wife, they literally walked into the rich legacy left behind by Pastor McNair, feeling the sense of obligation to maintain and uphold it. And at the same time, adapt to and address the challenges that lie ahead. “Spring Garden and other African American churches really started from underneath the trees,” said Angela. “And just the fact that we are sitting in this building today is real progress. We have been told that Spring Garden is the oldest African American congregation in Washington, and that one of its previous pastors was instrumental in working with other Black churches to bring Booker T. Washington to town in the early 1900s. African American churches have been the hub and safe place for a community, for prayer, strength, and support. Spirituality, religion, and faith are so important to who we are as a Black community.”

Not long after the Lewis’ arrived in Washington, came COVID. Which meant, new and innovative ways to pastor and remain in touch with their congregation. “We had no idea how valuable Facebook, Zoom, and even our phones would become during the pandemic,” said Pastor Lewis. “And much of what we learned we continue to use today, particularly for those who are homebound and the like. But nothing will replace the value of face-to-face meetings.”

In looking to the future, the Lewis’ are committed to carrying on the long legacy left behind by Dr. McNair and those who came before him at Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church. “Part of my dream is to do some educational things in the community,” said Pastor Lewis. “I believe in giving people a hand up rather than a hand out, and empower them to be better, to do better, and to live better. We will always strive to be that friendly church in a harbor friendly community.”

But perhaps their biggest challenge in the 21st Century will be to bring different cultures and races together to make a difference. “As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “11:00 AM Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States,” said Angela. “It is not because love is not there in their hearts, but it will take intentionality for people to change how things have always been. When you grow up in little southern towns, families are rooted. Where your grandmama went to church is where you go. It is about understanding the culture in which we live and to make the best of the opportunities when they present themselves, in order for change to happen.”

Added Pastor Lewis, “Our ministry is trying to close the gap between cultural and racial lines, or whatever other lines that we might find,” said Pastor Lewis. “It is then that we can recognize our differences, but use them to our benefit. I remain very hopeful that one day, with the Lords’ guidance, once we get past the idea of “having” to work together, we will start seeing the real people inside of all of us and start “wanting” to work together.”

The 156th anniversary celebration of the Spring Garden Missionary Baptist Church begins on the evenings of August 30th and 31st at 7:00PM with two revival services. On Saturday, September 2nd there will be a pre-anniversary fellowship banquet from 4:00PM-7:00PM. And on Sunday, September 3rd there will be Sunday School at 9:30AM and the Sunday morning worship service at 11:00AM, followed immediately by a post celebration reception in the Fellowship Hall. All activities will be held at the Spring Garden Missionary Baptist at 526 Gladden Street here in Washington. All members of the community are welcome to attend.