IOWA CITY — With smiles and exclamations of “Welcome!”, parishioners of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Iowa City spent several minutes clasping hands and embracing one another Sunday.
The hugs are a weekly ritual, part of the Sunday service, but this week was marked with extra significance. The congregation was celebrating the church’s 150th anniversary in Iowa City.
Founded in 1868 in the same spot it still stands on South Governor Street in the Longfellow neighborhood, the church has weathered ups and downs over the century and a half of its existence.
Established not long after Iowa City was incorporated in 1839, it originally sat only 50 people. A renovation in 2010 greatly expanded the church’s capacity, and now there are days when 100 people fill the pews.
Dianna Penny remembers when that was not the case. Her father, the Rev. Fred Penny, led the church from 1958 until his death in 1994. She remembers their arrival in Iowa City (she an incoming freshman at the University of Iowa) and finding what could mildly be called a challenging situation.
“When we first walked through that door, we were greeted by the church’s lone member, Margaret Winston,” Dianna Penny said. “She had a strong faith, and she wasn’t a quitter.”
Winston had kept the historic church open, and Fred Penny worked diligently to build the congregation back up, striving to welcome students, professors and residents alike.
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“At that time, the late 1950s, integration was the shiny new thing, and people said, ‘Why do we need that church?’ ” Dianna Penny said. “But the deal is, you don’t throw away your heritage. Our belief was integration was a two-way street. My father invited all kinds of people in.”
The building had outdated wiring, no central heating and peeling paint, things the Penny family and their growing congregation addressed over time.
Once they added a kitchen, they started opening the doors for communal meals. The University of Iowa dorms didn’t serve food on Sundays, so Penny’s mother would cook dinner on Sunday nights for students.
When the small sanctuary wasn’t large enough for the congregation, they would open the doors and put chairs on the porch, and for special services or events they would pitch a tent in the yard and hold services outside.
“When my father first saw Iowa City, in spite of the odds, he saw potential and opportunity,” Penny said. “It’s like digging for gold. You have to go and find it.”
She said every time renovations have been done, they’ve found pieces of history, including evidence the church was built on land that once housed an Underground Railroad site. Many of the original parishioners were freed slaves and their children. The church received recognition on the National Register of Historic Places in 2000.
Pastor Kimberly Abram-Bryant, who has led the congregation for three years, remarked that the history extends beyond Iowa City, to connections with other Bethel AME congregations across the United States.
“It’s a blessing to be part of this rich history, not only here in Iowa City but across the country,” she said. “The Bethel AME Church is very rooted in the history of the African-American community, but it also is an inclusive church.”
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She said she’s proud the church has been welcoming to all, and especially that it can be a haven for black students at the UI who arrive to a town and campus that are overwhelmingly white.
“Having a meal like grandma’s cooking and having the conversations we can have is important,” she said. “This church has been a place for people to feel comfortable and to express themselves ... I call this church a mega church, not because of its size, but because of its potential and because of what has already happened here.”
Penny said it was gratifying to see full pews at the three services Bethel held this weekend to mark the anniversary.
“I feel blessed, because I know from whence we’ve come,” she said. “It’s special, because we went from one tiny little old lady to all these people.”
At one of those special services Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Reginald Blount, a visiting pastor who served as an associate pastor and then as head pastor from 1995 to 1998, returned to preach. He told the congregants: “The best is yet to come.
“Even after 150 years, it’s just the beginning,” he said during his sermon. “There’s so much more God has in store for you.”
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