By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
The shouts of amen and hallelujahs still rips through its hallowed sanctuary like it did a century ago. West Point Missionary Baptist Church, with its soul-stirring choir and enduring legacy, is 100 years old and has plenty of reasons to celebrate. While the church is famous for its superstar gospel singers, West Point Missionary Baptist Church has preserved a hidden gem where a U.S. president and Confederate soldiers worshipped long before Bronzeville was predominately Black.
Many know about West Point Missionary Baptist Church from its most famous member, the late “Queen of Gospel” Albertina Walker, but few know about a small building that’s connected to West Point’s church. It’s the original home of West Point, where the floors were dirt and baptisms were performed under a mirror to allow members in the back of the room to see. While West Point is 100 years old, the original building is older than that–much older. Confederate soldiers who were detained in a prisoner camp where the defunct Griffin Funeral Home stands, worshipped there when it was another church. Legend has it that the building was part of the Underground Railroad. The building is so old that a faded state plaque proclaims U.S. President William McKinley worshipped there when Bronzeville was white and the building was occupied by the predominately white St. Mark Methodist Episcopal Church. It doesn’t say what year, but McKinley was born in 1843. Members of West Point Missionary Baptist Church say the building is at least 141 years old and is still owned and operated by West Point Missionary Baptist Church.
One hundred years ago, Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson and city officials were figuring out where they would allow thousands of Blacks to live after they escaped the oppressive South, they picked Bronzeville, then known as the Douglas neighborhood. As the integration began, the neighborhood was still strongly associated with Stephen A. Douglas, a wealthy U.S. Senator who owned 55 acres that included Camp Douglas, a detention center for Confederate Soldiers who were captured during the Civil War. During a period of white flight, in the winter of 1917, Rev. R.H. Harmon and the West Point Missionary Baptist Church members purchased St. Mark Methodist Episcopal Church’s building for $22,000.00, according to the West Point Missionary Baptist Church website.
For the next 55 years, the building would serve as the worship center for West Point Missionary Baptist Church. In 1972, under the leadership of Reverend Dr. Carroll J. Thompson, the church built a new $400,000 building that’s currently being used. Dr. Thompson had a local reputation of being a national scholar and compassionate pastor— regularly visiting the sick and shut-in of his parish, as well as non-members. Rather than demolish the old building, West Point Missionary Baptist Church kept it intact. It’s preserved there today. With its simple stained glass, windows, charming vintage architecture and dated yellow and white décor, the building’s interior remains a nostalgic place stuck in time. While it’s no longer the worship place or sanctuary at West Point Missionary Baptist Church, the building is used for church banquets and special events. In the church basement, the church operates an elaborate food and clothing pantry. An enclosed walkway connects the old building with the modern one, which was remodeled in 2006.
Members have a fierce loyalty to the church. Before she died, gospel singer Albertina Walker always said her mother attended worship service at West Point Missionary Baptist Church after she gave birth in 1929.
Longtime member Annie Russell has a special place for it in her heart. She has been a proud member of the church for fifty years. She remembers attending worship services in the old building when she was a child and a teenager.
“This place has such a significant history,” she said.
Today, West Point Missionary Baptist Church, a proud symbol of tradition and service, is celebrating its centennial anniversary after decades of uplifting Blacks and making history during the Great Migration. It’s an occasion that calls for a grand celebration and West Point Missionary Baptist Church is doing it in a big way.
On Sunday, October 8, the church will host a 10 a.m. worship service featuring “100 years of family, friends and community. On Friday, November 10, a gala banquet will be held at the Chateau Busche, 11535 S. Cicero Avenue in Alsip. Donation is $60.00 per ticket for tables of 10.
At the helm is Pastor Bernard Jakes who’s steering West Point Missionary Baptist Church in modern times by opening and preaching the gospel to a younger generation of guests with the help of a mature congregation that has a strong identity of tradition and the church’s rich past.
“It is obvious that many mainstream popular churches have as its theological offering prosperity messaging over prophetic messaging and ministry,” Jakes said. “This, I believe, is why local churches are under the critical eye of many in general, and Millennials specifically, because many churches have opted out of maintaining a theological undertaking that God is a God of the oppressed.”
In its 100th-year old history, Jakes is the fifth pastor at West Point Missionary Baptist Church, 3566 S. Cottage Grove. Jakes said the average Sunday attendance is between 450-600.
“The changes I have witnessed in the 15 years I’ve served as pastor is astounding. When I arrived to West Point in December 2001, the active membership was 150 and, as previously stated, the median age was 68. As time progressed, the sheep God placed in my care grew older, while church growth was slow. I was eulogizing more members than receiving.
“Around the 5th year, I noticed the church transitioning in age. More younger adults were uniting with the church, and it balanced the souls that were transitioning from time into eternity. West Point had finally entered into a great balance of energy and wisdom.
“As a side note, I strongly believe a church that has no young people, and this includes middle-aged adults, is a church devoid of energy. Likewise, a church with no elders is a church without wisdom. I am grateful to God for a congregation with energy and wisdom, Rev. Jakes concluded.