Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church got its start in 1903 the same year St. Petersburg
was incorporated as a city. It was a growing city and in its newness people had their own opinions on how things should be done. The church was no exception.
Like most churches of that day, someone had a desire to start a church and petitioned enough people to join them in the endeavor. Bethel started in a small storefront on 1st Avenue South between 9th and 10th Street South.
Four years later the church membership would decline to a handful of faithful members determined to see it succeed. And succeed it did, growing to hundreds of members decades later.
Among its lineages of leaders is the first documented pastor, Rev. Cherry. From 1933-1937 the church was led by John W. Carter. In August of 1955, Rev. Cornelius V. Ford (pictured) succeeded Rev. Phox Thurman.
I have been unable to locate a complete timeline. In 1972 the church appointed the most successful and controversial pastor in its history, Henry J. Lyons. His successor, Joaquin Marvin, was voted in by an overwhelming vote in December 2000, despite a questionable past.
The church’s current pastor, Dr. Rickey L. Houston, became the senior pastor in August 2004. He and his wife Helen, have brought the congregation the stability that they so
desperately needed. He is a native of Alabama and does not have firsthand knowledge of the church’s displacement from its location in the Gas Plant area. Nor does he have a point of reference to the community that once existed there.
With his assistance, I was able to sit down and speak with two lifelong residents that have lived through the highs and lows of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. You can read my interviews with Rev. Alvin Miller and Mrs. Marva Dennard, here.
Bethel’s Most Influential Pastor
Dr. Henry J. Lyons arrived in St. Petersburg in 1971 to interview for the Senior Pastor position at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church. He would later secure the position, despite a questionable résumé and marital history.
Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.
Whatever the search committee did or did not uncover about their lead candidate, he was offered the position. Lyons would go on to lead the church for more than 25 years and was the longest standing pastor in the church’s history. He was featured in the January 1995 edition of Ebony Magazine.
At only 30-years of age, Lyons was part of a growing trend of churches bringing in
young pastors to energize and grow their congregations. The faith community was on the cusp of what Tamelyn Tucker-Worgs talks about in Black Megachurches and the Paradox of Black Progress.
Over the past 30 years, there has been an explosion of these churches in both central cities and suburban areas across the United States. This social and ecclesiastical phenomenon is arguably the most exciting “Black church” development to occur in the post-civil rights era. (Tucker, 2016)
Lyons, who attended Gibbs Junior College, was no stranger to the area and may have developed friendships that would become allies, during that time. He surely had a preview of the future church during his time in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Atlanta, Georgia. His congregation was a perfect mixture of business professionals and members of the black echelon. If his goal was to create St. Petersburg’s first black megachurch he had chosen the perfect location.
The Perfect Storm
Once Lyons arrived at Bethel Metropolitan he set the tone and built alliances among the church leadership. Less than a year into his tenure, he ended a community partnership with Pinellas County Head Start, a government agency that assisted low-income families with childcare. The church was host to one of their daycare centers, a center that residents in the Gas Plant area relied upon.
The decision to replace the center for a dining room did not bode well with the congregation and some of its leadership. Whatever Lyons's overall plan for the church was, he had enough support where it mattered, to put his agenda in place.
At some point, he incorporated the church, as in made it a corporation. He made himself the president, as wells as pastor. By doing so, it became virtually impossible to fire him, if the church had any desire to do so at any time.
What Lyons lacked in Christian decorum, he made up for in his plans to move the church forward. Church members were appreciative of the changes and upgrades being made to their 40-year-old edifice.
The biggest upgrade would come a few years later.
Redevelopment: a Blessing
Not every pastor was disappointed when the city announced it would seek redevelopment of the Gas Plant area. Because he had no emotional ties to the community, Lyons saw the opportunity to leave the area and build a new edifice as a much welcomed and timely blessing. Not only would Bethel get a new church, but they could build in an area that represented their growing congregation.
At the time Lyons came to Bethel, St. Petersburg was undergoing its own change. Black residents were no longer confined to certain areas. Residents were moving out in many directions and making once segregated neighborhoods, their homes.
Black suburban migration is not only a geographical shift, but also reflects a “class migration”—an expanded Black middle class that is clearly the result of the opening of society. This wave of suburbanization was fueled by the post-civil rights decline in restrictions on housing, increased opportunities for education and better-paying jobs. It is a result of the gains of the civil rights movement and is a manifestation of class upward mobility. (Tucker, 2016)
According to city records, Bethel Metropolitan was awarded a total of $742,029 in a cash
payment. It equaled the highest amount of three appraisals for replacement value, plus an additional $2952 for the value of the building.
The church would secure land on 26th Avenue South, one block west of 34th Street South. The new church cost an estimated $1.2 million. After applying the money from the city’s buyout and monies from the church's building fund, they secured a mortgage for the $300,000 balance.
Looks are Deceiving
When I visited the church to interview its members, I saw a side of the building I had not experienced in past visits. It darned on me that I had never made it past the sanctuary. I was always mesmerized by the beautiful stained glass feature behind the
choir stand. The sunken musician’s pit, and the signature cedar ceilings of most of the churches built during that era.
What I discovered on this visit was a separate wing of the church. It housed the kitchen and fellowship hall, offices, a conference room, and multiple classrooms.
I asked Marva Dennard if the church had ever had a school. She said over the years there had been two.
The Fall of a Leader
It’s hard not to try and imagine where Bethel Metropolitan would be today had their progressive thinking leader not suffered a mighty fall from grace. During his tenure, he had some successes, but they were overshadowed by his numerous failures.
He rose to prominence as the president of the National Baptist Convention USA in 1994. The power that came with the role proved to be too much for him to handle.
Lyons, “…was one of the most sought-after ministers in the country in his heyday. Political figures like Hillary Clinton and Jesse Jackson court his favor and counsel according to the Tampa Bay Times.” (BCNN1, 2017)
It is a reminder that preachers come and go. Church buildings can be built, sold, torn down and rebuilt in new neighborhoods. But one thing that will not change is that God’s word is everlasting. As long as the people trust in His Word, the church will remain steadfast and unmovable.
Photo Credit 1: St. Petersburg Times
Photo Credit 2: St. Petersburg Times
Photo Credit 3: The Weekly Challenger
Photo Credit 4: Ebony Magazine
Photo Credit 5: Hood College
Photo Credit 6: Bethel Metropolitan
Photo Credit 7: Carla Bristol
BCNN1. “BCNN1.” BCNN1 - Black Christian News Network / Black Church News, 21 June 2017, https://blackchristiannews.com/2017/06/rev-henry-lyons-former-head-of-national-baptist-convention-sentenced-to-prison-in-1999-for-stealing-millions-from-organization-is-accused-of-church-fraud-once-again-floridas-new-salem-votes-to-o/.
Tucker-Worgs T. (2016) Black Megachurches and the Paradox of Black Progress. In: Pollard A.B., Duncan C.B. (eds) The Black Church Studies Reader. Palgrave Macmillan, New York
Wilson, John. “The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: Becoming the Man.” The Struggle for the Soul of Henry Lyons: Becoming the Man, Cult Education Institute, https://culteducation.com/group/1037-henry-j-lyons/13014-the-struggle-for-the-soul-of-henry-lyons-becoming-the-man.html.