What does it take for a congregation of people to reach a three-digit birthday?
Reverend Dr. Orlando McReynolds has his own theory.
“I think family has a lot to do with maintaining a congregation,” he said. “One thing I’ve discovered since moving here is that in the African-American community, it’s basically multiple families and it becomes a family tradition – that’s what we do, that’s what we believe, that’s where we’re going.”
“It” revolves around the First Missionary Baptist Church, which will celebrate its 156th anniversary on Sunday, April 24. McReynolds, the church pastor, will speak at the 11 a.m. service to commemorate the occasion. Dinner will be served afterwards. All are welcome.
“We are looking forward to Sunday,” he said.
First Missionary may be the oldest African-American church in Metropolis, if not Massac County. According to Metropolis 150th Anniversary Historical Bookletit was at least the sixth organized church in the city, itself founded in 1839.
Its roots date back to 1866 when it was founded by a group of dedicated Christians and named the African Baptist Church. Reverend R. Broyles was the first pastor. The congregation held its first worship services in a brushwood arbor on Third Street near the Ohio River before moving to Jane Robinson’s home.
The first church building was constructed at the corner of Seventh and Vienna streets in 1903. At the same time the name was changed to First Missionary Baptist Church. This building was destroyed by a cyclone in 1913, but soon after, the current structure was built in its place.
According to church history, the late Lenus Turley became the 13th pastor of the church in 1953. He came as the first missionary from Clover Leaf Baptist Church in Joppa and Unity Baptist Church in Brookport. During his four-year tenure, construction of the church’s basement began, restrooms were installed, and the baptismal pool was added. Before that, baptisms took place in the Ohio River.
First Missionary celebrated its centenary in 1966 and at that time had the distinction of being the oldest church in the Mount Olive District.
The church steeple was struck by lightning during a storm on August 24, 2004, causing fire and water damage to the main entrance and vestibule. For several months during the rebuilding, the congregation met in the basement.
Rev. Garnell A. Edwards became the church’s 22nd pastor in December 2005. The church continued to grow and land was opened in July 2006 for the First Missionary Family Life Center, with construction beginning in August and the grand opening on February 17, 2008. The center was designated 501c in 2012.
McReynolds said the premise of the center is to be community outreach.
The center served as the location for the summer meals program from 2017 to 2019. In those first two summers, it served 2,500 meals to youth in Metropolis.
The center also has classroom spaces and has been the site of different programs. The church received a grant from Harrah’s to purchase five laptops to organize “It’s My Turn” to teach computer literacy to seniors and baby boomers. Dale McReynolds organized an art program for the elderly and the young.
The Family Life Center can also be rented for wedding receptions, funerals, etc.
McReynolds was elected the 23rd pastor of the First Missionary on October 8, 2013. He and his wife, Dale, moved from Harlem, New York, to Metropolis and he preached his first sermon as a pastor on November 3, 2013.
“It was the perfect situation,” he said. “And, I saw the potential here as far as the congregation goes. It was a perfect match, a win-win situation. I didn’t have to think twice about it. »
For McReynolds, coming to First Missionary was a kind of homecoming.
Born in New York, he spent many summers in Paducah with his father, who was from there. McReynolds decided to stay in Paducah, which is also where Dale is from, for his senior year of high school and graduated from Tilghman.
He got into broadcasting, mostly radio news after getting his first break as a disc jockey at WKYQ and then WPAD, where he launched his first soul music program. He went to a train station in Louisville before returning to New York. He stayed there for a total of 38 years. He married Dale in 1989, accepted the call to become a preacher/pastor in 1991 and was ordained in 1994, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, father and son. When he retired after 19 years from a church in Brooklyn, they decided to move back to the Paducah area so Dale could be closer to his family.
But McReynolds wasn’t quite ready to fully retire. He put up some resumes and learned that First Missionary had an opening.
When he came to Metropolis to introduce himself, “It was almost like ‘The Twilight Zone,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ or something like that. Not only did the church building look the same (as where he pastored in New York), but the church sanctuary was nearly the same. The presbytery is right next to here; in Brooklyn, it was right across the street. The freight train passes right here; in Brooklyn, the subway ran right behind the church. It was almost like a confirmation.
He recalls church member Lorenzo Mann commenting, “’You look really comfortable up there.’ I said, ‘Looks like exactly where I was last Sunday.’ ”
McReynolds noted that while older members, like pianist Jo Martha Clark and fourth-generation deacon Calvin Owens, are the glue of a congregation, “it’s the younger ones who serve” who help hold it together.
“When you look at the surnames of this congregation over the years, there are not many descendants left. This begs the question: where did they go? Are they dead? Did they leave because there is nothing left in this community? If so, let’s hope that’s not the future.
“What you don’t want to see is a church age,” he continued. “One of the reasons I continue the annual Martin Luther King Day program is to bring community, congregation and civic leaders together. We tell our young people to stay in school, go to college, to find a good job; when they come back with the diploma, they ask where the good job is, and because the jobs are not there, they leave. What you have here is not only a congregation that It’s aging, but an aging community. It’s about attracting and reaping young people and bringing them in; it’s not a problem unique to this congregation.
A more recent situation is a consequence of the restrictions related to COVID-19. McReynolds recalls that when the 2020 restrictions started it was in the middle of Holy Week. “I announced that I, my wife, Deacon Owens was going to be here and in the Bible, where two or three are gathered in his name, he will be here too”, and he left the decision to come or stay home for members.
First Missionary has never closed during COVID-19.
“I didn’t know the government limited it to 12 people, but, don’t you know, every week we had 12 people, like 12 disciples,” he said. “On Whit Sunday (2020), I sent out a letter asking everyone to come back, and basically most of them did. And we’ve been rocking ever since. Which made us evil, however, is to recover the parents and the young people that we had.
Like many churches because of COVID-19, “we learned how to make lemonade out of lemons” by going on YouTube and Facebook Live with its services picking up 200 people a week, many of whom live outside the area.
“COVID by itself hasn’t hurt us. It was a hurdle that gave us another opportunity,” McReynolds said.
With a vision to “serve Christ and community,” First Missionary continues to seek out these opportunities to serve. So far, these areas include a community outreach program asking for donations to help women affected by domestic violence; a Secret Pal program for church members to encourage others; and providing the COVID-19 vaccine through Operation Sure Shot. A Juneteenth neighborhood party is being prepared for Monday, June 20.
“I often call it the best congregation south of heaven,” McReynolds said. “Unlike some congregations I have had experience with, there is no commotion here. It’s a congregation that loves itself — and you can’t love the Lord if you don’t love yourself. We are blessed here.