Texas church remains piece of neighborhood's past

February 27, 2011 9:25:09 AM PST
On Sunday mornings, Linda and Willie Jackson drive a half-mile to the small red-brick church they have attended all of their lives. The Jacksons met as children at St. John Missionary Baptist Church and later married there. Their children worshipped there, and it was their ancestors who founded the church not long after the Civil War.

"This church is my home, my roots and my family," said Linda Jackson, who is 63 and now lives in Euless. "I have moved away, but I always come home."

St. John is one of the last vestiges of Mosier Valley, a Fort Worth neighborhood just south of Euless that was settled by freed slaves in 1865 and became a bustling black farming community in the early 1900s.

Over the years, older folks who remember the past have died or moved away, and new families have moved in. Industrial buildings began outnumbering homes. But the church, which is celebrating its 100th year in the same building, is still a driving force in this small community, bringing together families and friends every Sunday to praise God.

"This is a hometown church," said Harold Massey, a senior deacon and member for nearly 30 years. "The people are friendly and warm, and everybody knows everybody."

On a recent Sunday, Pastor Sean Taylor greeted guests by name, with a hug or handshake. Parishioners trickled in, packing the pews and pulling out Bibles. The congregation is relatively small, with about 200 people at an average service. No big-screen TVs or fancy equipment is needed -- or wanted.

Church members belted out lyrics such as "My life is not my own, to you I belong." One woman shouted, "Oh, thank you, God," over and over while others fanned her. Members clapped and raised their hands to the sky. In his sermon, "New beginnings for a jacked-up past," Taylor said everyone, from prisoners to churchgoers, needs Jesus.

"This is not a spectator sport," Taylor told the congregation. "This is about being a participant. This is your opportunity to give God praise."

Membership has been on the rise since Taylor arrived in 2009, Willie Jackson said, and young members in particular are drawn to Taylor's sermons. St. John's motto is "The church that integrates faith with living," which means that religion is about more than attending church one day a week. It is an everyday commitment and should be woven into marriage, work and play, Taylor often tells his congregation.

After arriving, Taylor suggested some changes to the order of the worship service, and members welcomed his ideas.

"This is a progressive church," he said. "Even the older members aren't too set in their ways to try something new." St. John is steeped in rich history, and older members pass on stories to the newer ones.

When Feliciana Watkins of Dallas joined the church about two years ago, she had never heard of Mosier Valley. But the community's history, along with the church's energy, drew her.

"You hear bits and pieces of the history and heritage," Watkins said. "The people here are loving and welcoming, and they want you to know about their past."

In 1874, a small group of freed slaves met at the home of Frank Young and organized the congregation, originally named Oak Grove Baptist Church. For years, the church shared a building with the local elementary school and Masonic Lodge. In 1911, the congregation changed its name to St. John Missionary Baptist Church and built its own sanctuary, which stands today. The church has served as a community gathering spot ever since.

Jelen Farrow, 17, plays the drums, organ and piano at the church. She said she plans to attend the University of North Texas so she can continue attending St. John.

"I just couldn't imagine not having this church in my life," said Farrow, whose ancestors were founding members.

Beni Ruth Ruffin, who grew up in Mosier Valley, moved to Dallas years ago but still considers the church her home. Growing up, she heard stories about Mosier Valley's heyday of the early 1900s, when its population peaked at 300 and weekend square dances and socials were the norm.

"Some of my fondest memories were at St. John," Ruffin said. "This place enabled me to be a part of something bigger than myself."