A Century of Sacrament
An extraordinary church celebrates its centennial.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
If it surprises some that a black Baptist church exists in the heart of Pacific Grove, the kicker is yet to come: As of this Wednesday, Aug. 12, Pacific Grove First Baptist Church will have been there 100 years.
The church has marked the milestone with special services since July 26, but the celebrations go full bore this weekend with a banquet at Embassy Suites Friday Aug. 7, a reunion/concert Saturday at the church, and a final centennial service Sunday with former member and guest speaker retired Brig. Gen. Nolan Bivens. The tribute to the military is fitting: The Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black 9th regiment of the U.S. Calvary, after having served in the Civil War, Cuba with Theodore Roosevelt and the Phillipines, were moved to Pacific Grove’s China Point village in 1902.
It was those soldiers, and especially their wives, who first expressed the desire to build a black church. The first formal service was convened in 1909, the same year of the birth of the NAACP.
Since then, P.G. First Baptist has inspired its own brand of longevity.
“I’ve been [coming to] this church for 30 years,” say local pillar and centennial organizer Jackie Craghead. “Some have been here 50 years.”
Like Connie Mitchell, a former teacher and midwife. Her kids grew up in the church, her husband was memorialized there, and on Saturday, her daughter Yolanda West – a classically trained soprano – returns to co-direct and perform in its centennial concert.
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During one late-afternoon centennial service in the acoustically customized church – appointed with rich mahogany pews and altar, red carpet, and infused with blue and yellow light from vertical stained glass windows – a finely dressed congregation listen to guest pastors and Rev. Richard Nance, and sings hymns with the choir. Women fan themselves while ushers in black suits and white gloves man the aisles. After a rousing oratory by a guest pastor that ellicits raised hands and hollars of “Yes!” and “Amen!,” Nance holds forth with quiet authority.
“[This church] is more than an organization,” he says. “It’s an organism. It has survived and thrived for years.”
Later, he explains why it has.
“Young people [came] to me and poured out their lives,” he says. “They trusted me with stuff they couldn’t go to their parents with. They would stumble in, and then bounce on out afterwards.”
The church was front and center in the civil rights movement, launching the local chapter of the NAACP in 1932, and working to desegregate the MPUSD faculty and the Peninsula landscape, with allies like St. Mary’s By-the-Sea Episcopal Church.
“Those ladies never let up,” Nance says.
As for the centennial concert that celebrates those achievements, West, who now lives in L.A., says “The plan is to make it varied. We’ll do classical, opera, gospel; Mozart, Bach, Delibe’s ‘Flower Duet,’ some spirituals and gospels. Something for everybody.”
Other former members are flying in from across the U.S., including retired astronaut Capt. Winston Scott, a Naval Postgraduate School grad who’s traveled to space seven times. He is the main speaker at the Saturday banquet (and will purportedly don his space suit).
“When military people leave here,” Craghead says, “they try to find a [similar] church wherever they go.”
“All the people in the concert have grown up in the church and on the Peninsula,” West says. “As far as I’m concerned, no matter where I am, [Rev. Nance] is my pastor.”
P.G. First Baptist has spawned not just faithful parishioners, says Craghead, but “most” of the local black churches and Baptist churches. But its current membership is smaller than in days past because the Fort Ord closure dispersed many of the black soldiers and families that were drawn to the church for its familial feel and shared culture.
“It’s just evolution,” sighs Craghead.
Not that it’s going anywhere. The church’s longevity is echoed in the patronage of its longtime pastor. Nance, after serving the church from 1956 to 1992, has returned to serve as interim pastor – a role he’s maintained for four years. Why is it taking so long to find a suitable heir to the pulpit?
Says Craghead: “We like him. We’re not in a hurry for him to go.”