Reflections on the past, and the future, of this small African American baptist church in Gainesville
August 10, 2012. Everyone who lived in the Gainesville area before that date remembers the illuminated blue cross of the Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church on Route 29 in Gainesville. It served as a beacon to some, a waypoint to travelers, an orientation point for local pilots, and a beloved symbol of the church to its parishioners and the general community.
Early that morning, an arsonist severely damaged the church building, rendering it uninhabitable. Janet Robinson, church treasurer and vice chair of the trustee ministry, says, “The cross remained illuminated until almost the very end, [when the firefighters gained control of the fire]. When the cross went out, I knew it was bad.”
But the church community didn’t miss a beat. In their grief, they found another location to worship and continued with their ministries. “Nothing has decreased or changed over the years. In fact I would say that afterward we are still full steam ahead, we have all of our ministries still functioning, community programs, fundraising events, scholarships… everything… all the prior functions that the church participated in before the fire, we have continued to do that. We are feeding the homeless, having back to school drives,” says Pastor George Carlisle, who has led the church for almost eight years.
“I think that’s because the church community, the people that come to Mt. Pleasant, they’re resilient, they really understand that being a believer, being a christian, is service, sacrifice. And we teach according to the scripture that if anyone wants to be like Christ… you will experience persecution, you will experience hardship, difficulty,” says Pastor Carlisle.
The church is deeply ingrained in the local non-secular community also. After the fire, Pastor Carlisle was instrumental in starting a local “town hall” involving interfaith and non-secular parts of the community coming together to increase communication and better understanding among all people. Of the trustees, Pastor Carlisle says, “They are a very dedicated and committed group of servants who have demonstrated their determination and passion for the restoration and legacy of the church. They have been serving long before I was installed as Pastor, and they have a passion for the people of the community and for the people of the church, more so than I could have imagined… we just thought we were a little church on the side of the road. But what we’ve learned from the community… the biggest question we get is ‘are you guys coming back?’ And the second question we get is ‘WHEN are you guys coming back?’ This is from everybody [in the area], not just the African American community.”
The history of MPBC is deeply rooted and fascinating. According to Henry Peterson, Chairman of Trustees and Deacon, the church community began shortly after the Civil War, when freed African Americans settled in the area of Old Carolina Road and Route 29. The community was called “The Settlement.” With the need for a church foremost in devoted Christians’ minds, a meeting was arranged in the home of Mrs. Sally Grayson, whose descendant, Trustee Yolanda King, still attends MPBC. The result was a small log cabin built on Old Carolina Road as the first church. The log cabin church was displaced in 1882 when the Highway Department appropriated the land. It was disassembled and reassembled on Lee Highway, the present site of the church, on 3 acres, which was purchased by the church community for $10 from an owner in bankruptcy. It was a great price for the land, but even so it was a huge amount of money to African Americans of the day. “When you think about it, these people probably worked for a nickel a day,” says Robinson. Through the years changes occurred, and the present building was built in 1928. The cemetery behind the church contains one of the oldest graves of an African American that has been buried in a recorded marked location.
Since the arson, the church community has never given up on their church home. The building and location they consider hallowed ground. They never considered a new location or a new church building. Robinson says, “I don’t think that God’s plan for Mt. Pleasant.” And Pastor Carlisle adds, “It’s more than a building, it is a place of community, and so many lives have been touched through that building on those grounds.”
The legacy of the church building and its location are important. King says, “My family is so deep as far as the lineage of the church and how far it goes back. My great-grandmother was involved in that meeting at her house to start the church. Nowadays it is so important for people to look back at their families… when I can sit down with some of the church books from the past and I can show my kids how my family was part of the church I can take my kids to the cemetery and show them [their ancestors’ graves], that’s very important to me. I am so dedicated and so grateful that I have a spot to go and show them and tell them, ‘this is where you come from.’” Many of the trustees have attended the church their entire lives and can remember when the church bell would ring to call them to Sunday School, and Route 29 was a two lane road that was safe for children to cross by themselves.
So what now? The church community is still as determined today to restore the church building as they were after the fire, and have even planned some improvements. Pastor Carlisle says, “I really feel that it is God’s will for this church to be restored.” But that costs money, and the building was underinsured due to its value at the time of appraisal. So far, through gofundme donations, they have raised $23,000 of the $600,000 needed to complete the restoration. Slowly and surely they are working toward that goal. A large part of the expense of the restoration is bringing the building and property up to current codes, and the number of necessary county permits and fees is daunting and expensive. They have had to connect to the county water and sewer, which is not on Route 29 close to the church, but at the back of the three-acre property. Currently, with the money raised so far, they have been able to complete this project. When more money is raised, they can start on the interior of the building itself, which had no structural damage but significant water and smoke damage. Peterson, an engineer, has planned the interior of the church and produced the blueprints. They are thankful that their congregation contained someone whose time and talent could help so much in providing significant cost savings to the planned restoration.
And the arsonist? He lived and worked in the community, so had knowledge of the church and the building. He was a minor at the time of the crime, and had no criminal record. He pleaded guilty to felony arson, unlawfully entering property of another with the intent to damage, and maliciously destroying or defacing church property. He received and served two-and-a-half years in jail and is paying a court ordered restitution of $250 per month to the church. He was not charged with a hate crime, and whether or not the crime was racially motivated did not come out in the trial. But, the group agrees, to attack a religious house of worship he must have had some hate in his heart towards something MPBC represents.
Is there forgiveness? A chorus of “of course” and “absolutely” followed this question. “The first thing I did was render forgiveness, for the gospel of Luke 6:27 says, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.’ Therefore we forgave him and we prayed for him. We decided that once we left it in the hands of the state prosecutor, whatever decision that was rendered down, we were going to accept that this was God’s will,” says Pastor Carlisle.
“There are two parts to this… the church, we are victims, and this created a hardship for our congregation, the congregation had no financial problems prior to this. Not only is it a hardship for the church, I [think about] this young man… he had no record, he ruined his life as a Christian. We have to think about what this young man has done to his life, and what he has to do to repent.” says Robinson.
The faith, resilience and hope represented by the congregation is inspiring. In spite of such a debilitating disaster, they think of nothing but the positives in the situation, hope for the future and ways of moving forward and carrying on Christ’s gospel message and teachings. “The holy spirit told me, ‘don’t think of this as a setback, think of this as a way of going forward,’” says Peterson. And Peterson and Pastor Carlisle agree, “A lot of good things have come out of the fire, a lot of coming together in the whole community. We have great hopes for Mt. Pleasant and we believe the best years are still ahead.”
Mount Pleasant Baptist Church is currently temporarily worshiping at Northern Virginia Baptist Center at 14019 Glenkirk Road, Gainesville.
To read about Mount Pleasant Baptist Church visit www.mpbc-gainesville.org
To visit their gofundme page, go to www.gofundme.com/q3be24
Photos by Kara Thorpe