Keeping the faith: Iowa City’s Bethel AME Church celebrates 150 years

The Bethel AME Church of Iowa City in April 2018. The church has maintained a presence on Governor Street for 150 years, through fires and expansions. — photo by Jav Ducker

In a city with few remaining historic buildings and a population constantly in flux, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church is a rarity. Bethel, Iowa City’s only historically Black church, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. The church still stands on the same Governor Street lot its founders bought for $50 in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War.

“One of the things to think about is the fact that there were enough freed slaves in Iowa City in 1868 to build this church,” said Venise Berry, an associate professor of journalism and mass communications at the University of Iowa and a Bethel trustee. “To me that’s just fascinating.”

The 1870 U.S. Census recorded 89 Black residents in all of Johnson County, 37 of whom had been born in slave-holding states. All three of the church trustees listed on Bethel’s original deed were born the South: James Howard in Virginia, Henry Boon in North Carolina and Boston Clay in Alabama.

Church members built a one-room sanctuary where the congregation worshipped until 2010, when a new, larger sanctuary was built behind the original structure. Despite its small physical size, Bethel has played a large role in the greater Iowa City community.

“Before coming here, I knew Bethel has a phenomenal reputation in Iowa City for generosity, for helping people in need,” said Rev. Kimberly Abram-Bryant, who has been Bethel’s pastor for three years. “The church also has a great tradition of hospitality, of welcoming students who have arrived in a new community and at a new school, where the predominant culture is caucasian, and who might be having difficulty making connections.”

These traditions were firmly established during the 36 years Rev. Fred Penny served as Bethel’s pastor, Abram-Bryant explained.

Rev. Penny was Bethel’s pastor from 1958 until his death in 1994. Accompanied by his wife and children, Penny came to Iowa in 1957 from southern Illinois, where he had served as the pastor two small-town AME churches. His first assignment was in Muscatine, the city where Iowa’s first AME church was established in the 1840s. That church, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, is no longer there.

“We were in Muscatine for a year,” Dianna Penny, the eldest of the six Penny children, recalled. “Then my father attended the annual AME conference in 1958 and the bishop called out, ‘Who will take Iowa City?’ My dad raised his hand.”

Dianna Penny, the daughter of Rev. Penny who served the Bethel congregation from 1958 until 1994, now oversees the church. — photo by Jav Ducker

Penny was 18 when her family moved to Iowa City, and she vividly remembers seeing the church on Governor Street for the first time. “It was a tiny, little, weather-beaten, grey structure that resembled an old one-room schoolhouse from the pioneer days,” Penny said. “Out front, there was a rusted old hitching-post for horses that was left over from the 19th century.”

“The church had a heavy oak door, and I was right behind my father when he pushed it open. There was this tiny, but very dignified, little old lady sitting beside the stove that she had lit to warm the church to welcome her new pastor.”

Margaret Winston wasn’t there to greet the new pastor on behalf of the entire congregation. Margaret Winston was there because she was the entire congregation. After 90 years, Bethel AME had been reduced to one parishioner, and she was well into her 80s.

Paint was peeling from the walls and the floorboards were warped, Penny recalled. “But my dad saw great potential in Iowa City,” she said.

During the early years, Rev. Penny had to divide his time between Iowa City and Washington, Iowa, where he also served as pastor of that city’s AME church. On Sundays, Rev. Penny held morning services in Iowa City, then drove to Washington to conduct an afternoon service. Throughout the week, he was busy reaching out to people across every strata of society around Iowa City.

Rev. Penny made a special effort to ensure college students felt welcomed, even if they weren’t interested in becoming regular members of the church.

“There was no meal service in the dorms on Sundays, so we had dinner for the students who came to church,” Dianna Penny explained.

The church also held regular social events for students. One of the students who came to those events in the 1970s was Venise Berry.

“I wasn’t a consistent member of the church, but I did go to barbeques and other events,” said Berry, who earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at UI. “Rev. Penny was very active with the university students.”

Inside Iowa City’s Bethel AME Church, April 2018. — photo by Jav Ducker

He also developed a reputation as “that one go-to pastor in the community for anyone in need of help,” according to Abram-Bryant.

“Money he had not, but he could always get you what you said you needed,” Dianna Penny said.

Rev. Penny provided food for people who would have gone hungry, places to live for those had none, baby items for families with newborns, as well as many other things. And he did it all by appealing to the generosity of community members with whom he’d built relationships.

“Whatever you needed, he knew enough people that he could get it for you,” Penny said.

In taking care of bodies as well as souls, Rev. Penny was following the well-established tradition of his denomination, which has always stressed providing social support, as well as spiritual support, for the communities it serves. The AME church has often been described, using the words of an old spiritual, as “a rock in a weary land.”

The first African Methodist Episcopal Church, now known as “Mother Bethel,” was founded in Philadelphia in 1794, when Black members of that city’s St. George’s Methodist Church quit its congregation due to the church’s racist policies. It would take another 21 years and two lawsuits for the AME church to establish its right to be its own denomination, independent of the traditional Methodist church.

In 1816, one of the organizers of the new church, Richard Allen, an ex-slave who bought his own freedom and went on to become a successful businessman, organized a meeting for Black Methodists throughout the free states on the Atlantic seaboard to introduce them to the AME church. Since then, the church has grown to more than 7,000 congregations with more than 3 million members.

Bethel’s congregation grew during Rev. Penny’s time, and the church building was repaired. The building Penny and his family arrived at in 1958 had already been extensively renovated in the 1920s, although it remained a one-room sanctuary. The first renovations followed a fire in 1923. The next year, the church caught fire again—in fact, it caught fire three times in one night under suspicious circumstances. As a history of the church, submitted to the National Park Service when Bethel was listed as a national historic site in 2000, noted, the 1924 fire occurred four days before a public attempt to form an Iowa City chapter of the Ku Klux Klan began. No link between the fire and the Klan has ever been established.

In 2005, church leaders decided it was time for Bethel to finally expand.

“It was five years of struggle,” Venise Berry recalled. Berry, who finally became a regular member of Bethel’s congregation after returning to Iowa City in the 1990s to teach at UI, was co-chair of the fundraising committee for the expansion.

The church had to navigate a maze of city building and land use regulations. It also had to navigate further regulations because of Bethel’s designation as an historic site, as well as the sometimes vicious Iowa City real estate market. Most importantly, it had to find the money.

“We were turned down for a loan by the first four banks we applied to,” Berry said. “The banks said ‘You don’t have enough people. We recognize your vision, but we don’t see how you are going to make it work.’ Finally, MidWestOne, bless their heart, said ‘We’re going to stand behind you, we’re going to support you.’”

“So, we started building.”

Engraved bricks at Iowa City’s Bethel AME Church were purchased by the public as a fundraiser for the church’s remodeled sanctuary. — photo by Jav Ducker

It took another five years for the building project to be completed.

“August 1, 2015,” Dianna Penny’s face lit up as she recalled the date of the first service in the new sanctuary. “I felt like we had arrived, like my father’s long-term dream had been fulfilled.”

The new sanctuary has room for 150 people, which is three times the size of Bethel’s current congregation.

Even though Bethel is still fairly small, Dianna Penny, who has watched it grow from just Margaret Winston into its current congregation of 50, isn’t worried about Bethel’s future.

“We’ve never let our small size deter us from doing big things,” she said.

Paul Brennan is Little Village’s news director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 242.