This article originally appeared in the Oct. 15, 2015 issue of The Press Enterprise. View clip online.
In 125 years, Riverside’s Second Baptist Church has moved five times, followed 17 pastors, weathered depressions, recessions and wars, and reflected the changing faces of its neighborhoods.
Yet, as Senior Pastor T. Ellsworth Gantt, II, said: “We’re still here.”
That declaration resounds every Sunday morning for hundreds of congregants. During two services, the church’s foundation rocks to a gospel choir backed by amplified guitar, organ, bass and drums.
The pews were packed on Sunday, Sept. 20, when the congregation celebrated its birth.
“God has been gracious to these people and this community for such a long time,” said Gantt.
Second Baptist Church organized on Sunday, Sept. 21, 1890. Then called the Second Missionary Baptist Church, it was chartered by about a dozen African-American men and women who had worshipped at The First Baptist Church, a predominantly white congregation, at Eighth and Lemon streets.
The new church located nearby at 8th and Main streets. Subsequent moves placed it at 8th and Orange, 10th and Pachappa, and 12th and Howard before the cornerstone to its present building, at 9th Street and Park Avenue, was laid in August 1957.
Between services, the church bustles. Sunday school meets in the chapel, while upstairs in the library a couples’ ministry gathers. Down one hallway a small room holds a youth group; down another, a nursery swells with toddlers as the next service nears.
New lights hang from ceilings, restored stained-glass sparkles, and the library is under renovation. Yet remnants of church history remain. A decommissioned communion table is tucked into one corner, and in a foyer stand a vintage pulpit and a handful of high-back chairs.
Then there is Belle Johnson. Ninety-one years old and still driving herself to Sunday’s 7:30 a.m. service, she has attended Second Baptist Church since 1947, when it was at 12th and Howard.
“This wasn’t a church” then, she said, referring to the present site. “This was a duplex.”
Johnson for years sang with the choir, travelling with it to Baptist churches throughout Southern California in a sort of exchange program they had with one another.
But she knew where she belonged.
“I’ve never been out of this church,” she said.
Kimberly Thomas, 46, said she was raised in Second Baptist Church. She first attended at age 4, left at age 13 when her serviceman father was stationed elsewhere, and returned at age 21 in time to see Gantt called as pastor.
“I like his commitment to the people,” she said.
The morning her mother died, Thomas called Gantt at 6:30 a.m. He rushed to her side to provide emotional and spiritual support.
“A lot of pastors don’t have that commitment anymore,” Thomas said.
Reflecting on 25 years of serving as pastor, Gantt is most proud that he and his congregation have come together in “peace, love and unity.”
The secret to Second Baptist Church’s longevity, he learned, is the power of faith.
“Faith keeps us where we are,” he said. “Regardless of what happens.”