SAN ANTONIO - – The first African American Baptist church ever established in San Antonio is celebrating 150 years.
The bedrock of the church is a resilient, powerful community that has kept the institution alive from times of slavery to present day.
That church family is the powerful legacy of 13 black men and women who made clear from the beginning, their lives and freedom would forever remain sacred.
“This church has such a rich history because it was organized in 1870, and that was five years after the slaves were freed in Texas,” said Pastor Paul Gerard Wilkinson Sr.
Pastor Wilkinson said their first service was under a tree. They then managed to build a brush arbor where they prayed until a church was built in 1913 in a neighborhood called the Baptist Settlement.
“When they came together they were looking for a new life, a new experience, a new joy, so they organized a New Light Baptist Church. A new light. So here we are 150 years later, we’re standing on their shoulders and I thank God for them,” Wilkinson said.
“They moved up here on this hill in 1940,” Pastor Wilkinson said. “Our pulpit and pulpit furniture is still the original from the 1913 church.”
The beautiful building still remains today, in the heart of San Antonio’s’ East Side on Piedmont Ave.
“I grew up here, my grandfather pastored here 44 years,” Wilkinson said with pride.
The church remained a backbone of the local African American community as it navigated post slavery, Jim Crow, the civil rights movement, and continued systematic racism.
“The church has always been the voice in the black community. When we couldn’t go anywhere else, we could come to church,” Wilkinson said.
Pastor Wilkinson said that’s still true today, during yet another racial reckoning in America.
“I know that we need to address racism. We need to sit down and talk about it to understand the perspective. I believe if we open our mouths and let the world hear our voice, that this thing will pass and hopefully so in my lifetime,” he said.
New Light Baptist Church is still a safe space for healing and growth.
“My parents were both in the Baptist Settlement. I was baptized right here,” said Associate Minister James Bryant, as he pointed to the baptismal pool at the back of the church behind the pulpit.
With deep roots in the church, Bryant and his wife are the proud leaders who organized the 150th anniversary celebration.
“When we had the 50th anniversary, I was not born. When we had the 100th anniversary, I was in the jungles of Vietnam. So as we come into the 150th, this is probably the most exciting thing church-wise, that has happened in my life,” Bryant said.
After events all week, Sunday morning, there was a car parade starting from Cesar Chavez near the federal courthouse, all the way to the church.
During a heartbreaking pandemic things are very different, but the 150-member congregation is powering through.
“We have space for social distancing,” Bryant said, showing the large sanctuary with multiple areas of pews, including a wrap-around balcony. “And you have to wear your mask.”
Right now, most members don’t attend in person, but tune in every Sunday on the livestream on Facebook.
Pastor Wilkinson believes in his heart, the resilience this church was built on will prevail.
“I’m 71-years-old. There’s going to have to be a young person to come in that’s willing to preserve our history as well as transition into where the Lord is leading him in the future. We can’t forget this history. We can’t let this history die,” he said.
In 2017, New Light Baptist church was one of 26 East Side churches designated as a historical landmark. They are now trying to get grants so they can keep the building updated for future generations to come.