Mt. Level Missionary Baptist turns 150
Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church was founded during one war and moved to Durham during another. Current church members aren’t sure exactly who founded Mount Level Missionary Baptist, but what they do know is it was started in 1864 – the year between the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War. And they know it was built on the level part of a hill in Butner long before it was Camp Butner.
The historically African-American church stayed in Butner until the U.S. Army used the land for the training camp during World War II. It held its last service in the white wooden church in 1943, which was then was dismantled plank by plank and rebuilt on Hebron Road in Durham in 1944, on the north side of the city. Later, the building was bricked in, and later still the building was turned into a fellowship hall when a new sanctuary was built in 1995.
Mt. Level Missionary Baptist is celebrating its 150th anniversary this week. Irene Goss, 87, and Nannie Lyons, 96, remember the church back when it was in Butner. They both joined in the late 1930s – Lyons when she married and Goss when she was 13. Goss joined the church the same day she was baptized in the Flat River and took her first communion that day, too.
Older members of the church aren’t all longtime members. Winnie Clark, 87, joined in 2001 after she retired and moved to Durham from Washington, D.C. She was house hunting in the neighborhood and kept passing Mt. Level. It was the closest church to her new home. Now Clark is leading the 150th anniversary programming and writing the church history. There will be a special service Friday night with former pastor the Rev. Leonzo D. Lynch preaching, a skit and basket lunch on Saturday, and a special service Sunday morning preached by Mt. Level’s current pastor, the Rev. William C. Turner Jr.
Turner, who is also a professor of homiletics – the art of preaching – at Duke Divinity School, and has been pastor since 1991.
“I get to teach what I practice, and practice what I teach,” Turner said. He previously served locally at Fisher Memorial United Holy Church, St. Joseph’s AME Church and Faith Gospel Tabernacle. At St. Joseph’s, he was an intern and stayed in the old parsonage that is now the Hayti Heritage Center. Turner moved denominations because Mt. Level was without a pastor and he was asked to accept the call. It’s just that simple, he said. The previous pastor had been Turner’s student at Duke, and several more students have passed through the pulpit and pews of Mt. Level.
Lyons remembers two “amen corners” in the Butner church – one side with deacon men, the other side with missionary women. Goss remembers as a child sitting in the front seat with other children, her mother on the left keeping watch.
“That church really grew on me, now,” Goss said. “We’d come to church and we had to walk, or else we came by buggy or one-horse wagon. My mother put a quilt in the bed of the wagon [for the youngest children]. We just played and had the best time.” When she was older, she walked. Services were held on the first Sunday of the month, and Sunday school was held the other Sundays. Her mother made her pretty dresses and Goss wanted to keep her appearance on the several mile walk to the church. Goss took off her shoes and carried them in her hand until she neared the church, then wiped them with a handkerchief and put them back on. It was a dirt road path, and along the way they met up with neighbors and friends who joined them.
“To me, it was fun, because you didn’t go anywhere much,” she said. “We just had the best times.”
Lyons explained that country churches didn’t have electricity, and at annual revival time in June – when it is still held – they went to church in the morning, then ate dinner at a long table set up outside under a big oak tree before going back in for another revival service.
“You’ve never seen so much fellowship in your life,” Lyons said. “Then you’d get home just before sundown.”
Pam Tillman-Boone joined Mt. Level in 2001 after she moved to Durham from High Point.
“Just the openness, the welcome I felt – it made me want to become a member,” she said.
Ava Closs joined in 1995 because she lived nearby and many of her neighbors were church members.
Tillman-Boone and Closs talked about all the ministries Mt. Level is involved with now – mission trips, nursing home visits, Meals on Wheels, children’s church, Boy Scouts, senior citizens, and a prison ministry, among others. Buses pick up members for church now.
Closs said the church will be doing more outreach with local youth. Mt. Level recently received nonprofit 501(c)3 status for Mt. Level Community Haven, a separate venture from the church. Mt. Level Missionary Baptist is developing a community garden, too.
Turner would like to see Mt. Level partner with other groups in an area of the city that has homes but not much else, he said. The new nonprofit Haven is a start, but they need friends, he said, to help develop recreational opportunities for youth and young adults.
“There’s enough room on the property for anything we can dream or imagine,” Turner said.
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: 150th Anniversary of Mount Level Missionary Baptist Church
EVENTS: 7 p.m. Friday: praise and worship service with former pastor, the Rev. Leonzo D. Lynch, now pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Charlotte
10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday: Skit, “A Walk In Their Shoes, A Tour Down Memory Lane” and basket lunch.
10 a.m. Sunday: Worship service with Rev. William C. Turner Jr., pastor of Mt. Level, preaching.
WHERE: All events will be held at Mt. Level, 316 Hebron Road in Durham.
INFORMATION: 919-477-3893 or http://mtlevelmbc.org/