Arts & Culture

No ‘superficial, modern Christianity’: Film tells story of White Rock Baptist Church

The histories of the White Rock Baptist Church and the city of Durham are entwined.

Durham’s African-American community has contributed as much, or more, to the economic progress and shaping of its modern city as any in the South.

The White Rock Baptist Church, founded in 1866, has been a house for godly worshipers, yes.

But, it’s been, too, a fixture where black businessmen forged the groundwork for future and mutual enterprises, where the books of the county’s first public library for African Americans were collected in a basement and where The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, still a potent political force, was founded.

In a new, short documentary, pastor Reginald Van Stephens and a handful of his congregants explain what the church is today.

Nothing but Love in God’s Waters,” will premiere at the Hayti Heritage Film Festival at 3 p.m. Friday.

The film was made by N.C. Central University associate professor of mass communication Bruce dePyssler, his Bull City Doc Squad and students Daniel Hargrove and Autavius Smith.

Using freshly filmed interviews and photographs dug from historical archives by NCCU student and researcher Kaylee Sciacca, the documentary provides a contemporary profile of White Rock dusted with historical relevance.

From the outset, the film emphasizes the outreach ministries’ community-service work.

The first time Stephens appears on camera, he defines a “Missionary Baptist” as a person whose “existence is to serve or to help other people.”

We’re shown the church’s community food pantry, with a tremendously orange pile of unpeeled carrots, where “at least” 500 people will be provided free food that day. Interviews with congregation members are split by vintage snapshots, zoomed in on, panned across or both – via a Ken Burns effect, named for the documentarian.

“White Rock was the hub of the black community,” member Carolyn Walker tells the camera. “The icons of the city … were very involved in this church, and they were just people. You know, we didn’t know they were famous, or anything. They were just people that we associated with at all times.”

The founder of NCCU, James E. Shepard, was a member of White Rock; his father, Augustus Shepard, led the church for many years.

Founding members of N.C. Mutual Life Insurance Company – the first black owned insurance company in North Carolina and now the largest in the United States – attended White Rock on Sunday mornings.

In between old snapshots and interviews are quotes from famous men who spoke at White Rock.

On Feb. 16, 1960, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “Fill Up The Jails” speech. “Let us not fear going to jail if the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our right,” he told those in the pews, eight days after the Woolworth sit-in in Greensboro.

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Vivian Samuel claps her hands in White Rock Baptist Church. Courtesy of Bruce dePyssler

How it came to be

The film was first conceived of in 2016, the year White Rock celebrated its 150th birthday and launched multiple commemorative projects.

Joyce Blackwell embarked on one such project by beginning to write a book “Upon This Rock: White Rock Baptist Church’s Dynamic People, Societal Impact on the Durham, North Carolina, Community, 1866-2016.” The book, published by Cary Press, is expected to be released this fall, Blackwell said.

Churchgoer Minnie Forte-Brown, a Durham school board member and president of the N.C. School Boards Association, thought a film might complement the book and, of course, her church’s legacy. So, she approached dePyssler about making one.

“This is to show who the church is right now, looking back and going forward,” Forte-Brown said. “Our commitment to the Durham community: We are about what your faith is, right now.”

White Rock remains a church full of notable influencers of Bull City life, she said, noting, among others, Goldie Byrd, winner of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, Jessie Pickett-Williams, former law school dean Raymond Pierce, attorney James “Butch” Williams, Dr. Harry Stafford, deputy city manager Keith Caldwell.

Forte-Brown called today’s White Rock “eclectic and electric.”

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Worshipers in White Rock Baptist church. Courtesy of Bruce dePyssler

What are the kids up to … these days …

But Stephens knows his flock is not growing younger.

In an interview, not part of the film, the pastor said, “It’s not just us. Not many churches are as central as they once were.”

In 2015 the Pew Research Center found only about four in 10 millennials considered religion a “very” important aspect in their lives. Some local churches have changed their worship style, replacing traditional hymns with songs with a syncopated beat.

White Rock, though, will not “mimic” what young people see in “pop” culture, what he described as “superficial, modern Christianity.”

“My assessment is not a criticism, only an observation,” Stephens said. “There are Baby Boomers and Gen X-errs who need a church too.”

Stephens views White Rock’s role in contemporary Durham, not as a lightning ground where local political upheavals spark, but as a shelter and place of provisions. He believes White Rock attracts families who are ready to settle down, have already committed to Christianity and want to “deepen” that “commitment to Christ.”

In “Nothing but Love in God’s Waters,” Kurt and Valerie Merriweather and their four children exemplify this type of family. And the six of them are given relatively a lot of screen time.

One of the film’s makers, Smith, is 23 years old – a millennial.

“Church is nowhere near attractive as it once was,” he said, especially not when the internet offers instant gratification for almost anything – spiritual needs included.

“Why go to church when I can listen to a podcast?” he said

But Smith said the insiders’ view of a church’s goings-on he received while filming was fascinating and changed his perception of organized Christianity. He now knows churches have potential to generate positive change.

Colin Warren-Hicks: 919-419-6636, @CWarrenHicks