On a thunder of tambourines, warm voices echoed throughout the small sanctuary of Robertsville on Sunday, November 14. Just under a dozen people stand up and share their struggles and gratitudes in conversational prayer, and more virtually join on Zoom. The number is smaller than most Sundays, but Kenneth Lawson, the longtime Church of God in Christ pastor at the Robertsville Temple (COGIC), expects many more to join the service on the week. next as the historically black church begins celebrating its 100th anniversary.
“The Lord has blessed us,” Lawson said. “He gave us a vision to work with him, and we are. The church is a service not only to the members, but to the community as a whole. We have a responsibility not only to share the gospel, but also to help meet the needs of the whole man. This is what we believe.
The celebration will continue until next year, when the congregation hopes the threat of COVID-19 will be mitigated enough to accommodate past and present church members to travel for a big event. Members of the church and the wider COGIC district, which encompasses several COGIC churches in the St. Louis area, including one in the Pacific, are also working on a book that will detail the history of the church over the century. last and beyond.
“We are really over 100 years old; this is just recorded history, ”Lawson said. “Oral history goes back at least 10 years ago. “
The group that later became the church’s first congregation began to gather outside in “hollows” to have church services on and off, Lawson said. There would be no more building for several years, but some of the current church members are descended from the first people who gathered outside to worship.
The pastor explained that black churches in the early 1900s offered more to their congregations than a place of worship. Racist laws and threats of violence have kept many non-white people from participating in the economy, so churches have become entire communities for their members.
“Black churches have played many roles throughout history. They were the first banks for blacks, the first educational system for blacks. They were used as medical homes because you couldn’t get treatment anywhere else, ”Lawson said.
A family donated the land to build the church in the 1920s. The congregation also built the Drake School on Willow Ford Road around the same time to educate black children in the area from early to late. eigth year. Members of the Church served as teachers. Children who wanted to continue their education took separate trains to St. Louis every day because they were not allowed to attend high schools in the area.
The building was then moved with the aid of horses to the current location of the church on the N freeway to leave more space between children and the racial tensions surrounding its previous location closer to town. The school closed in the late 1950s after the United States Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional.
The church, however, has remained strong. In 1974 Pastor Kenneth Lawson’s predecessor, Pastor Charles Runnels Sr., transferred from Kirkwood to Robertsville. The church then had about six regular members, and the district bishop wanted someone to increase the attendance. The new pastor brought with him his family, including his adult daughter, CharlesEtta. Today, she is the longest-serving regular member, a trained missionary, and the “first lady” of the church as the wife of Kenneth Lawson.
By the time his family arrived in Robertsville in 1974, the largest Temple COGIC organization had grown significantly around the world with around 3 million members. It had also become an important institution in the civil rights movement. The day before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. made his last public appearance and delivered his “I’ve Been to the Top of the Mountain” speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, home of COGIC, in 1968.
Locally, COGIC churches in the area took people to the Mississippi River for baptisms until the Gateway Arch was built in the 1960s.
“We’ve been baptized in muddy Mississippi for years and years,” said CharlesEtta Lawson. “I remember people who were not of our faith coming to attend baptisms because it was so unusual.”
The church – both National and Robertsville’s – had grown considerably by the time Kenneth Lawson attended his first local service in 1984. He recalls that a few dozen members were in the sanctuary that day, although one in particular stands out.
“I remember it was the first Sunday in August,” he said, smiling as he remembered the first day he saw his wife.
Today, COGIC is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States – with approximately 5 million members in 12,000 churches nationwide – and has churches in approximately 100 countries.
By comparison, The United Methodist Church has 12.7 million members, including 6.4 million in the United States, and the denomination has 32,000 congregations. Meanwhile, COGIC is larger than major Protestant denominations, including the Presbyterian Church in the United States, a denomination with 1.24 million members in the United States in 8,925 congregations. The United Church of Christ has 802,000 members in 4,852 congregations in the United States, and the Disciples of Christ denomination has 350,000 members in 3,627 congregations.
The COGIC Church has a majority of black members across the country, but Kenneth Lawson points out that people of all backgrounds and races are and always have been welcome. His own congregation includes people of many different races.
“My belief is that this is the house of God. This is the Church of God, and we were all created by God, ”said Kenneth Lawson. “No church should be one race. If this is the house of God, it is for all of God’s people, and therefore everyone is welcome.
To reinforce this belief, the Robertsville Temple COGIC is participating in a local ministerial alliance with several neighboring churches. They also hold an annual interfaith service and meal for Thanksgiving Day, a tradition that the pastor says dates back at least five decades and has included churches such as Mount Calvary Baptist, Robertsville; Baptist Missionary from Rose Hill, Villa Ridge; and Pacific Temple COGIC.
“We meet every year and we run the churches. A pastor never preaches in his own church, but is always a visiting pastor (who is invited to speak), ”said Kenneth Lawson. “It continues the fellowship and support within the community. “
Brotherhood is amplified, the Lawsons said, by strong family ties in their own church. Framed portraits of Charles Sr. and Dorothy Runnels, the late parents of CharlesEtta Lawson, hang on the wall of the shrine. Choir President Dawn Runnels is the Lawsons’ niece and was recently awarded the Flame of Evangelism Award from the Eastern Missouri COGIC jurisdiction. And Associate Pastor Shavar Ingram and his wife, Cynthia, are raising their six children in the church. The children, dressed in button-down shirts or black dresses and bright yellow vests, smile warmly at everyone in the room.
“(This congregation) is a family,” said Kenneth Lawson. “Our belief is that we are brothers and sisters in the Lord and that this connection can be closer than the flesh. This is our family. I don’t think there is a stronger word for it.