The Rev. Byron Benton knows history helps shape who we are today.
The Berean Community Center, the nonprofit arm of Berean Baptist Church on Millbrook Road in North Raleigh, hosted an event Dec. 6 to mark 151 years since the ratification of the 13th Amendedment, which ended slavery. Benton is the senior pastor at Berean Baptist.
“Abolition Day: The Start of Black Independence in America” was the second annual Abolition Day observance hosted by the church group – and another step in a push for national holiday status.
“For us spiritually, the telling of the story of where we have come from is vital to our current identity,” Benton said. “When that is completely omitted, simply not discussed, for people of color it leads to what could be identity confusion.”
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We need only turn a mirror toward ourselves, the media, and our social and political realms to reflect negative images that misinform psyches, sideline self-worth and derail destiny.
“Our history has a spirit of overcoming and perseverance,” Benton said. “But if you don’t have that history and all you have is images of inadequacy and destruction, then that’s all you have to go on in terms of who you are.
“Without understanding historical context, we misinterpret our present reality.”
The event’s location – at Shaw University, established in 1865 as the first university for African-Americans – was unmistakably significant. So was the timing: The Dec. 19 Electoral College vote will usher in President-elect Donald Trump, who some say has made racist, sexist and anti-Semitic comments.
“It’s not the first time we’ve had a racist president,” said the Rev. William Barber, keynote speaker at the event and president of the state NAACP. “When race and fear are in the mix, common sense goes out the window. Without Obama, there would be no Trump.
“America has always had a struggle with freedom,” Barber continued. “It’s habit. It’s as American as apple pie. But that’s not all we are.”
Berean Baptist is located at The Garden on Millbrook, a full-service catering business formerly known as Sisters Catering Co.
“On Sunday mornings, we turn the ballroom over to worship,” Benton said. “We believe that the old model of the church – a standing building you spend a lot of money on – is a dying model. The business gives us an entrepreneurial wing that allows the church to use more of its resources on building community and our mission.”
The Berean Community Center is there, too. The center focuses on community health and wellness, youth programming and education to empower individuals, enrich families and engage communities, said Yasmeen Benton, the pastor’s wife and the center’s executive director.
Proceeds from the nonprofit’s Read, Write, Run 5K and Back to School Bash enabled Berean to give 200 kids backpacks filled with school supplies. Its lunch-money fund at East Millbrook Middle School covers the cost of breakfast and lunch for students who can’t afford to pay. And its holiday drive is underway to provide 12 to 15 children with winter clothing, shoes and other gifts – and gasoline and food gift cards for parents.
The Bentons moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to start the church in February 2012. It is the first church planted in the South in response to reverse migratory patterns by its parent church, Berean Baptist Church, which was established in New York in 1850 as a “secret society” during the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad.
The Raleigh church has about 200 members.
“We still see ourselves building on what Berean was birthed to do,” said Benton, a Greensboro native. “And that is to care for the needs of those who are disenfranchised, and to build community.”