After 150 years of worship, there’s a lot about the history of Bazzel Creek Missionary Baptist Church that its members can’t agree on, starting with its name.
At one point, it was called Braswell Creek, the Rev. Latonya L. Agard said. Or maybe Battle Creek, after a prominent family in the area.
There is a creek near the site of the church, however. That much everyone can agree upon.
Agard is certainly the first woman to lead the church. Her arrival in 2011 as the church’s 17th minister came just a few years after the church named its first female deacons.
Both decisions heralded a new era of growth and openness, much like the one now occurring more broadly in its home of Fuquay-Varina.
“It is sometimes overwhelming, a lot of pressure,” said Agard of taking over the historic church. “Like, I don’t want to drop the ball on my watch. They’ve made it this far without me.”
Like many things about the church’s history, the exact date of its founding is lost to time, so Bazzel Creek’s members celebrate its anniversary on the fourth Sunday of September.
The church’s drama ministry wrote and produced two plays honoring the community’s history, and on Nov. 5, the year’s festivities will conclude with the church’s annual homecoming celebration.
The anniversary seems to come at a time for the church to pause and establish some kind of consensus around its history before turning squarely to face the future.
The Brush Arbor
Bazzel Creek is one of many predominantly black churches in the South celebrating their 150th anniversaries over a two-year period, roughly 150 years after the end of the Civil War, Agard said. After emancipation in 1865, former slaves often founded churches to anchor their newly free communities.
“They were now able to develop their own worship spaces, where to some extent they were forbidden to worship or forced to worship in another place where they weren’t fully embraced,” Agard said.
In 1866, Alsey Stinson, a black man born to a plantation owner and a female slave, was given half an acre of land by his former master. He promptly founded Bazzel Creek church about 100 feet east of where the church now sits on Wilbon Road.
At that time, Agard said, it was less a building than a gathering place under what’s called a brush arbor – likely a few trees leaned against each other as a makeshift outdoor sanctuary. Later, church members built a wooden structure, and then a brick one.
Then, in 1987, that arson destroyed the building. Internal conflict among church factions was the suspected motive, Agard said, but no one was ever held accountable for the crime. The new and current building was built in 1987.
For much of its history, Bazzel Creek’s congregation comprised members of the same few families from the surrounding farm. But that is changing, Agard said, as more people move to the area. At present, she said, the church claims 300 to 350 people as members.
“We’re seeing our congregation change a lot, from being a predominantly rural family church to more of a suburban community church,” Agard said. “And that comes with some pains but also some joys.”
Bazzel Creek’s history is far from uniformly peaceful. There always have been arguments among church families. Even now, Agard said, there is some grumbling about the level of involvement encouraged under her leadership style, which she describes as “collaborative.”
“We are not without our faults,” said Shirley Williams-McClain, head of the church’s drama ministry, who is one of the church’s de facto historians along with drama ministry colleague Barbara Greene.
Williams-McClain, 70, has been a member at Bazzel Creek her entire life, except when she attended Shaw University in Raleigh and moved to Detroit for a while with a former husband. She remembers when men and women sat on opposite sides of the church’s aisle.
For the 150th anniversary, she wrote and produced two plays to establish some sort of historical consensus for a growing congregation that is increasingly made up of newcomers. The first play, “The Tree,” chronicles slave life in nearby lands before emancipation. The second, “If the Lord is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise,” tells of the church’s founding.
“I hope the plays raise awareness and motivate people to think about it more – just to think about where you are, where it all came from,” Williams-McClain said.
As a historian, Williams-McClain is often at the center of the questions surrounding the church’s history, many of which have naturally been revisited during the anniversary year. Many of the families included in her plays – including the Stinsons, the church’s founding family – still live in the area and attend the church, she said, and she said she’s had to be diplomatic about how her plays portray audience members’ ancestors.
“But the drama ministry can say things maybe a person can’t,” Williams-McClain said. “Because you can do comedy, for instance. You can tell things in comedy or a song that you can’t just come out and say.”
Williams-McClain also is in the process of righting her own historical grievance. She said the church’s cemetery was built on land donated by her great-grandfather, and she’d like to see the church acknowledge that.
In some ways, Bazzel Creek’s efforts to maintain contact with the past as it navigates its future mirror those of the town it calls home. Agard said the church’s growth has been good for the congregation, as it has been for the town, but that the vestiges of their historic problems haven’t quite vanished.
Some changes, like a planned addition to the church building, the church property’s annexation in 2011, or better managing Fuquay-Varina’s traffic, are administrative. Others, like race relations in town and the changing role of women in the church, are ideological.
Agard said she sees continued “territorialism” in Fuquay-Varina with respect to its racial geography, most often in the town’s schools and how the church communities interact. Bazzel Creek will sometimes have white worshippers drop by as guests, Agard said, but rarely for any extended period.
“I think there’s still a whole lot of work that needs to be done,” Agard said. “I’m the president of the Fuquay-Varina Ministers Alliance, which is all African-American churches, but there’s another ministers alliance that’s predominantly or completely (white). There’s been an effort to bring us all together, but it’s just not worked very well.”
Agard said she takes the missionary part of her church’s name seriously and hopes to be involved in solving those problems and others, both for the church’s sake and the town’s. In the meantime, as she pushes a more collaborative vision of church leadership, she’s hoping the 150th anniversary will serve as a reminder to church members about what is required of them if the church is to survive and thrive for another 150 years.
“Part of that mission is that if we’re going to be Baptists, let’s be really good Baptists,” Agard said. “Let’s not just put the responsibility for leading and visiting and shepherding on a few. Let’s make sure everyone is playing the part that they can play.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan