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IC's Bethel church remains strong

BY GIRINDRA SELLECK | JUNE 29, 2015 5:00 AM

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Big things come in all sizes, and Iowa City’s own Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church is proof.

Originally built in 1868 on Governor Street — at that time located outside Iowa City, as African Americans were not allowed to own land within city limits — Bethel Church will reach its 150th anniversary in 2018.

From the time Fred Penny became reverend of the church in 1958, the Penny family has been synonymous with Bethel A.M.E.

“It was 90 years old when we first laid eyes on it,” said Dianna Penny, Fred Penny’s daughter.

Penny first visited the church with her father in 1958, when she was 17 and a freshman heading to the University of Iowa to study art. She is now a published essayist and an exhibited artist — as well as the self-appointed historian for the Bethel A.M.E. — and she still finds time to play the organ during services.

She continues in her father’s footsteps and a tradition of service to the Bethel Church.

“People were drawn to him like a magnet,” Penny said about her father, who served as minister for 37 years until his death in 1994. “His ministry went far beyond the four walls of the church. He even managed to convert a few racists.”

Despite being a predominantly African-American denomination, the A.M.E. church has expanded into 20 districts worldwide, reaching from Zimbabwe to India and Sweden.

Former slave Richard Allen founded the A.M.E. church in Philadelphia in 1787.

“He was a blacksmith by trade,” Penny said. “And to honor him, the emblem for the church is made up of a cross and an anvil.”

The church has undergone a number of renovations since it was built: two basements were added over the years — in 1926 and 1988 — and a new 4,000-square-foot sanctuary was added to the structure in 2010.

Through the changes, Bethel has been intent on retaining its intimate atmosphere, and some of its members openly champion this approach over the growing trend in the direction of “megachurches.”

“Megachurches strike me as out of control and impersonal,” Penny said.

Husband and wife duo Michael and Lena Hill, who moved to Iowa City from North Carolina in 2006, were drawn to the Bethel community and became members in the fall of 2007.

Now leaders in the congregation, Lena Hill serves as head of Christian education, and her husband runs the adult Sundayschool.

Penny and Michael Hill both emphasize the importance of Bethel’s small size.

“Many churches in this day and age have grown to the extent that the pastors don’t even know their members,” he said. “You may be going to the same church, but you’re effectively strangers to one another.

“Bethel is a very intimate congregation. You’re talking about a church with 35 or 40 members.”

The church’s small size does not seem to hinder its acclaim. Bethel won a Historic Preservation Award in 2010 and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in September 2000.

The recent events in South Carolina, in which a white man opened fire on the congregation of the Emmanuel A.M.E. in Charleston, killing nine people, has drawn a great deal of attention to the A.M.E. church.

Some expected outrage and anger towards the shooter, but the A.M.E. community in Iowa City has responded with messages of mercy.

“It’s not about a wrongdoer deserving forgiveness,” she said. “It’s about your deserving peace. If you can’t forgive, that hate becomes a permanent barrier that you can’t get around, like a boulder in the middle of the road.”

Penny said that despite the atrocities committed and the lives lost, a positive outcome seems to have been reached, for the A.M.E. church and for the United States as a whole.

Dylann Roof’s white- supremacist associations fueled a national conversation focusing on the residual symbols of racism present in society. A number of companies have stopped selling merchandise emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. The “Stars and Bars” has since been removed from state properties across the Southern United States.

“It’s horrible and ugly that it takes an event like this, but the deaths of those nine people changed things,” said Penny. “They brought down the Confederate flag.”


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