Fabric of faith: OKC church with legacy of civil rights is marking 100 years
An eye-catching Centennial Quilt tells a story of the hope of the past and the promise of the future from its place of prominence at St. John Missionary Baptist Church.
The fabric panels feature the history of the church:
• A picture of the late Rev. W.K. Jackson, the church's beloved longtime pastor, and his wife and daughter.
• A majestic church building constructed in the early 1930s — in spite of the Great Depression.
• A picture of the church's current senior pastor, the Rev. Major Jemison, his wife, Jacque, and their son MaKinsley.
• A picturesque scene of St. John's sprawling white church building at its current hilltop location at 5700 N Kelley.
The quilt was created to share the history of a church known for its legacy of civil rights and community activism as St. John's celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.
The church kicked off its centennial in January, with plans to continue the festivities all year long.
The church held a comedy show and kick-off dinner at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in January and its Black History Month events were all presented with a centennial theme including a Soul Food Dinner. Coming activities include a musical event called "Jazz Under the Stars" in May, a centennial homecoming celebration in November and a re-enactment of a civil rights demonstration at a date yet to be determined.
Jemison said the congregation was established in Jan. 12, 1919, organized by about 66 members of Calvary Baptist Church, a historic predominantly black church in Oklahoma City's Deep Deuce.
"We have such a storied history. So many great personalities came through here that meant a lot to the church, as well as the community as a whole," he said.
Many of those personalities were ministers, particularly the men who led what has become one of the most prominent churches in the metro.
The church's fourth pastor, Jemison was preceded by the Rev. W.D. Hill, the house of worship's first pastor; the Rev. J.W. Johnson and the Rev. W.K. Jackson.
He said Johnson only served as the church's leader for six months before moving on to pastor a church in Missouri, but he laid a firm foundation not just for St. John but for other ministers.
Jemison said the church, which is predominantly black, became a beacon of hope for the black community because of many of those leaders.
"St. John has been involved in so many transitional moments in Oklahoma City and the pastors of this church have been intimately involved in those moments," he said.
He said St. John is either the current church home or former church home of a "Who's Who" of black Oklahoma leaders like the late E. Melvin Porter, Oklahoma's first black state senator; Kevin Cox, longtime state senator; and Vicki Miles LaGrange, former senior U.S. district judge for the Western District of Oklahoma.
Legacy of standing for justice
Jemison said he remembers spending a lot of time with Jackson when he served as Jackson's assistant and later, as co-pastor.
He longed to hear the older preacher share stories about the past and Jackson didn't disappoint.
He said Jackson stepped into a void created by the deaths of his mother and father, guiding him on his journey as a young man and preacher and as the future leader of St. John.
"He told me all the stories about the this church and the personalities of all the people you see on the walls of this church," Jemison said.
Jackson was a civil rights leader who was well known across the country. Friends with the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., the father of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Jackson is credited with hosting a birthday celebration and service for the younger King that evolved across America as an annual worship service commemorating the slain leader's life and legacy on or around his January birthday.
Jemison said Jackson was often at the forefront of civil rights activities in Oklahoma City, and St. John was linked in as a result.
It was Jackson who led a group of black clergy who stood with Oklahoma City's mostly black sanitation workers when they went on strike in 1969 in the hopes of gaining better wages and working conditions. Negotiations halted eventually because the two sides were at an impasse and at one point, the group of clergy, holding Bibles, faced down police and highway patrol troopers and a sanitation truck that appeared to be prepared to move the group of nonviolent protesters out of the way. The clergy group — holding fast to Martin Luther King Jr.'s nonviolent approach — were attempting to lead protesters in a march to Oklahoma City Hall.Jackson read 1 Chronicles 16:22 that says, 'Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.' "
The sanitation workers received better wages and working conditions six days later.
In addition to planned activities, St. John's Centennial Committee, led by member Cynthia Knight, has kept the centennial theme alive with short video presentations about the church's "trail blazers" that are shown to the congregation each Sunday.
"It's going to take us a long time to tell this story. If you're going to do justice to it, it's going to take a year, and then that might not be long enough," Jemison said.
"We have such a great testimony about the goodness of God and how our God has shown us favor, not because we've been perfect in no sense of the word but how we've been intentional about our love and commitment to doing His work even with our shortcomings and idiosyncrasies. We love Him and we love His work, and it has transferred into a genuine love for His church."
What: Jazz Under The Stars
When: 7 p.m. May 31.
Where: St. John Missionary Baptist Church, 5700 N Kelley.
Information: 478-3344; http://www.stjohnokc.org.