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5 Star Stories: The rich history of Brown Missionary Baptist Church

Published: Feb. 22, 2022 at 10:10 PM CST
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SOUTHAVEN, Miss . (WMC) - For many Mid-Southerners, the church is a source of inspiration, faith, and calm. Historically, in Black communities, churches also provided vital information and shelter -- especially during the Civil Rights Movement.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we’re sharing the story of how a church of brush and sticks became a safe harbor for former slaves and their families and is now a sanctuary for thousands.

Brown Missionary Baptist Church, with its two campuses in Southaven, Mississippi, has a rich history.

“This is our 140th year that we’ve been in existence and I’m only the eighth pastor of the church,” recalled Senior Pastor Bartholomew Orr.

And it all began in 1882 with a group of former slaves and a “bush harbor” in what is now the church cemetery.

“They just took trees and brush and just kind of made a little covering...went underneath it and started having church. Talk about dedication, talk about a tenacity, a tenacious spirit,” said Orr.

Over time, the church built a log cabin on the corner of Swinnea and Stateline Road where it’s main campus is still located today.

“When they were having service they could look through the boards of the church and see the chickens running underneath the church,” said Orr.

When Orr was elected senior pastor 33 years ago, he learned about the church’s history from one of the founder’s grandchildren.

“Matter of fact, a longtime chairman of our deacons -- it was his grandparents that had been members here. Jesse James Smith,” said Orr. “He actually remembered the founders of the church.”

Brown Baptist went from log cabin to clapboard which was later bricked, to a 500-seat sanctuary before fire destroyed the house of worship in the late 1980′s.

Orr, who also grew up in the area on Swinnea, remembers the day the church burned down. “

It burned down on a Sunday morning during the service. Fouth Sunday, November 22nd, 1987,” he recalled.

And, by spring of 1988, the church was without its own sanctuary and a pastor after the membership split.

“So they started looking for a pastor all of ‘88. And wouldn’t you know it. God just had it in the mix...didn’t put a resume in. I wasn’t looking to pastor. Again, by this time I’m in college at Christian Brothers,” remembered Orr.

There were only 66 members by then, but they rebuilt the church with Orr at the helm -- a then-19-year-old CBU sophomore.

“Because even then at 19, it was a vision we had a vision for the whole person. That’s the vision that God gave me at 11 when he called me to preach,” said Orr. “And, when I came here, the church really bought into that vision and even now, we continue to build upon that vision.”

In 2006, the church built a massive 2,500-seat campus at the same Stateline Road location, but, within eight years the sanctuary was too small.

“Then in 2014, we purchased our south campus right down the street. We’re growing so fast, I mean, the Lord has blessed us,” said Orr. “Now I think the number is over 13,000 members.”

Orr believes the church’s blessings over the years are rooted in the members’ faith and tenacity of spirit, much like the former slaves who founded it.

“When you look at the African American community what kept them in slavery, through slavery, beyond slavery has been their faith,” said Orr. “Even when we had to worship segregated, upstairs in the balcony, yet, it was their faith, it was that faith that led African Americans not only to build churches but to establish schools.”

He added that Brown Missionary Baptist Church is sharing that faith with the community through what he calls “The 5 W’s”: Worship, Witnessing, the Word of God, Work and familial Warmth.

“And so we are always in the community, in the schools; we literally want to make a difference in our community,” Orr explained. “And I believe that should be the true legacy of Black history where it’s not just remembering and reflecting but it’s really recommitting to saying, there’s still so much work to be done to make a difference and a change in the community.”

Brown Missionary Baptist Church recently kicked off its daily COVID-19 testing site at the Stateline Road campus from 10 a.m. - 6 p.m. For more information about the church, click here.

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