It all started in 1913, when a dozen or so young sharecroppers from South Carolina moved to Charlotte in search of a better life. On certain weekdays, theyd gather in a tiny shotgun house near Seigle Avenue. There, theyd sing the hymns theyd grown up with.
A century later, the seeds planted by that Prayer Band, as they called themselves, have grown into a mighty institution called the Park Church spiritual home to nearly 9,000 people, 60-plus ministries and several choirs.
And on Sunday, this African-American megachurch with three campuses, three worship services and an online following celebrated its 100th anniversary with soaring sermons, joyful liturgical dancing and, of course, music.
A parade of soloists joined with a choir of 127 voices to offer a medley of songs that rocked the sanctuary at Beatties Ford Road. From Weve Come This Far by Faith to Im on the Battlefield for My Lord to Oh Happy Day, the string of songs also recalled a century of black church music that stretches from Negro spirituals to Gospel classics to contemporary praise anthems.
Build it bigger
A Baptist church since at least the 1930s, the congregation has gone by different names over the decades: Gilfield Baptist, Mt. Olivet Baptist, University Park Baptist, and now the Park. Its not Charlottes oldest black church First Baptist-West was founded by former slaves in 1867.
But its now one of the biggest and most influential. And through the years, in various locations and in ever-bigger buildings, the church managed to attend to the spiritual and social needs of a growing segment of Charlottes African-American community.
Some of you ought to praise God that the Park has been there for you to refuel, Bishop Walter Scott Thomas Sr. of Baltimore preached in his guest sermon Sunday. This church was built with you in mind. God said, Build it bigger so I can hold them until I can bring them to me.
Since 1990, the church has been led by Bishop Claude Alexander, who credited a living, authentic faith in God as the reason the church has endured.
Its the thread, Alexander, 49, told The Observer, that held us together through dislocation, relocation, depression, segregation, and recession.
And through a 1959 fire that destroyed what was then Mt. Olivet Baptist, at the corner of 10th and Brevard streets.
It was the first Sunday in February, and we were preparing for Communion, said Doris Wilson, 64, a church member since 1952 and the Parks historian today. An usher saw smoke from the basement.
But with help from Myers Park Baptist Church, a prominent white congregation, and a donation of land and money from builders C.D. Spangler Sr. and his son, C.D. Spangler Jr., the church was reborn as University Park Baptist and built a sanctuary across from West Charlotte High School.
Since then, with socially conscious pastors at the helm, the church has grown, in both membership and outreach.
Helping AIDS victims
In 1965, during the height of the civil rights movement, its pastor, the Rev. Talmadge Watkins, was elected president of the local NAACP.
And when the Rev. James Palmer resigned abruptly in 1989, the church went looking for a new leader. It wanted an experienced pastor who was married and in his 30s.
The Mississippi-born Alexander, one of the three finalists, was 26, single and had pastored only one other church, in Pittsburgh.
After he preached his trial sermon, everyone was so impressed, Wilson said. Then when we heard his second message well, it has been wonderful ever since.
Alexander, now married and the father of two daughters, has spearheaded global missions, including in Kenya. And in the early 1990s, when many black churches were skittish about AIDS, the church started programs to counsel AIDS victims and those trying to quit drugs.
Alexander has taken leadership positions with the Urban League, the Community Building Initiative, the Charlotte Center City Partners, and the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.On Monday, hes leaving for China as part of a delegation of 25 ministers chosen by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.
He even flirted with running for mayor of Charlotte. The citys mayor-elect, Patrick Cannon, is a longtime member of the Park.
Under Alexander, the church has also been eager to get bigger.
On Easter Sunday 2001, a procession of three police cruisers, 26 limousines, two church vans, a church bus and dozens of cars made its way to the churchs then-new home a $12.5 million, 81,500-square-foot building on Beatties Ford Road.
Then, just four years later, the church announced it was buying an even bigger building: the Merchandise Mart, a 529,000-square-foot site on Independence Boulevard that had been hosting more than 70 trade shows a year.
The 2008 recession has slowed down the churchs plans to make the site its hub. But it is home to the Parks middle school as well as its Bible study, counseling and job transition programs.
And starting in 2014, Alexander said, the plan is to also have a congregation and a Sunday worship service there.
Because of its location (near east Charlotte), that affords us opportunities, he said.
Translation: The Park, which also has a satellite campus in south Charlotte, is looking to expand not only its membership but its diversity, drawing on Spanish-speaking immigrants and others who have come to Charlotte from around the world. Already, people from India, Africa and other countries tune into the Parks services via the Internet.
Alexander said he hopes this global focus will become part of the churchs story in its second 100 years.
If we are faithful to what we believe God is calling us to be, he said, then we cannot imagine what God will do generations later.
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