The country may be reeling over white supremacist marches and violence in Virginia. But at Pleasant Green Baptist Church, the mission goes on with quiet resolve, just as it has since a group of African-Americans, some of them former slaves, met for the first time in an abandoned ice house many generations ago.
Feeding the hungry, caring for the poor and elderly, raising up children to be good students — these are all ministries a church that calls itself “The Pleasant Church” has carried out tirelessly from the Jim Crow era through the unrest of the 1960s and beyond.
At 150 years old, Pleasant Green Baptist Church, on what is now 340 David L. Gray Drive, is going strong. In fact, it is just getting its second wind.
On Sunday, Aug. 20, the historic church is taking a moment to celebrate its past. Then its members will set out once more to serve the hungry, the poor and one another in all of the church’s 40 ministries.
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“The church is the anchor of the African-American community,” says its pastor, the Rev. Jarvis L. Collier.
Longtime member Bernice McKinney, now of Jackson Tenn., echoed that sentiment. “Pleasant Green became known as a church where if you needed help you could always get it,” she says.
On Sunday, the church has a morning of special music, praise dancing and a dinner planned. The Rev. Robert Lee Hill, now-retired senior pastor of Community Christian Church, was scheduled to speak at the 7:30 a.m. worship and the Rev. Emmanuel Cleaver at 10:30 a.m.
It has been a long road since that first meeting 1867. Back then, options were few for a church meeting place of migrating African-Americans. Pleasant Green’s first congregation found itself a home at an old ice house in the Bottoms east of the Kaw River, led by the first pastor, the Rev. I.H. Brown.
Twelve years later, the members, many of them packing-house employees, built a frame church building at First and Splitlog streets in Kansas City, Kan. But that church was destroyed by flooding shortly after the turn of the 20th century. Its replacement was destroyed by fire soon afterward, so they built another in 1918.
Pleasant Green is known for its countless outreach ministries. Its food pantry providing groceries to those in need is so well established that the church sometimes gets referrals from other churches, Collier says. Its bus ministry has picked up people from as far away as Raytown to come to church. And just a few blocks away from its building near downtown Kansas City, Kan., it runs a senior living center of apartments.
“You develop a reputation as a church for being kind to people,” Collier says. “And word of mouth can spread. Our ministry is beyond just keeping lights on for our members. We have to be mission-driven as opposed to just maintenance-driven.”
The ministries blossomed under the stewardship of the late Rev. David L. Gray in the 1960s. (His wife, Helen Gray, was The Star’s longtime religion editor before retiring in 2013.)
During Gray’s tenure, the church began a 30-year radio ministry and 20-year television ministry. The food program, now 45 years old, got its start during that time, as did the interracial, cross-cultural United Prayer Movement. In 1975, the church partnered with the Pioneer Group, a private consortium in Topeka, to provide subsidized housing at the former Northeast Junior High school at 400 Troup Ave.
Pleasant Green churchgoers weren’t afraid to try other innovations as well. At one time, the church ran a gas station, Christian theater and Christian bookstore. And in its basement are a couple of bowling lanes installed years ago as a community gathering place.
The church also ran a school — the Pleasant Green Community School, for elementary through high school grades.
Collier dreams of reopening that school, which was shuttered because of competition with charter schools. He points out the basement rooms near the bowling lanes where classes and computers could eventually go, once the basement is refinished.
If he can attract the donors, Collier envisions the future Pleasant Green Academy of Excellence as a place where low-income kids get rigorous academics and are encouraged to think big about their education. He describes his vision: “Pembroke school for low- to moderate-income families with all the amenities of a private school — uniforms, high expectations, small teacher-to-student ratio.” It would serve pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. “We want to say to any student coming in, ‘you are college material,’ ” he says.
The church has had a big impact on the surrounding neighborhood, as well as on the lives of its people, longtime members say.
Cunnie Randle of Kansas City has been attending since 1967. He remembers when the area surrounding the church building around Fifth Street was “a little Vegas, all gambling and good time houses.”
Church members began meeting Saturday mornings, praying and knocking on nearby doors. Eventually, the church cleaned up Fifth Street, he says.
Randle credits the church with guiding him and his wife, a former teacher at the school. “The Reverend Gray taught me how to conduct myself and witness Jesus to people who don’t know the Lord,” he says.
Bernice McKinney attended for about 45 years. She taught math at the school and served as an administrator as well as in community outreach programs. “It allowed me to receive solid Christian training and equipped me to be of better service. The training I received at Pleasant Green was a springboard whereby I was able to help my family spiritually,” she says.
The church has weathered racial storms in its 150 years, from post-slavery days to school desegregation and racial unrest of the 1960s. In fact, the senior apartments are in a building that used to be part of KCK’s segregated school system. Black kids went to Northeast Junior High and whites to Northwest. Now, the apartment building often gets people stopping by who want to revisit their old school, says resident George DeBose, himself a pastor at Tabernacle Baptist Church in Kansas City, Kan. “They always leave with a tear in their eyes,” he says.
The violence in Charlottesville, Va., last weekend, where one woman was killed and 19 more people were injured at a white supremacy rally, is nothing the congregation hasn’t seen before over its 150 years, Collier says.
“Charlottesville teaches us we have a long ways to go. I don’t think it could happen in Kansas City because we have more of a respect for other people,” he believes. But in the South some racist attitudes are more entrenched.
“The end of racism is when anyone affords others what they would like for themselves,” he says. “That’s the end of racism in America.”