The City of Tacoma was without a Black Baptist church in 1890, which prompted Hezekiah Rice to seek assistance from First Baptist Church.
The church was established and named, Mission Olivet Baptist Church, organized by Rev. Francis Davidson and others. The Mission was located at First and “C” Street, which is now Fawcett Avenue.
On January 8, 1904, a name change was filed with the Secretary of State in Olympia, which was legally named the mission, Bethlehem Baptist Church, on June 24, 1918.
The original site was located at 1725 South “I” Street and was purchased from Godfrey J. Weller for $1,300 under the pastorate of Rev. A.W. Williams.
Later, the parsonage was built during the tenure of Rev. A.L. Byrd, who was a carpenter and did most of the work himself. Also, Bethlehem needed to build a sanctuary. Consequently, in March of 1922, a building committee was formed with J. H. Corbin serving as chairman. Committee members were C.D. Anderson, Mary Moore, J. Hall, M. E. McCray, and O. Saunders. The sanctuary was completed in September 5, 1922, for a total cost of $7,105.58.
Dr. H. McLeroy Stovall’s tenure gleaned a period of intellectual advancement. For instance, Dr. E. E. Elmore, M.D. became Sunday School Superintendent, and Dr. Stovall edited and published a Black Magazine.
Edward Byard Wilson served as the church clerk, as well as janitor, yard man, and handyman – doing just about everything that needed to be done. Rev. Wilson was licensed by the church, and he began a period of study. After several attempts to call a pastor, Bethlehem ordained and elected Rev. Wilson as pastor in 1937. Rev. Wilson served untiringly and with distinction until his death February 9, 1965.
In January 1959, tragedy struck and our church was destroyed in a fire. However, through unity of the members and the support and prayers of the community, we began planning to build another edifice. Bids were given at $60,000 and up; our insurance was only $30,000. This time of testing surfaced the many talents housed within our congregation. Thus, under the leadership of our own Deacon John Chapman, a contractor, cement finishers, carpenters, electricians, painters, as well as other skilled laborers were found. Many of our good cooks prepared meals for those who so freely gave of their time and talents. The ladies of the church willingly painted and plastered boards. We borrowed $7,000 to complete the entire church, which was valued at over $100,000. We moved back into our completed church in December 1959. With the help of God, we rebuilt our church in five months.
During the time of rebuilding, we began meeting in the Parish House, which was too small. The Miles Memorial Christian Methodist Episcopal Church opened their doors to us, and we worshipped there until the near completion of our church. The mortgage was paid off in 1963.
After the Lord called Rev. Wilson home, Rev. O. R. Pigford served as interim pastor. After which, Rev. J. Barry Williams, of Philadelphia, was called as pastor in October 1965. His pastorate began in January 1966 and ended in 1969. Rev. Robert H. Davis, as associate minister of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, was asked to serve as interim pastor. An appeal was made to him to become the pastor, and he was installed on April 12, 1970. His tenure ended January 18, 1980. After his death on April 8, 1980, Dr. William H. Robinson, of Philadelphia, was sent by the American Baptist Convention to serve as interim pastor.
In October 1980, after much prayer and supplication, the church called and elected Rev. Floyd D. Bullock as our next pastor. He and his wife, Edith, came to us from the Tri-Cities. Because of a rapid growing membership and limited parking, the church, under the leadership of Rev. Bullock, voted to relocate. His tenure ended December 5, 1984.
In June 1982, we made the initial payment of $165,000 on five acres of property at our current location, 4818 Portland Avenue in Tacoma. The final payment was made in January 1984, and a ground-breaking ceremony was held on June 17, 1984. The Sunshine Construction Company began building in February 1985, and our building was completed at a cost of over $825,000 and ready for occupancy in May 1986.
June 7, 1986, we were blessed to begin worship services in our new edifice. The service of dedication was held June 29, 1986. Our hearts overflowed with joy as we reaffirmed Jesus’ great commission for His church and our determination to do His will. Our theme for the celebration was and still is: “We’ve Come This Far by Faith.”
Rev. Percy R. Gardner, Sr. was elected as interim pastor in July 1985, and served during the historic transition to the new church. He served faithfully and fervently until May 30, 1987, when the church extended a call to Rev. Dr. Freeman S. Rhoades and his wife, Anna, from Portsmouth, Virginia.
Dr. Rhoades was installed on October 11, 1987. During his ministry, he initiated and developed a Disciple Ministry. Two other note-worthy programs are the Radio Ministry, for those who were sick and/or shut-in, and the Gideon Plan, which had as its objective the early retirement of the church’s mortgage. The Gideon Plan was so successful that the $425,000 mortgage was paid off in September 1990 – fifteen years short of the scheduled twenty years. We give all honor and praise to God, for with Him all things are possible.
From 1990 to 1991, our Community Outreach Program was greatly enhanced, when we began a tutorial program and the operation of the Knowledge Kollege Daycare. Also, our parking area was increased by over 100 spaces to accommodate our growth, and a garage was constructed to house two vans and serve as a storage area.
In 1992, another van was purchased to add to our Transportation Ministry. In addition to picking up members, we provided transportation for homeless children to our daycare. Later, a ramp leading to the fireside room was constructed to accommodate handicapped congregants, and two speakers we added to the sound system for the choir lofts.
During 1993, the following improvements were made to our facilities; a lighted reader board was erected, an automated grounds sprinkler system, an additional security door, improved locks for the sanctuary, new coat racks for the vestibule and Fireside Room, and a new gas range and hood for the kitchen was installed, and additional landscaping was accomplished. Also, the Permanent Occupancy Permit was received for the sanctuary.
During 1994, the Church approved and adopted the Nehemiah Program to raise funds to finance the building of our Family Life Center. The kick-off drive was held on April 24, 1994, with a goal that the “Nehemiahs” would pledge and pay $2,000 and “Nehemiah Helpers” would pledge and pay $1,500 over a five-year period.
Since its construction, the Family Life Center has hosted weddings, personal development classes, youth lock-ins, basketball practices and tournaments, and community events. It also serves as a place of worship for churches without a building. Additionally, we established a relationship with the Boys and Girls Club and launched the Knowledge Kollege Daycare, and they became tenants of the Family Life Center. In years past, Bethlehem Baptist Church has hosted the 95th, 100th, 104th and 117th Annual Sessions of the North Pacific Baptist Convention.
The Women of Bethlehem financed the installation of wall cabinets and storage cabinets in the kitchen, large mirrors in the ladies lounge, and replenished cooking utensils. They also began operating a Clothes Closet for the needy.
History records as past pastors: Reverends Prince Francis Davidson, John Nelson, J.L. Murray, A. W. Williams, A. L. Byrd, H. McLeroy Stovall, Buckner, William Monroe, Edward Byard Wilson, J. Barry Williams, Robert H. Davis, Floyd D. Bullock, and Dr. Freeman S. Rhoades, who retired in August of 2013.
In June 2014, we were thankful, after an extensive search by our Pastoral Search Committee, the Lord saw fit to send us our present pastor, Dr. Eric D. Jackson, Sr. and First Lady, Rev. Evette L. Jackson, affectionately called, “Rev. Evette.”
Since his arrival, Dr. Jackson has proven to be the “breath of fresh air” that Bethlehem has longed for. We’ve experienced significant growth and rebirth, as well as a revived worship. Dr. Jackson’s vision to grow God’s people is being manifested in his Bible Study class and new Sunday School curriculum. He continues to educate, empower and encourage us – believing “eyes have not seen” what God has in store for us.
In his first year, Dr. Jackson established the Care Ministry, under the leadership of Rev. Evette, the Shepherd’s Care Ministry, “Golden Days” for Seniors (to stimulate mental exercise and prevent early onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia), and rebirthed the Youth and Children’s Ministries. Seeing a need for spiritual and biblical astuteness among the Deacons and Associate Ministers, Dr. Jackson began training classes for each. Under his leadership, we also purchased another van, upgraded our sound systems, and installed projectors and a large projector screen, as well as a hearing assistance system for our hearing impaired worshipers.
In the midst of social turbulence across the Nation, Dr. Jackson felt a burden to bring a change and stimulate diversity in workforce in the City of Tacoma; consequently, he coordinated with the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and the Tacoma Police Department to host diversity job fairs in our Family Life Center; these events served over 500 people from the surrounding community. Indeed, Pastor Jackson is making an impact in our church and city and leading us to be a 21st Century Church – “to serve this present age.”
In fact, under Dr. Jackson’s leadership, we partnered with the City of Tacoma and Tacoma Rescue Mission to launch one of our most significant contributions to the community; Bethlehem currently houses one of the only overnight family shelters in the City. Believing “pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27), in July 2016, we established a family homeless shelter in our Family Life Center. We regularly house as many as 40 individuals, which includes nearly 30 children.
We give thanks and praises to God, and we pray mightily that He will continue to bless our efforts of “equipping Saints to win souls to Christ.” We also pray that the Lord will bless us as we press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God which is in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14).