Bethel AME Church wants its members’ stories

Former and current members have a chance to contribute their personal histories

Published 6/25/2023 5:30 a.m. EDT, Updated 6/25/2023 10:21 a.m. EDT

The day Larry Little came home from the Vietnam War, he was pulled over and called a racial slur by a police officer, he said. Angry because he fought for his country only to return to blatant racism, he decided to join the Black Panther Party in Washington, D.C.

After eight years with the party, he became unsettled with the group’s culture, he said. His parents told him to join the Nation of Islam, but he didn’t want to and decided to go to a church his coworker pestered him about. It was at Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, where Little felt a sense of belonging, purpose and mentorship that guided his life in a new direction.

“Bethel Church was the cornerstone that turned my life around and to this day I can look over my shoulders and see how blessed I’ve been because of that mentoring,” Little said, adding that he did not have a father figure growing up.

Little’s backstory with the church will be documented in a history project Bethel AME is pulling together with a publishing company. Hundreds of former and past members will have a chance to share their experiences, stories, photos and more that span decades. The histories are expected to highlight the church’s significant involvement in education, social action and community over the years.

Zulema Caldwell, a current member of the church, said she proposed the idea of the history project after her alma mater, Texas A&M, did a similar project. Caldwell said it will be a lengthy process but they hope to get a finished product, including a book, by next year. The church is working with Publishing Concepts Inc., which conducts the interviews and places content in a portal for editing.

Caldwell has been part of the church since 1996. She got married in the church and both of her sons were baptized there. She wants the project to remind participants that “no matter how many people that are involved, my story is also a part of the bigger Bethel history.”

Bethel has its own rich history, beginning as a prayer group in the late 1780s. Bethel would also become one of the founding congregations after the African Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1816. Generations have come to know Bethel’s grandiose building in the 1300 block of Druid Hill Avenue, which the church purchased in 1910. Throughout its history, Bethel AME has been involved in civil rights activism such as protesting Jim Crow laws and demanding the hiring of Black police officers in Baltimore. Violet Hill Whyte, a Bethel member, became Baltimore’s first Black police officer.

Warren Hayman, a retired, long-time educator and member of the church, said it’s “always good for us to record our history because too many people try to record it for us and never get it correct.” For the project, Hayman plans to contribute his connection to the educational efforts of the church.

Hayman has a decorated educational background: a bachelor’s from Coppin State University, a master’s from Stanford University and a doctorate from Harvard. He also retired as an assistant dean of education at Morgan State University. After Hayman joined the church in 1978, the pastor tapped him and other educators to put a plan together to open a Christian school. Bethel Christian School opened across from the church at 505 West Lanvale St. The school has since closed but the church has a campaign to raise funds to renovate the building.

“I think with the renovation of 505, that would be an excellent opportunity for the church to restore its place in the education of African American families and the African American community,” he said, adding that administrations across the country are actively trying to deny access to critical race theory and African American history.

Vera Dorsey said she always admired the opportunities Bethel provided for young children. She was involved in junior choir, junior ushers, and altar guild. She fondly remembers being shoulder to shoulder with other children in the back of the church and being watched by the senior usher to make sure they didn’t leave between services to go to the nearby corner store for chips.

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“Bethel had so much activity and interest in the young people that I definitely wanted to be there. That’s where I stayed,” she said.

Vera Dorsey has been a member of Bethel AME since she was a child. She's been teaching church school for over 45 years and has fond memories of the junior choir, altar guild, and junior ushers.

Dorsey said she’s been going to Bethel so long, her mother had a cradle roll — a certificate recognizing a new baby — from the church when she was born. She and her family were part of the “six o’clock league,” people who consistently went to the evening service after dinner. She’s been teaching church school for over 45 years, even after it became virtual on Zoom.

Dorsey still has a picture of herself and the other children she grew up with in the church that were in the choir, which her aunt directed at one time. She treasures it, she said, because it brought back such great memories.

Vera Dorsey keeps an at least 70-year-old picture from when she was in the junior choir at Bethel AME Church. Harrison James Bryant was the minister at the time. Harrison eventually became a bishop. Dorsey's aunt was the choir director and her cousin also sang in the choir.

These days, Vera said she’s happy to see Bethel is active in neighborhoods and doesn’t “just stay inside the church.” In the past, Bethel has been involved with opening a bookstore, credit union, outreach center and other hubs for those in need.

“This church is continuously growing, and if you can keep an open mind and open heart, you will see the beauty of this church and how it keeps evolving,” she said.

As new members join and young families create their own footprint within the church, Little said he’s determined to be to them what so many were for him.

“I want to be that same person that’s sitting in the pew giving love to young folks that the elders gave to me, because if it wasn’t for them … no telling where I would have been,” Little said.