As members of Bethany Christian Church prepared to celebrate the church’s 75th anniversary this weekend, they reflected over a legacy that included worshipping in one of Roanoke’s oldest high schools; partnering with other churches and neighborhood organizations to rid the Williamson Road area of porn shops, massage parlors and other crimes; and promoting community involvement and unity.
Interest in the establishment of a Disciples congregation in the northwest section of Roanoke was initiated in the fall of 1943 by several members of various Disciples congregations who lived in the neighborhood, about the time that the Christian churches of the Roanoke Valley formed the Roanoke Area Council of Churches (now known as District III).
After a dedication and consecration service in 1944, 68 people signed the charter, and Bethany Christian Church was born. The congregation met for the first time at the old William Fleming High School, now Breckinridge Middle School. Records show that 172 people attended Sunday school and the morning worship then.
Bethany eventually built its stone sanctuary across Fleming Avenue from the school.
Under the leadership of a dozen ministers over the years, the congregation has been involved in feeding the needy and providing activities at extended-stay facilities for the elderly, in addition to assisting its own members and expanding its own facilities.
Bethany hasn’t fully recovered from a 1989 inner-congregational rift when 100 members left. Those who stayed have worked to continue the church’s religious mission and to keep up with the times by updating its technology, modernizing its facilities and aiding others.
The congregation is working toward being more inclusive of its community, which has grown from being predominately middle-class white to an area with multiple ethnic groups.
Bethany also has launched its Community Table mission under its first female pastor, the Rev. Elaine Austin.
The Community Table draws in area residents for food, worship and other assistance.
After Austin moved on to become minister at Boones Mill Christian Church, Bethany’s search for a minister led to its first African American pastor, the Rev. Kevin McNeil, who was installed in 2018.
The church also is trying to increase membership by working with youth, thus enticing entire families to participate.
Members are optimistic that their Christian and charitable efforts will increase their ranks and help them carry out their mission of “being the hands and feet of Jesus” by loving all unconditionally and sharing his message through witness and service to this community, said church moderator Betty Whittaker.
Bethany has a welcoming atmosphere, and that seems to be drawing people to services, according to both Whittaker and Brenda Allen, who joined after attending Bethany with other family members.
“The one thing about Bethany is the love felt among the members of the church — we are truly a family!” Allen wrote in an email.
In a history prepared for the weekend anniversary celebration, church leaders said, “With the changes now taking place as a result of neighborhood and pastoral transitions, the loss by death of several key members of our church family, and limited resources, we have new challenges ahead of us. Nonetheless we remain confident in God’s guidance for us to proceed onward. Not unlike what was initiated in 1944, we have entered into a time when we must exert our faith, work in cooperation, and encourage our best effort to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ ... loving all unconditionally and sharing his message through witness and service to this community. To that end we endeavor to persevere.”
Bethany Christian Church, 3115 Fleming Ave. N.W., is holding its anniversary dinner at 5 p.m. Saturday, and worship at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.