Johnson Memorial Church at 31st Street and Greenup Avenue meets faithfully every Sunday morning — usually with a congregation of five.
But members keep the faith.
“We work hard and diligently to grow as much as we can,” said Darryl Williams, who is pastor and song leader, among other jack-of-all-trades duties. “We might be few, but we’re faithful.”
Three of the five members sat down with a reporter recently — Williams, his mother, Irene Glass, and his aunt, Marie Blake. They make up 60 percent of the attendees.
“We have good services every Sunday,” said Blake, 88, who has been a member since 1939. She has been told her mother used to put her near the coal-burning stove during services. It was the only heat in the building. “I don’t remember that, but that’s what I was told.”
“He preaches and he sings,” Glass said of her son. “And he preaches the Bible.”
And they keep the faith.
The church has a rich 86-year history that includes name changes. But the building where the church is housed has an even longer history. It’s the oldest standing structure in the Ashland school system’s history. East Ashland was a two-story brick schoolhouse constructed in 1891-92. In 1923, the school system took bids to sell it and it was purchased by the (Christian) Methodist Episcopal Church on May 11, 1928, for $5,000. It was called the Wylie Annex at that time. The church put a $1,000 down and paid $1,000 for each of the next four years for the building.
Madge Haney, who lived on the corner of 31st Street and Greenup Avenue, recently dug into the history of the building. She found school board notes from where the building was sold and a lot more.
Haney remembers when the church had dozens coming through the doors for services. She remembers how sharply they dressed and the snazzy cars some of them drove.
“They were lined up around the building to get in during holiday services, especially,” she said. “It was something. Many of them walked because there was nowhere around the block for them to park.”
Because it was a black church she wasn’t allowed to go there or play on the grounds. But Haney remembers a church with plenty of life. Because the building used to be an Ashland school building also stuck with her. “That’s why I couldn’t let it go,” she said of her research. “I’m glad they got it and didn’t tear it down. I hate to see old buildings torn down.”
White and black children were allowed to play together on playgrounds, but they couldn’t attend the same schools and churches, Haney said. “I could kick myself for not paying attention. I never understood why it was that way. They were always so kind to me. Times were different. We didn’t get acquainted.”
The church was a gathering place for blacks in the neighborhood during the 1940s through the 1960s. “We had a lot of members at one time,” Glass said. “We used to have some packed services.”
Some members have moved away or moved on to other churches, and what used to be the church’s neighborhood is mostly full of businesses. So it’s tough to find new members.
But they keep the faith.
“When we’ve had a need, God has provided,” Williams said. “We do what’s necessary. We’ve been blessed with donations of materials and other items.
“I have a problem seeing churches close. I work hard to keep the doors open.”
Williams is a bivocational preacher. He is a clinical supervisor for the Huntington Treatment Center. He went to Bible colleges and preaches the Bible boldly to whoever happens to come through the doors each week.
“We want to do more,” he said. “We’re open to anybody, even though most people consider us to be a black church. One of our biggest problems is we’re not surrounded by houses.
“But our goal is to grow.”
The church building has been long paid for, but the utilities and repairs can sometimes be daunting with a small membership of essentially one family. However, Williams said tithes and offerings have been enough — “along with God’s grace.”
Williams graduated from Paul G. Blazer High School in 1977 — 24 years after his mother graduated from Booker T. Washington School. Williams played football for the Tomcats. “I was only 160 pounds, but I was probably the fastest down-tackle in the state of Kentucky.”
Williams said his mother, who went to Berea College after graduating from BTW, always dressed him nice for school — he didn’t own a pair of blue jeans until after he graduated high school.
He attended church, but “the body was here, the spirit was not,” Williams said. He had his time of dabbling in drugs and alcohol, but wife Carla helped him get his life straightened out.
“We had a child and I realized it was more than me I had to take care of,” he said.
The church was called Phillips Chapel CME in 1978 when Joe Johnson was pastor. His father, JMH Johnson, was pastor for 25 years, although not consecutively, Glass said. The men died and the church was named Johnson Memorial Church in 1985 for both of them, she said.
The elder Johnson did much to foster church growth, including building a parsonage next to the church and a fellowship hall in the back. The parsonage has had fire damage, Glass said.
Marie Blake remembers the 1937 flood and how it affected the neighborhood. Many came to her parents’ house for refuge and safety. “I remember my mother sending me to the A&P store at 29th (Street) and Winchester (Avenue). My mother and daddy had a house full of people from the flood.”
The church has had water damage and recently paid $900 in plumbing bills. There are other needs, but Williams is confident funds will be provided because they always have.
“God will provide,” he said.
And they keep the faith.
MARK MAYNARD can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2648.