Greater Bethel AME celebrates 118 years
Gigi Tinsley | 3/20/2014, 9 a.m.
Building a church in the African Methodist Episcopal denomination was planted in the minds and hearts of a small group of Black Christians early in 1896. A meeting was scheduled and held March 12, 1896, at the home of Alex Lightburn to birth the church that founders named Bethel A.M.E. This monumental meeting was held three months before the city of Miami was incorporated. Bethel A.M.E. was organized under the the leadership of Bishop James Crawford Embry and Presiding Elder L.T. Long.
The services were held at Lightburn’s home for several months. The membership grew and the home became too small. A tent was donated by Mrs. Cora B. Anderson and erected across the street from the Lightburn’s home. The first church built was on tenth street and avenue H. It was a little frame structure with a dirt floor
they called “Little Bethel.”
In 1899, the little wood structure was placed on a horse drawn wagon and moved to Bethel’s present site, 245 NW 8th Street. Shortly after the relocation, their new pastor, Rev. Fields (first name not known) began making plans for the construction of a “Bigger Bethel.” The new frame church and parsonage was completed under the leadership of Rev. J.W. Jackson.
The area called Overtown grew rapidly and flourished. Under the leadership of Rev. R.B. Sutton, the foundation for the church was laid. For several years, the structural growth came to a standstill because of a severe hurricane that hit the area.
From 1934-1948, Rev. H.W. Fayson was the pastor. Under his leadership, the members worked hard “to complete their goal of finishing the upstairs portion of the church.” It was approximately nine years later (according to programs and activity sheets), on October 31, 1943 the upper auditorium was completed. ”Bishop Tookes Presiding Prelate of the Eleventh Episcopal District attended the service. The church was renamed and dedicated as Greater Bethel A.M.E Church.
In 1948, the African Methodist Conference sent Rev. Franklin Ball to lead the congregation until 1952. According to records, “His special presence assisted in continued growth and improvement.” Rev. J. Benjamin Blacknell was sent during the 1952 South Florida Conference and erected a new parsonage and various meeting rooms.
In 1957, Rev. Sylvester A. Cousin was sent. During Cousin’s tenure (to 1967) additional classrooms for Sunday School were built; the secretary received a private office, a central air-conditioning system was installed, and a parcel of land adjacent to the west side of the church was purchased.
Rev. T.S. Johnson served from 1967-73 and under his administration the first off-street parking area was constructed. Blackwell returned to Bethel in 1973 and during his second term the upper auditorium was renovated, new pews and carpet were installed. Under his tutelage the “burning of the church’s mortgage” was done.
Rev. Ira D. Hinson served from 1978-88. Under his leadership, the membership grew, additional property was purchasedfor parking; the parsonage was renovated, a new air-conditioning system was installed; new pulpit furniture and pews for the balcony were purchased; and a radio ministry was installed to enable Bethel’s sick and shut-ins and the community to enjoy the Sunday services.