Shady Grove Baptist Church recently passed its 150th anniversary in early May. However, the church’s current pastor, the Rev. Joseph Moore, said that all celebratory events have been put on hold because of the pandemic.
According to a church history compiled and updated by Deaconess Sylvia Tyree, Deaconess Linda Lewis and Sisters Phyllis Reed and Phyllis Highland, Shady Grove was established in 1871 by members of North Pamunkey Church and Macedonia Christian Church. The founders were former slaves. This occurred roughly six years after the end of the Civil War and the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments.
In the early days, Shady Grove’s congregation held worship services under the shade of a black oak tree. They used bales of hay and straw as pews arranged in a semi-circle around the natural chancel.
For the price of $75, the church founders were able to purchase a plot of land from Thomas and Sallie Woolfork. While the church building was being constructed, worship services continued to be held in the bush harbor. Shady Grove’s ballooning membership provided the financial support for the project. By 1872, the church was completed, and the Rev. Coleman Gillum began leading the first services in the space. After some time, the church was torn down and replaced with a new building.
The Rev. Edward White, the great, great grandson of one of Shady Grove’s founders became the pastor of the church in 1995. He focused on church ministries and community outreach. Together with church leadership, Rev. White developed the theme or motto: “Shady Grove is a church where Everybody is Somebody and Jesus Christ is Lord.”
In September 1997, the first phase of a new edifice or great hall was finished. The building was dedicated as the Shady Grove Baptist Church Family Life Heritage and Cultural Center. New ministries and programs were introduced such as a new members class, men’s fellowship, women’s fellowship and an outreach ministry.
After the Rev. White became ill in 2001, the Rev. Moore became Shady Grove’s pastor-elect in his stead. In the fall of 2004, the Rev. Moore officially took over as pastor, becoming the 13th and current person to lead the church. Under the Rev. Moore’s guidance, the church has formed a gospel singing group called the Fifth Sunday Singers. Additionally, Shady Grove opened Sunday’s Best Boutique an idea conceived by the church youth ministry. In December 2013, The Florence Ester Willis Hardman Jubilee Education Wing was dedicated and opened.
“Basically, we are still trying to maintain a vision in terms of identifying changes in the community,” said Eddie Lewis, a member of Shady Grove along with his wife Linda since 1987. “We have an aging congregation now. A lot of our younger members went off to school or joined the military or something like that. It’s been a challenge, like it is for most churches, to bring back the younger generation.”
Lewis was originally on the board of trustees at Shady Grove, which handles financial business for the church and controls upkeep and maintenance of the buildings. After, Lewis was ordained as a deacon in 1990 he moved to Shady Grove’s deacon board and became chairman in 1993, a position he has held ever since.
Due to structural damage, the former Shady Grove church building was torn down in January 2014. Many items were salvaged from the building and placed in storage. The old building’s stain glass windows were removed, fully restored and installed in the Jubilee Education Wing along the walls with backlights.
In November 2015, the Shady Grove School, situated behind the church, received a state historical marker. Some of the church’s members who attended the school were present at the dedication ceremony. Ultimately, the church plans to convert the school building into a small museum.
Church trustee James Howard Richardson worked to raise the necessary funds to have a road put in the church cemetery. The road was dedicated to his memory in July 2016.
Sylvia Moore and the Rev. Moore created an after-school tutoring program that began in the fall of 2016. The church was used as a tutoring center. A church van was recently purchased and will shuttle members to services on the weekends and students to the tutoring program this coming fall.
A media technology team was started this year. The group is chaired by Sister Rosalie Williams; Sister Glenda Lewis serves as vice president; Rev. Maria Lewis is the church’s website coordinator; Sister Rosalie Williams is the email coordinator. Highland and the Rev. Moore are also members of the team.
COVID-19 has forced the church to undergo some significant changes when it comes to worship services. A Sunday parking lot service has been set up where members can sit in their cars and listen to the Rev. Moore preach. Additionally, both morning Sunday school and Wednesday prayer fellowship are held using a free conference call service.
“We do our drive-in Sunday services in the main parking lot,” Lewis said. “The Rev. Moore comes outdoors or when it was too cold he would stand in the foyer of the church with speakers on the outside. Probably about 35 members have been very consistent in coming out and being a part of the parking lot services. Those last right around 45 minutes.”
At present, church leadership is waiting to see whether the pandemic is fully under control before holding a gathering to mark the 150-year milestone. According to Lewis, the possibility of scheduling an event for Labor Day has been floated.
“It’s still kind of up in the air,” he said. “We might merge it with our homecoming event, which is in September. That’s when we get a lot of our members to come from cities and various other locations. Usually, we have a big gathering on the first Sunday in September. So, we are hoping to combine the church’s anniversary with that.”
Like so many members of Shady Grove, Lewis has his own interpretation of what the church and its people mean to him.
“It really has become a beacon of hope over the course of the years,” he said. “Someone I grew up with, who belonged to another church, said that it seemed like Shady Grove has been able to retain its sense of community. That resonated with me because I didn’t really see it as someone on the inside.”