Jun. 26—Phenomenal is how Melodee Colbert-Kean described the fact that the congregation of the Unity Missionary Baptist Church of Joplin will be celebrating its 120th anniversary Sunday morning.
"It's a proud feeling that I belong to something that's historical like that," the former Joplin mayor said Monday. Colbert-Kean is a 45-plus year member of Unity Missionary. "It's an exciting feeling because you don't often see something that old in life."
Unity was established in 1901 in Joplin, when two former Black churches — Second Baptist Church and St. Baptist Church — merged under a single roof. Roughly a year later, a tornado destroyed Unity's church building, forcing congregation members to temporarily meet inside the Jasper County Courthouse building. That same storm also demolished two other prominent Black churches, Handy Chapel and Trinity United Methodist. Joplin's first millionaire, Thomas Connor, donated $15,000 to have all three churches rebuilt; Unity officials chose to rebuild their new sanctuary at 533 E. Seventh Street in 1904. After that building was abandoned so it could be razed to make way for the Seventh Street viaduct, the new church building was built at its present-day location — 615 Minnesota Ave. — in 1939.
Those 120 years of existence — weathering storms, two world wars, three church building moves, along with decades of racial tensions and segregation, "speaks to the longevity of this church," Colbert-Kean said. "If you look back through Black history, the church was always one of the main outlets, or longstanding (pillars), that we could lean on to get us through" some of those hard times. The church, she added, has never let her down.
At the age of 6, Colbert-Kean's mother shifted her and her siblings from Central Assembly church on Main Street, where they had been attending Bible school, to nearby Unity Baptist. No explanation was given, she said — her mother simply told them they would now be attending church there, and so they did it, no questions asked. Looking back at the decision, she's quite happy and relieved it happened.
"This church is a family; it's my family," she said. "I love my church. I go visit other churches, but there's no place like home. When you come back home you not only feel more at ease and relaxed, but you have an even deeper appreciation for your church home."
It was at Unity "where I found my meaning and my purpose in life," she said. "Having been here for as long as I have and growing up here and raising my kids here, yeah, this is family. and it's hard to break that bond."
Over the decades she has played the piano during services, taught Sunday school, led the choir — "I've done just a little bit of everything" except preach from the pulpit, she said.
While all Joplin churches here in 2021, no matter the denomination, welcome everyone, obviously reality is never so simple, she said. Unity was a Black church 120 years ago, and it pretty much remains one today, primarily due to racial segregation. Leading up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, public signs indicated where a Black man or woman could legally walk, talk, drink, rest and eat in Joplin, while every facet of society — housing, hospitals, schools, jobs, public transportation, and, yes, churches — were divided along racial lines.
"I always call (Sundays) the most segregated day and hours of the week, because so many of the Black congregations will be where they feel most comfortable at church and so many white people will be wherever they feel most comfortable. Now, is that right? Probably not, because the Lord is the Lord over everybody, and the church should be the church for everybody; it shouldn't be a 'Black church' and a 'white church.'"
Another 120 years from now, when future members of Unity Baptist Church gather together to celebrate the anniversary, the congregation will be seamlessly blended.
"I'm hopeful, because you see a lot of the younger generation now — and I love them, and I love their spirit — (preaching) one love, that they don't care about this or that (difference) and that we're all in this together," Colbert-Kean said. "And I love that spirit because that is how we are supposed to be; we are supposed to love one another and be accepting of one another. The (youngsters) truly get it; they don't care what you look like, it doesn't matter this or that — (what matters) is that (they) love you because you are you."
Betty Reaves Smith, 92, began attending the church at the age of 12 and has been a member for 70 years. Like Colbert-Kean, she also said the members of the church are more than just faces sitting in pews — they are members of a larger, extended but equally beloved family. The "togetherness among the (church) members" is what she loves best about it, she said.
"When the church has a specialty event, we all come together as one," Smith said, who served for 37 years as the church's choir director and has taught others about the Bible, in one capacity or another, for 70 years. Smith also researched, wrote and published a 100-page booklet about the church's rich history.
Ultimately, Unity Baptist Church "is all about family; anyone who's been in here for any length of time would tell you that — it's just all about family."
Kevin McClintock is features editor for The Joplin Globe.