On a downtown Franklin corner lot, one of the city’s most historic churches sits quiet and little used.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church was the first black-dominated place of worship in Franklin. There were times when more than 100 people filled the simple but sturdy white clapboard building.

Times have changed. Membership is down to fewer than 10 people. Paint is peeling off the church exterior, and repairs need to be made to the deteriorating structure.

Story continues below gallery

But new pastors Damen and Rosalind Morris have a vision of restoring that vibrant, essential community that Bethel has been for so long.

Together with the remaining members, they are working to honor the tradition Bethel has built over nearly 150 years. At the same time, they want to attract new members, reach out to younger worshipers and integrate themselves more fully into the Franklin community.

“A lot of people are deterred by the ‘A,’ the African in our name,” Damen Morris said. “We want people to know that the ‘A’ stands for ‘all.’”

In the front office of Bethel AME, faded photographs from the past five decades are framed and hanging on the wall. Members are shown enjoying church picnics, special celebrations and Bible studies.

One photo shows nearly 50 people — seniors, middle-aged adults, children and babies — posing near the church sanctuary.

The sanctuary looks much like it did in the 1960s.

“The church is still here, even with a few members,” Damen Morris said. “We’ve been in amazement on how the church is still open.”

The African Methodist Episcopal church was founded in the late 1700s by free blacks living in the U.S. Congregations spread throughout the East and Midwest before the Civil War.

Bethel AME is the oldest predominantly black church in Franklin, having been founded in 1867.

Franklin had a small black community at the time, and they decided to start worshiping together. Since more members of the community were Methodist, they formed a church in that denomination.

The existing church building was started in 1907, when pastor H.C. Morman helped raise $200 to start the project. Completed in 1911, it has remained Bethel’s worship space ever since.

The Morrises, both from Gary originally, met while attending divinity classes at Indiana Wesleyan University. Together, they have been working for the past six months to restore Bethel.

Since African Methodist Episcopal is a connectional denomination, with districts and a connected organization, larger churches support the smaller ones.

Damen and Rosalind Morris, both new pastors, were assigned to serve at Bethel to help revive it.

“We may be green pastors, but these are the best kinds of churches to me, to work and exercise our ministry together,” Damen Morris said. “We love teaching.”

Their mission is to teach the gospel while encouraging physical and spiritual development, Damen Morris said.

To do that, the Morrises aim to strengthen Bethel’s connection to the community and particularly to Franklin College.

They have spent much time on campus, introducing themselves to students and talking to them. They’ve gone to activities and events sponsored by student groups and tried to make themselves visible.

In particular, they’ve worked with the college’s Black Student Union and attended their banquets.

“You show yourself friendly, show that you’re here for them and support them,” Rosalind Morris said. “We’ve been invited to quite a few things just by letting them know we’re in the community.”

In addition to the spiritual work to be done, the physical church building is in need of revival. The white painted siding is flaking and peeling. Leaks in the roof have caused water damage, and the basement is all but unusable.

The Morrises have started a GoFundMe crowdsourcing site to garner donations for their projects. Their goal is to eventually construct a space where members and families can come to attend workshops and other activities.

They want to repair the exterior, while looking into creating a fellowship hall where they could invite the community to cookouts and other events. In the future, they would like to have classrooms and maybe even have a food pantry for the needy.

“We want it to be inviting and welcoming, to anyone in the community,” Rosalind Morris said. “Our doors are open to everybody.”

The first six months of the Morrises’ tenure has been focused on re-establishing its traditions and the core principles.

Bethel’s existing congregation is no longer predominantly black, as the population of the area has changed. But its emphasis on love, learning and community remains, Damen Morris said.

The church conducts two services each week, Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings.

Sunday school has not been re-established yet, but the Morrises hope to bring it back in the future. They’re also looking to start a music ministry and are looking for a worship leader.

“We don’t just want to teach, we want to worship, and we want a good sound to go with that,” Damen Morris said.

Another church currently rents the Bethel building for services after Bethel’s on Sundays. The rent payments have allowed the church to keep operating.

They’ve been taking part in fellowship activities with other denominations and working with other churches to fill gaps in the needs of the community.

In July, the church will host a Quadrennial, a celebration of African Methodist Episcopal churches from all over the world.

“It’s been about seven years since the church was connected to the community,” Damen Morris said. “The mission is to get reconnected.”

At a glance

What: Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church

Where: 499 W. Madison St., Franklin

What: The first established church for blacks in Franklin

Founded: 1867

Pastors: Damen and Rosalind Morris

Service: 11 a.m. Sunday

Bible study: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

Contact: bethelamefranklin@gmail.com, 812-272-0753

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.