Church marks 100 years as the backbone for DeKalb’s oldest Black neighborhood

The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021.  Pastor Darreius Moore has been the leader of the church for nearly 12 years and is native to Atlanta.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Pastor Darreius Moore has been the leader of the church for nearly 12 years and is native to Atlanta. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

For about a year, the members at a small church have kept in contact virtually or met in the basement meeting room at their building in Brookhaven.

Their sanctuary, which glows with a blue tint from the stained glass windows, remained empty until the last Sunday in March. That was China Grove Missionary First Baptist Church’s 100th anniversary, and not even a global pandemic would stop the congregation of roughly 50 from celebrating.

The church and its members have been part of the backbone of Lynwood Park, the oldest Black neighborhood in DeKalb County. Darreius Moore, who became China Grove’s lead pastor in 2009, said it provided community and support through days of segregation, the Civil Rights movements, school integration and the year of coronavirus.

“Some of them (church members) were instrumental in starting elementary schools and buying a lot of property,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “They were just empowering the community and the next generation of young people.”

Francis Steele, 80, was among the children who grew up admiring many of the church’s founding members. Steele, now a church mother, has witnessed at least a half-dozen pastors come and go — she doesn’t remember the specific number — but she said the church’s impact could not be more pronounced.

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Francis Steele, is a mother at the church and she remembers the original church with no air conditioning when she was a child. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021.  Francis Steele, is a mother at the church and she remembers the original church with no air conditioning when she was a child.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Francis Steele, is a mother at the church and she remembers the original church with no air conditioning when she was a child. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

“It’s a blessing, and I thank God every year that this (church) has been going on, because this church comes from a long ways,” she said. “It’s a blessing that they brought it to this community and began to build up.”

Participating in history

The church was founded in 1921 in a different location and with a different name. It was started by a handful of people who wanted to organize a local prayer group at a small, wooden Chamblee home. They called it Hard Rock, but by the 1940s, the church had moved to Lynwood Park.

Steele’s grandfather, a great deacon at the church, gave it a new name when they relocated to 3187 Osborne Road in what is now Brookhaven. The church was built on a grove of chinaberry trees, and the name stuck.

Growing up only a few streets from China Grove, Steele was baptized before she was a teenager. She remembers walking miles to attend a school for Black children in Chamblee before Lynwood Park was able to erect its own school; a new brick school opened in 1949 along Osborne Road, and it still stands today as the Lynwood Community Center.

Steele’s 10 children would be among the first generation to be taught at Chamblee High School alongside their white peers. The first round of students to integrate in the area were known as the “Lynnwood Trailblazers.”

“If you’re a child of color and you look at how things change, God said nothing is going on here that ain’t already in heaven,” Steele said of the change brought on by school integration. “I feel it was a great movement.”

Moore added that several members of China Grove Church were prominent members of the NAACP, who advocated for the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and school integration. One of the church’s founding members, Annie B. Truitt, was an early organizer with the DeKalb chapter for the NAACP. In 1990, she died at the age of 105 and had her funeral services at China Grove.

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Francis Steele, is a mother at the church and she remembers the original church with no air conditioning when she was a child. The banner is from the 100 year celebration. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021.  Francis Steele, is a mother at the church and she remembers the original church with no air conditioning when she was a child.  The banner is from the 100 year celebration.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Francis Steele, is a mother at the church and she remembers the original church with no air conditioning when she was a child. The banner is from the 100 year celebration. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

ExploreThese students walked onto Westminster campus and into history

Aside from becoming a pastor herself, Steele has held nearly every position possible within a Baptist church. She sang in the choir, taught Sunday school to children and became a church mother, an elder role of respect, sometime during her 60s. Often, she’d find herself at the small church every day of the week.

“We prayed in this church. We’d come here and fix food,” she said. “We had many wonderful days in this church.”

Preserving the past

Like all places of worship, China Grove shut down in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moore said the church began streaming sermons and services on its Facebook page, adding that “online is here to stay.” At the beginning of this year, he reopened the church’s downstairs meeting room every second Sunday of the month, but the church waited until March 28 for its largest gathering.

Dozens of church members were able to come through the church’s front door and celebrate its 100th anniversary. A large banner was placed outside the sanctuary for the occasion, featuring photos of longtime church mothers, including Truitt.

Moore said the immense history of the congregation is a lot to behold.

“For me, I have a small fraction of the 100 years that I inherited,” he said.

Last year, Lynwood Park was recognized as the first historic designation in Brookhaven, with commemorative plaques and monuments on the way. Moore said the community honors its history through multiple annual events, including MLK Day celebrations and Lynwood Park Community Day each May.

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Pastor Darreius Moore has been the leader of the church for nearly 12 years and is native to Atlanta. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021.  Pastor Darreius Moore has been the leader of the church for nearly 12 years and is native to Atlanta.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Combined ShapeCaption
The China Grove Missionary Baptist Church started in a home 100 years ago and still serves the Lynwood Park Community on Thursday, April 1, 2021. Pastor Darreius Moore has been the leader of the church for nearly 12 years and is native to Atlanta. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

ExploreBrookhaven adds historical designation to oldest Black neighborhood in DeKalb

Two other churches, Little Zion Baptist Church and Lynwood Park United Church of God in Christ, are also mainstays in the community that have been there for decades. Little Zion will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2023. While residents might attend one church or another, Moore said the three all support each other and share a common goal.

“Even though there’s different churches, a lot of (residents) were raised together,” Moore said. “When churches have different events, we support them and they support us as well.”

Due to the pandemic, Lynwood Park Community Day was canceled both this year and last year, but Moore said he can’t wait until the community can hold it again in-person. This year’s Easter Sunday service will also be virtual.

Steele said she’s considered selling her home before to capitalize on high real estate prices, but she ends up coming back to one question: “Where else was I going to go? It’s a blessing to be here.”

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