XENIA — Sandra Saunders reminisced as she gazed around the fellowship hall inside Middle Run Baptist Church.
“When I was a child we used to have church here,” she said while sitting on the stage where the baptism pool was located decades ago. “And Sunday school (was held) down in the basement.”
Saunders, who was baptized inside the church when she was eight, marvelled at all the history inside the venerable building on East Church Street. There are documents and newspaper clippings dating back to 1900, church meeting records from 1899, and the bell — more than 100 years old — that was rung proudly by church leaders.
“We’ve got a great legacy,” Saunders said.
That pedigree will be front and center this weekend as the church celebrates its 200th anniversary.
The festivities kick off at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1 at AHOP Church, 282 Stelton Road. Central State University President Dr. Jack Thomas will be the keynote speaker. The celebration continues at 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Oct. 2 at Middle Run, 1000 East Church St. The Rev. Warren Shaw, pastor emeritus of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church in Dayton, will be the preacher.
The public is invited and among the expected guests are descendants of Godfrey Brown, the founder and architect of the church. Brown was born to slave parents in 1768. The family was owned by a rich family of agriculturists and tobacco planters in Brunswick County, Virginia.
After the death of Godfrey’s parents, slavemaster John T. Bowdoin offered Brown the opportunity to purchase his and his family’s freedom for a certain amount. Brown and his family worked, prayed, dreamed, and saved and by spring 1820, they had accumulated the $5,650 that was required to buy their release. Brown and his wife, Chaney, and only their four eldest children were emancipated. They left the Virginia plantation as free people. The remaining eight children were guaranteed freedom when they became 21.
After Brown and his family reached Ohio, he bought 254 acres of land from Edward and Sarah Dromogoole for $1,000. The land was located in Caesar Creek Township and soon became known as the “Brown Settlement.”
In fall 1822 after the houses were built for his family, Brown and his sons chose a section of ground between two branches of a stream to lay the foundation of a church where they could better serve and praise God, and raise their family. Because of the unique location of the church between two streams, the church was named Middle Run Baptist Church.
Brown’s oldest son, Samuel Sr., was also called to preach. Father and son went to every “new” settlement, whether white or black, preaching the gospel and became well known.
Middle Run is one of the oldest black Baptist churches in Ohio and the U.S. and took an active part in the Underground Railroad. The church was also used as a shelter from the 1974 tornado and a staging area where clothes, etc., were distributed after the tornado.
“We have a rich, rich history,” Saunders said.
The church in 1889 moved to Xenia, where most of the members had resettled. It was rebuilt in 1895 and 10 years later, the first choir was organized and the first organ was purchased. The annex, which houses the current sanctuary, was built in 1991. On Sunday, July 15, 2001, founder Godfrey Brown’s family dedicated a beautiful monument, which is located on the west side of the building, to the church. In addition, on Sept. 4, 2005, on behalf of the Brown descendants, Catherine Burch presented the church with a “Human Yoke” to be added to the archives.
Middle Run has had myriad spiritual leaders, at least 40. The names of many are unknown. Saunders’ father, Orville, spent more than half a decade as deacon. The current leader is Deacon Karl Kennedy, who has been at Middle Run more than 30 years.
“I consider it a blessing,” he said. “I wasn’t from here. I just consider myself just blessed. I’m just in awe.”
Kennedy said the church’s membership has taken a hit as the congregation ages, but they have managed to keep the doors open.
“It’s a faith walk,” he said. “They said ya’ll won’t make it. We’re still here. We serve God. God is good.”
Saunders, who is the church clerk and secretary, said survival is based on faith.
“Our faith has kept us going through many challenges,” she said.
Added Kennedy, “We turn the page and see what’s next.”
But the memories of the first 200 years are alive and well inside the church.