A thousand words beyond the Hill

Brian Leddy

Even though the New Bethel Baptist Church is old, the people inside are filled with new life like that found on a crisp spring morning: joyous, refreshing and rejuvenating.

Members of the congregation know that giving thanks and praise for their health and happiness far outweighs that of shiny new pews and freshly painted walls. Their faith is as pure and innocent as the newborn babies that pass through the front doors weekly.

The tattered, red velvet-covered pews fill sparsely with a mixture of both young and old members, all claiming their own small area of worship. Heads bow in silent prayer for a few moments before the congregation joins in tired song.

The Rev. Earl Jackson, the leader of the congregation, cues the piano player to bring the music up a step.

“Play on, Brother Butts!” he said.

Services at New Bethel are always laid back and loosely structured. There’s no need for rush. Jackson takes notes and shuffles some papers around as other members emphatically vocalize their prayers to Butt’s soulful piano music.

Several members sing with enthusiasm, but one voice rises far above the rest. The warm and weathered voice of Ellie Sue Johnson strains with years of wisdom.

“I’ve been coming here for 30 years, and I’ve seen three pastors before this one,” Johnson said.

She’s a cornerstone in this small community, and she shares her knowledge of voice and song with the sleepy-eyed youth she teaches each Sunday morning.

“I love Sunday school,” she said. “I’m a Sunday school girl, and I don’t forget what my momma told me.”

Brian Leddy is a senior photojournalism major from Niles, Mich. He can be reached at [email protected]