PATERSON, NJ - It was March of 1968 and hundreds of people lined up outside the humble-looking church on Auburn Street. The air was filled with excitement and anticipation. Some folks waited as long as two hours to hear the reverend to speak. Of course, this was no ordinary sermon, no ordinary reverend.
Two days after speaking in Paterson, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis. There, he was assassinated on April 4.
Dr. King's legacy continues to inspire members of the Paterson church where he spoke. Some recall being there that day. Teenagers born decades after his death know the story of King's visit and are proud of it. Now, the Paterson City Council is on the verge of adopting an ordinance that will make the church a municipal historic site, with a vote scheduled for January 25.
At the time of King's speech, the Auburn Street church was home to the Community Baptist Church of Love. In the 1980s, Community Baptist relocated to a bigger building on Broadway and Bethel African Methodist Episcopal move into the Auburn Street church. Both buildings are under consideration for historic landmark status.
The Rev. Allan Boyer, pastor of Bethel AME, sees the historic designation more as a matter of pride. “Martin Luther was here!” he said, smiling, opening his arms wide.
During his sermon on January 16, the Rev. Boyer used King's words to appeal to his parishioners. Addressing complex demands of today’s “troubled world,” the pastor called for unity in politics and daily lives.
In his sermon, the pastor also recalled King saying, “We’ve got to march again, in order to put the issue where it is supposed to be. And force everybody to see that there are thirteen hundred of God’s children here suffering, sometimes going hungry, going through dark and dreary nights, wondering how this thing is going to come out.”
Bethel AME Church is a home to many parishioners of Paterson who proudly endorse the landmark status. Three young ladies - Fantasia Martin, 11, Shinei Nesmith, 16 and Kiyana Williams - said they grew up knowing about Martin Luther King’s special relation to the church, but the girls said they want more people to know about it and more people to come to the church.
Dexter Cas, who works in a church, said that everyone here knows that King spoke there and the historic designation will boost the pride of parishioners and their desire to live up to the civil rights leader's expectations. Patricia Morris, who has been coming to this church for years, said that Bethel AME has been vital for hungry and homeless and helped to feed women and children with AIDS.
The city council's plans to make the two church historic sites stem fro research conducted by the Paterson Historic Preservation Commission and the Paterson Planning Board. They determined that the churches meet several landmark criteria, such as historic, social, architectural, and aesthetic value and are associated with events that contributed to the national or regional history.
The church at 2-4 Auburn Street, historically known as the Union Holland Reformed Church, was built in 1887. It became the home of Community Baptist Church in 1957, until 1986, when that church moved to a bigger building and Bethel AME bought the Auburn Street church.
The Rev. Boyer said the church has kept the same basic furnishings and structure since the Rev. King was here. The pastor said he is proud of the landmark status, but is not looking for any special treatment or funding.
However, he said, the church could use some repairs, especially to its sidewalks and windows.
“It is very important that we preserve the building,” said the Rev. Boyer. "The legacy and the struggle of Martin Luther King will be always preached here.''