100 years of Bethany Presbyterian

Published 7:14 pm Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Bethany Presbyterian Church, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary this September, has become intertwined with the history of Zuni over the past century.

The circa-1924 sanctuary was one of the few structures left untouched in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd dumped a foot and a half of rain on Zuni, flooding most homes to their rooftops in the unincorporated Isle of Wight County village at the east bank of the Blackwater River.

Charles Powell, a lifelong parishioner and the grandson of Bethany charter member James Wellons Powell, attended the church’s 75th anniversary days after Floyd destroyed his home.

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“The water came right up to the parking lot at the church,” Charles recalls, but stopped short of entering the sanctuary.

Thirty-six years earlier, a 17-year-old Powell watched from a school bus as fire trucks sped toward a blaze that had broken out at a peanut silo adjacent to Bethany. He remembers the day well. It was Nov. 22, 1963 – the same day former U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

The church and the landmark silo each survived the day.

“When you give directions to Bethany Presbyterian, you say right beside the silo,” Powell said.

The church predates the four-lane Route 460 highway from Suffolk to Petersburg that passes through Zuni, which prior to the road’s construction had been a stop along the Norfolk & Petersburg Railroad.

Debbie Braswell, another lifelong Bethany member, was born to a family of five siblings.

“Sunday morning, we came to church; there was no if ands or buts about it,” Braswell recalled.

She raised her own two children in the church as well.

“I have experienced friendships that have lasted for years and years and I feel privileged to have that,” Braswell said.

The Rev. Pete Atkinson, Bethany’s current pastor, said the church now has around 60 members. Its congregation peaked in the 1980s at around 200.

“Through the 100 years we’ve had ups and downs in membership,” Atkinson said.

Atkinson, a teacher at Southampton Academy, came to Bethany in 2017.

Powell, who was born in 1946, made his first journey to Bethany in early 1947 when his mother carried him the 1-mile distance from their home on foot. Two years before his birth, his older brother, Randolph, was selected by the congregation to burn the bank note in a ceremony celebrating the repayment of the church mortgage.

“We’ve got a tight-knit group,” Powell said. “It is a family.”

Bethany, the first Presbyterian congregation in the county, traces its roots to 1922 when the Norfolk Presbytery, the denomination’s regional overseeing body, sent the Rev. S.K. Emurian to expand the denomination into Hampton Roads rural areas. According to church records, Emurian arrived in Zuni on May 23, 1923, and by Sept. 25, 1924, more than 900 people attended a ceremony celebrating the placing of the church cornerstone. Construction was completed just under a year later on Sept. 20, 1925.

In his grandfather’s day, “they used horses” to haul materials and equipment used in the building of the church, Charles said. Bible study was originally segregated by gender with women and men in separate classrooms on opposite ends of the church.

We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, as so many churches have,” Charles said.

“Church was kind of a focal point back in the early days,” Charles said, recalling the Zuni Ruritan Club – composed primarily of Bethany members – would host what he called “donkey softball” games.

“You hit the ball and jumped on the donkey and ride to first base,” Charles said.

The 100th anniversary celebration is planned for the weekend of Sept. 21-22. The first day will include a catered dinner at 5 p.m. followed by a music and memories service at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 will include Sunday school at 9:45 a.m. followed by an 11 a.m. worship service and catered lunch.