In Sharon Hill, the ministry and congregants at the First African Baptist Church render their morning greetings with a simple exclamation: “Joy!” and a warm, expressive smile to match as they filter about the church during Sunday service.
But last week’s Sunday service was especially joyous with the celebration of the church’s 114th anniversary and the buzz surrounding the mysterious payoff of a $4.5 million commercial loan.
Nearly 100 congregants, spanning across all generations wearing their Sunday best stylish church attire, were seated throughout the spacious church, in pews on the floor and in the balcony to start services with a robust gospel; shortly after the opening song, Pastor Rev. Dr. Richard A. Dent led worshippers in prayer, thanking not only God, but also past leaders and congregants of the church that was founded in 1903. He thanked them for keeping the institution a thriving entity for over a century.
“It’s special because, ironically, there aren’t too many Black churches that are over a hundred years old,” Dent told a reporter. He said there are only two other existing churches in the county that predate his.
During the tumultuous times of racial tensions, Dent said, Black Americans relied on the church for other recreations besides worship.
“When we couldn’t go downtown, when we couldn’t stay in hotels or when we couldn’t go in auditoriums, we always had the Black Church, so this is the training ground for our young people to learn how to talk in front of people…and be able to go to school,” said Dent.
In 1985, Dent, who was an educator in the Philadelphia School District and a recent graduate of the seminary at the time, was asked to lead First African. His love for educating carried over to his newfound career as a pastor.
Dent said, “I always had a special joy for young people,”which was evident among his first duties as pastor, when he and his wife worked to “instill a ‘Yes we can’ attitude,” Dent said, in the children by funding college education for high schoolers.
“We’ve had a lot of kids go on to college and (my wife and I) made the promise that if you are determined to go, we will find the funding,” the pastor said, adding that he always hoped to prevent students from distracting themselves from their studies by worrying about tuition fees.
During the service, Chairman of the Trustee Ministry Terrence Marcel Brooks read a letter to congregants from Citizens Bank informing him that on Jan. 25, a payment totaling $3.1 million had been accepted. The whopping multimillion dollar payment, paid in full, also dissolved the church’s entire mortgage debt.
Before churchgoers, Brooks burned the mortgage. He took the letter and held a lit lighter under one of the corners to allow the letter be engulfed by the flame that gradually crept up the perimeter of the single sheet. It was then placed in a jar and carried away as the crowd cheered.
Brooks, a fourth-generation member of the church for 47 years and the great-grandson of Lyndon Robinson, one of the church’s founding members, said the mortgage “was like a cloud over our head.”
“The money was used for good works, but we’ve always tried to work towards making sure it was paid off on time,” Dent said.
Brooks said receiving the mortgage back in 2003 was a struggle because banks are reluctant to lend to religious institutions. However Citizens Bank had gotten a new president and Brooks and Dent both believe the new president, combined with divine intervention, facilitated the church getting the mortgage.
The original 1903 structure of the church did not withstand the test of time and eventually was demolished; a new structure was built on the parcel, but that began to also wear over time and now serves as the church’s annex. As a result, the church borrowed, via mortgage, $4.5 million in 2003 to build the current structure, adjacent to the annex. Dent said the church was able to raise $1 million towards the mortgage.
It is said that God works in mysterious ways, because how the remaining balance of $3.1 million was paid-off has left Dent, Brooks and many of the congregants guessing.
After the service, a congregant was seen whispering something in Dent’s ear, possibly secretively wondering who paid the multi-million dollar donation. “I don’t know,” Dent said in response.
Although the official paperwork states that the loan was paid-off, the fact that it was completely paid off is still surreal.
“I would have loved to know who it was, but we just praise God that there was someone put in place to make sure we were taken care of,” Brooks said.
Dent also believes the anonymous, generous donor was pleased with the church’s positive presence in the community. However, Dent said the person maintaining anonymity “is easier.”
“If that person wanted us to know who they were, they would tell us,” the pastor said.