Ever since they split from Third Baptist Church in 1881, members of Ebenezer Baptist Church have considered themselves a favored people — a group with the same precious belief that rolled off Peter’s tongue while invoking his first epistle: “Ye are a chosen generation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into the light.”
At first, they met in the Odd Fellows Hall for Sunday school. Then, in 1882, they bought their little corner of the Parker Gray District on 909 Queen St. for $150. The Rev. Fields Cook became pastor and construction began on the building that’s now known as the “little red church,” the congregation’s first sanctuary. When it opened, Ebenezer Baptist Church was born — creating a bedrock in the city’s black community that claims some of Alexandria’s most influential residents: Mayor Bill Euille, Judge Nolan Dawkins, Planning Commission member Jesse Jennings and the late community activist Helen Miller, just to name a few.
“It’s a church that’s very much in midst of transition,” said Pastor Duane Kay. “Many people consider Northern Virginia the promised land, but there is still a lot of poverty here.”
IN 125 YEARS, the church has had only 10 pastors — adding Kay on Feb. 1, 2004. A native of Fredericksburg, Kay was raised in Spotsylvania with two older sisters. He received a degree in political science from Virginia Commonwealth University and worked on several campaigns, including Douglas Wilder’s 1994 Senate campaign and Mark Warner’s 1996 Senate campaign.
Although he considered a career as a corporate lawyer, Kay felt drawn to the ministry — receiving a master of divinity in 2000 and coming to Ebenezer in 2004. Since becoming pastor at the church, he has overseen the addition of about 200 new members as well as the purchase of two nearby buildings to expand the church’s ministry.
“We have a lot of young people who are struggling,” Kay said. “But we need to reach the whole family, not just the young people.”
The church’s new buildings — at 1002 Queen St. and 1006 Queen St. — are an opportunity for the church to spread its influence in the Parker Gray community and throughout the city. Kay says that one of the buildings will be used for outreach, trying to broadcast the good news to people who might not otherwise be exposed to the message of Jesus or the way of the church.
“Reverend Kay is a blessing,” said church secretary Phenoris Copes, who has been a member of the church for 28 years. “We always had children, but not like now. Reverend Kay is a visionary.”
Copes says that Kay is bringing the church into the 21st century, expanding the church’s ministry while broadening its scope. She is pleased with the legacy of her church’s first 125 years and even more excited about its immediate future — a time she says the church will take some chances and reap great rewards.
“When I think of 125 years, I think of a struggle,” Copes said. “I see a fire burning in a potbelly stove, and I can imagine going down to the river to be baptized.”
LONGTIME MEMBERS say that Ebenezer Baptist Church is an indisputable force in Alexandria, with a powerful membership that is willing to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. They describe the church as a rock, offering an immovable force of moral conviction in the an-changing tides of modern life.
“The name ‘Ebenezer’ is in the Bible,” said William Charity, who has been a member of the church since 1950. “It means ‘stone of help,’ and I believe that’s exactly what the church is.”
In his 56 years at the church, Charity says that he has seen a number of changes: the services have become longer, the seats have become more comfortable and the challenges have become more pronounced. He fondly recalls the Rev. N. Howard Stanton, who was pastor of the church from 1928 to 1937.
“He could say more in 15 minutes than most people could say in an hour,” Charity said. “He could pray in five languages.
The ten pastors have created a strong community of faith, with a membership that is strongly devoted to its church and devoutly committed to improving the community. In its first 125 years, the church has thoroughly enshrined itself on Queen Street. While its next phase may still be in the process of being planned and executed, members are eager to shine as a light in the darkness.
“This is a church that feeds the hungry, clothes the naked and pays the utility bills of those who are unable to do so for themselves,” Charity said. “Ebenezer is my life.”