It’s been five years since Pastor Ivan Pitts posed the question to his staff at Second Baptist Church: If the church was to disappear, would anybody care? Would anybody notice?
Then, the answer wasn’t so clear. But now, as SBC congregated over the weekend in celebration of its 100 years of service to the community, Pitts said he can feel pride in the monetary and spiritual contributions his church has made to Orange County.
“We have a clear vision to serve others,” Pitts said. “I believe that you reap what you sow, and so we decided to sow into serving others, giving to others.”
It’s that community-centered vision that has allowed SBC, the oldest Black church in Orange County, to make it to 100 years — navigating issues in recent years such as the COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide decline in church membership.
“There are so many churches that have not made it 25 years, let alone 50 or more,” said Pitts. “I feel like we are here for a reason, and God wants more from us. The community needs more.”
In 2019, more protestant churches in the U.S. shuttered their doors than new ones began, according to a study from Lifeway Research, a resources tool for church leaders.
Rev. Ivan Pitts is the senior pastor of Second Baptist Church in Santa Ana, CA. Photographed on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Today, SBC has 1,300 active members — including those who attend services in person at the church’s locations in Santa Ana and Irvine or watch online.
SBC’s story began a century ago with the official founder Julia Sullivan. Along with her sisters and brothers, Sullivan migrated from Texas to Santa Ana and “just wanted to find a place where they could worship,” said Kelita Gardner, SBC’s director of operations.
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It was 1923, and the country was still reeling in the aftermath of World War I and the Great Influenza epidemic. And in Orange County, due to racial segregation, Black people did not yet have such a place.
So Sullivan worked with the abolitionist First Baptist Church to start SBC on Second and Baker streets in Santa Ana, home to about 50 parishioners at the time.
Over the years, SBC has moved locations and started a second campus in Irvine. It’s opened its buildings to other churches to utilize, including a Vietnamese church that held services on its campus prior to the pandemic — and even First Baptist before it closed its doors for good in 2019.
One person who has stayed at SBC for a while is Dwayne Roberts, the church’s minister of music who led a choir of at least 100 SBC voices — including former parishioners who have flown in from other states — on Saturday night as part of the centennial celebration.
Roberts moved with his family to Santa Ana in 1965 when his father left the military. His grandmother was already attending SBC, and soon he and his family became involved in music at the church. For 58 years, Roberts has watched the church evolve.
“Even those people who have gone across the country, they’re coming for this event because it was home for them, and we’re still family,” Roberts said. “No matter how far away they go, no matter how long it’s been. It’s a family reunion.”
The church mentors and tutors children and young adults — both with social skills and formal education. It partners with the OC Sheriff’s Department, and the pastor meets with cadets for conversations about race, how to be interested in the communities they serve and “policing with love.”
“Second Baptist has always been a community where people can come and get support,” said Gardner.
And so parishioners, past and present, near and far, say they feel pride in their church. Not the conceited arrogance warned about in the Bible — “pride goes before destruction,” warns a verse in Proverbs — but admiration for what SBC has accomplished over the past 100 years.
That includes Randy and Paula Mason, who traveled from Atlanta to join the celebration over the weekend. When he can, Randy Mason joins the SBC men’s weekly Bible study from Georgia over Zoom, at 9:30 p.m. his time, and keeps in touch with the many friends he made, especially fellow Marines, while attending the church from about 2018 to 2020. His wife, he says, wishes they could take more frequent trips across the country to visit SBC.
And then there’s Lester Crawford, now a Los Angeles resident who grew up in SBC, starting out in the children’s “Cheer Babes” choir with Roberts, now the music minister. As part of the weekend’s “Best of SBC” musical celebration, Crawford had a lead part in a song called “Genesis,” one he performed at the church as a teenager.
“I’m proud to be here to witness the centennial celebration,” Crawford, whose mother joined the church when she moved to Orange County in the 1950s, said. “Second Baptist has always been a stronghold in the community.”
Even as the church celebrates its centennial, it has its eyes on its next community project: a partnership with the OC Health Care Agency and the Orange County Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance to launch mental health and wellness services. Amid the celebratory concerts, church services, balloon drop and dinner, SBC announced the new partnership.
“You’re going to have a partner in making this city, this county, better,” Pitts said of SBC’s next 100 years. “We are committed to being a church that is rooted in love and not in indifference, not in intolerance. A church that is not going to close to the community, but open its doors.”
For those who couldn’t make it to the celebration over weekend — or for those who did and aren’t ready to stop the festivities — the Muzeo Museum and Cultural Center in Anaheim has an exhibit, “Grasses of Life, 100 Years of Service,” showcasing SBC’s history. The exhibit is open now through April 9, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.
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