By Cheryl Magness
Epiphany Lutheran Church, which traces its beginning to the oldest and only historically black Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) church in Jackson, Miss., burned down in the early morning hours of Nov. 8. The fire was one of seven that were intentionally set in the city, damaging not only Epiphany but Greater Bethlehem Temple Church and several other buildings within a two-mile radius near Jackson State University. Epiphany’s Family Life Center sustained minimal damage and will serve as the congregation’s worship space for the foreseeable future.
A suspect is in custody and has been charged with six counts of arson and one count of malicious mischief.
Epiphany Lutheran Church was commissioned on Sunday, Sept. 11, 2005, as the result of a merger between the congregations of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and St. Philip’s Lutheran Church, both in Jackson, and became a member congregation of the LCMS in 2007. St. Paul’s was organized in 1962. St. Philip’s traces its beginning to the early 1930s, when Theodore Johnson, a student of Immanuel Lutheran College in Greensboro, N.C., was sent as a missionary to the black population in Jackson. In 1932, a congregation was organized, and the Rev. Haskew C. Bates (1904–1982) was called as its pastor. The building that was destroyed by fire formerly housed St. Philip’s and was constructed in 1940.
A 1941 article by Bates in The Lutheran Missionary includes the following background:
“Our little flock, which came to be known as the ‘House Church,’ dedicated its new building located on the corner of Isaiah Montgomery and Dalton Streets. On the afternoon of December 14, 1940, The Rev. G. A. Schmidt, of New Orleans, delivered the dedicatory message to an audience which left not a vacant seat and had braved the continued downpour of a three days’ rain to attend the service. Our Board’s executive secretary, the Rev. L. A. Wisler, preached in the night service. The Revs. Edw. Krause, of Jackson, and Wm. Wedig, of Piney Woods, conducted the worship on the following Monday and Tuesday nights.
“Our beginnings were humble and handicapped. In 1932, when Student Theo. D. Johnson served the mission, meetings were held in three different homes. Since 1933, when the undersigned [Rev. Haskew Bates] took charge, two more changes were made. In the last, Mrs. W. E. Mannaway’s house, our flock made steady progress and organized as St. Philip’s congregation.
“We are thankful to God for all the blessings showered upon us and for the wonderful gifts of zealous Christian friends which built our house of worship.
“May St. Philip’s become a real Bethel to many lost souls in Jackson — ‘none other but the house of God, and…the gate of heaven.’”
In 2002, the Rev. LaVaughn Wiggins was installed at St. Philip’s after serving his vicarage. Wiggins concurrently served both St. Philip’s and St. Paul’s from 2003 until 2005, when the two churches merged. The commissioning service was held in the former St. Paul’s at 2875 Medgar Evers in Jackson. Wiggins remained Epiphany’s pastor until January 2011, when he was installed as campus chaplain of Concordia College Alabama, Selma, Ala. The Rev. Raymond W. Gage currently serves as Epiphany’s interim pastor.
Jacqueline S. Hollins, Epiphany’s congregational president, said the last few weeks have been extremely difficult for Epiphany’s members, former members and the community who worshiped, attended vacation Bible school and took part in other activities at Epiphany. “We thank everyone — our sisters and brothers — for your kindness and prayers and for extending your arms, churches and more to us. We have faith, and we know that with God leading us, He will see us through it.”
The Rev. Eric Johnson, president of the LCMS Southern District, said the district would be following Epiphany’s lead and offering any support it can as the congregation determines a way forward.
“I am partnering with our Black Ministry Task Force to help the people of Epiphany plan for the future,” Johnson said. “We pray that this tragedy will be used by God to bring about revitalization of the mission and ministry in that place.”
The Rev. Dr. Ross Johnson, director of LCMS Disaster Response, offered his support on behalf of the Synod. “LCMS Disaster Response is committed to supporting Epiphany and the Southern District as they assess and develop a plan for next steps,” he said.
The Rev. Dr. Roosevelt Gray, director of LCMS Black Ministry, also expressed his support and asked for the Synod to do the same. “These saints of God, who are currently without a called, full-time pastor, are now without a permanent facility to worship God due to this evil act. Please consider donating to help them rebuild.”
Donations may be sent to the LCMS Southern District, 100 Mission Dr., Slidell, LA 70460. Write “Epiphany” in the memo line. Donations may also be made via the Southern District’s Facebook page.
Hollins said, “Epiphany would like to thank everyone for their thoughts, prayers and contributions.” Contact Epiphany directly by writing to Epiphany Lutheran Church, P.O. Box 20027, Jackson, MS 39289; by calling 601-353-0504 or 601-540-4381; or by emailing email@example.com.
The Reporter staff is indebted to the assistance of Molly Lackey and Concordia Historical Institute for the historical information included here.
Posted Nov. 23, 2022