The Rev. Paul L. Dunbar grew up in Brooklyn, eventually finding his way to the ministry of New Jerusalem Baptist Church after a professional career in management and airport operations. But his Southern roots ran deep through the stories of his paternal grandmother, who had moved north from Barnwell County during the Great Depression to escape segregation and seek a better life.
So when it came time for Dunbar and his wife, Elaine, to retire, they chose South Carolina, relocating to Columbia in 2007. But their ties to New Jerusalem Baptist Church and to its founding pastor and his mentor, the Rev. Dr. James C. Kelly Sr., remained too strong to break.
And, it turned out, others in the Jamaica, N.Y., church also were homesick for each other.
This month, church members who retired or relocated to the South will gather in Columbia with current members, who will make the trip from New York, for the fifth New Jerusalem reunion. There will be an opening Friday night dinner July 25, informal gatherings, sightseeing, a Saturday hotel banquet July 26, and Sunday worship at Brookland Baptist Church, where the Dunbars and several other New Jerusalem members now worship.
Brookland Baptist, in West Columbia, will serve as the host church for the reunion.
“The beautiful thing is the sheer memories,” said Kelly, who founded New Jerusalem in 1988 after splitting from another New York congregation. In an interview Monday, the 85-year-old Kelly called New Jerusalem “the church that faith built.”
Kelly asked his parishioners to abide by the biblical injunction to tithe 10 percent of their earnings and over a 10-year period, while they worshiped in a Seventh Day Adventist church, the congregation grew from 300 to 1,300 members and raised several million dollars to buy the land and embark on construction of the white edifice that now sits at 122-05 Smith St. in Jamaica. The church is part of the American Baptist Churches USA.
Kelly, who retired in 2005 with his wife, Loretta, to Apopka, Fla., said his eldest daughter, Susan, came up with the idea for the reunion.
“After we retired to Florida, she said, ‘Mommy and Daddy, why don’t we have a reunion of the retired and relocated members of the church so we can see everyone all at the same time?’” Loretta Kelly said. The inaugural reunion was held in Columbia in 2008, following by the secondin 2010 in Greensboro, N.C., and a third in Richmond, Va., where Kelly served as pastor of that city’s Fifth Baptist Church. Last year, church members gathered in Savannah for the fourth reunion.
The Dunbars will be there along with other relocated members who have returned to South Carolina places like Union, Sumter and Camden. Their stories of return are as varied as their individual stories, but interwoven is the thread of the great migration that pulled so many African-Americans out of the South during the early years of the 20th century.
Elaine Dunbar, a retired teacher who headed the women’s ministry at New Jerusalem, said she is one of the few who had no Southern roots, and thought she would remain a lifelong Brooklynite.
“I thought I couldn’t live anywhere else,” Elaine Dunbar said of New York. “But it was all part of God’s plan.”
Reunion chair Lee Booker-Newell of Union said she expects at least 40 to attend this year’s gathering. Their reunion mirrors dozens of others that typically take place in July, a summer month that draws many people back to South Carolina.
Wanda Gebrehiwot, who moved from New York to Boiling Springs in the Upstate, figures she may among the youngest of the “relocated” church members to attend. She was a member of New Jerusalem for four years, a small number compared to those who spent much of their lives in the church. One who likely won’t be in attendance is the current pastor of New Jerusalem, the Rev. Dr. Calvin Rice, whose South Carolina ties run deep as a native of Union. “We have to let him attend to the current members,” Booker-Newell said.
Already, Booker-Newell has gathered welcome letters for the commemorative reunion booket from Gov. Nikki Haley, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., Attorney General Alan Wilson, Secretary of State Mark Hammond and Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin.
When the members meet July 25, they will reminisce about the fellowship they shared and the ministries they carried out under the leadership of the Revs. Kelly and Dunbar and Deacon Thomas Daniels, who also now lives in Columbia. Kelly’s spiritual gifts are remembered generously; they say he was a pastor who was always there for his parishioners in joy, in sickness and in death.
“I’ll tell you what (Kelly) always said,” Elaine Dunbar said last week. “They may out-preach me but they’ll never out-pastor me.” Her husband, who now in retirement serves as the English-speaking pastor of the Carolina Presbyterian Korean Church in Columbia, credited his pastoral training to Kelly, too.
“It was a family,” she said. “It was just like a family.”