Collective vision

Chico community comes together to restore bell tower at Bethel AME Church

Bethel AME church has been without its steeple since 1957. (Photo by Evan Tuchinsky)

Four months into her tenure as senior pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest house of worship in Chico, the Rev. Loretta Dickerson-Smith had a vision. Church elders had guided her on a tour of the grounds at East Ninth and Linden streets; in prayer later at her home in Richmond, she saw Bethel AME (built in 1867, and moved twice—in 1907 and 1957) restored to its full historic grandeur—complete with the bell tower that graced its entrance until the building’s second relocation.

The pastor shared her vision with congregants the next Sunday. Then she waited.

One year passed. Two. Three. During the fourth, Bethel AME got vandalized. The church reached out to the community for financial assistance with a Facebook fundraiser for $6,000 and wound up collecting five times that amount. The $30,000 allowed the church not only to repair the damage and replace stolen equipment but also, in Dickerson-Smith’s words, “do some small things that have been left undone for probably 40-some years.”

Still, the broader vision of restoring the steeple remained unrealized.

Until now. Thanks to a community-wide effort—a fund created via the North Valley Community Foundation to try and raise $110,000, plus in-kind donations from local businesses—groundwork for the bell tower has begun. The project will utilize historically accurate plans, courtesy of the Chico Heritage Association, with current building materials and techniques. Windows bracketing the steeple, and the front door, will get replaced as well.

While awaiting city approval for reconstruction, workers already have erected scaffolding and started demolition, including work last Saturday (Aug. 8). The timeline remains undetermined, but Bethel AME intends to welcome the public when the church reopens from coronavirus restrictions and the restoration.

Last weekend (Aug. 8), workers were busy preparing the bell tower at Bethel AME for remodel. (Photo by Jason Cassidy)

“All of this came together in a matter of weeks,” Dickerson-Smith told the CN&R by phone. “So for 4-1/2 years, basically nothing had been done other than me continually putting the vision in front of our church … and then things began to happen, and it happened so quickly.

“And, this process has not just been restoring the temple, it’s been restoring the community,” she continued, explaining that volunteers from various local churches have prayed, outside Bethel AME, before workdays. “We as a community are coming together with one voice, with one goal, to see the restoration. And, many of the people who have come to pray also have given of their time, their talent and their treasure to support this effort.”

One such individual is Dan Herbert, former Chico mayor and parishioner at Bidwell Presbyterian Church. He works at Chico State with the Rev. Robert Morton, deacon at Bethel AME, who organized the fundraiser.

Herbert came across one of Morton’s Facebook posts around the time Chicoans, like others worldwide, protested the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin on May 25. Bethel AME is historically a Black church; though its congregation includes diverse worshipers, it serves as a focal point for the local Black community.

His thought: “Wouldn’t it be awesome to come alongside this church in the opposite spirit of everything that’s going on—all the hate and anger from that unfortunate event—and say that we want to do something tangible as a community that would speak for generations about what we did in response to this travesty.”

Herbert contacted Morton, who told him of Dickerson-Smith’s vision; and Brandon Slater of the general contracting firm Slater & Son, who told Herbert that he was thinking along parallel lines. Herbert brought together churchleaders with Slaterand, for his part, took the reins of the Bethel AME Church Restoration Project Fund.

“I was so in awe and taken aback,” Dickerson-Smith said. “God worked it out in a way I would have never imagined, which was through a Facebook post and the community being receptive to wanting to restore the temple, which is what the original vision was all about.”

Coincidentally, Herbert had the same notion, a decade-and-a-half earlier. During his term as mayor, 2000-02, he “thought it would be a blessing” for the faith community to join with Bethel AME to “bring it back to its original glory.”

As Herbert told the CN&R by phone, “I must admit I kind of put that on the back burner”—but Morton’s post “resurrected that thought I had years earlier that wouldn’t it be cool if we raised enough money to restore the steeple?”

The fund organizers aimed to secure donations from 1,000 individuals, rather than a handful of benefactors, to represent a true community statement. So far, Herbert said, the fund has gotten $45,000 from around 350 donors.

“We want it to be very symbolic,” he said. “There have been people who have donated $15 or $25; we want them to drive by that church next year and 10 years from now and tell their children, ‘Mom helped restore that steeple. … [O]ur community came together at a very difficult time to help do that.’”

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