Two churches step out from the past together
Debora Timms | 11/9/2023, 6 p.m.
Two Dinwiddie County Baptist churches, Rocky Branch in Sutherland and Central in Church Road, both celebrated their 150-year anniversaries in October. To mark the occasion, the predominately white congregation of Central Baptist and the predominately Black congregation of Rocky Branch Baptist did something that would have been unthinkable all those years ago — they came together in worship and fellowship.
Central Baptist’s Pastor Jacob Drake is a Tennessee native. He assumed his first full-time pastorate in 2019.
“When we here, our 1-year-old daughter would nap in the car and we didn’t wake her if we didn’t have to,” Pastor Drake said by telephone recently, explaining how this driving around led him to see the sign for Rocky Branch’s church and its founding date of 1873.
“I thought, ‘Wow! There’s another Baptist church that was founded the exact same year as (Central Baptist),’” he added. “I went home and told my wife and she thought it was a great idea for the churches to do something together.”
As a result, Pastor Drake’s wife, Emily, and their daughter, Joanna, helped bring about the joint celebrations.
Although life and a pandemic delayed the idea, Pastor Drake said his wife was the driving force that made sure the idea never went away. He reached out to Rocky Branch in March and spoke with Rev. Herbert Anderson, a longtime member of the church. The church currently is without a pastor.
Rev. Anderson, 94, was born and raised in Petersburg, but he has been a member of his wife Odena’s home church since they married 70 years ago.
When he brought Pastor Drake’s suggestion to the church, they thought it was a great idea and an anniversary planning committee was formed.
Rocky Branch member Cheryl Fitzgerald was the committee chair. She played an active role in the church community over the years and again since moving back in December 2022.
She shared by email some of the history of the two churches located just five miles apart. At their founding, Central Baptist’s congregation was made up of white people while Rocky Branch’s Black congregation were most likely newly freed slaves. Prior to the end of slavery, their church services were not in a building like the white church, but in a bush arbor - an open-sided pole structure with a brush roof to keep the weather off worshippers.
The committee planned two joint worship services. The first was led by Pastor Drake on Oct. 15 at Central Baptist. Rev. Anderson joined in offering communion and a dinner followed.
“Two churches getting together on a Sunday morning is fairly unheard of. I didn’t know what it would look like,” Pastor Drake said. “Never in my life have I been part of something so sacred and so spiritual. It felt like a homecoming and a celebration.”
It was a lovely fellowship and well-received by the community,” Rev. Anderson added in a telephone interview. “Those I’ve had the chance to talk to are excited to have something more than once a year. I told Pastor Drake we need to start thinking of something down the road.”
The congregants weren’t the only ones that came together.
The choirs also joined forces with Emily Drake, Central’s interim music director.
On Saturday, Oct. 28, the two congregations also hosted a community day with health screenings, vendors, a car show, activities for the kids, raffles and live entertainment. Ms.
Fitzgerald said more than 200 people enjoyed the fun, fellowship and fine weather.
The second joint worship was the next morning, Oct. 29, this time at Rocky Branch. Pastor Drake again led the services,
Paster Norwood Carson, one of Rocky Branch’s former pastors, was the guest preacher and Rev. Anderson provided a historical reflection.
“It was a wonderful experience,” Rev. Anderson said, sharing the comment he made to end his reflection. “Dr. King had a dream 60 years ago. I feel that this was a fulfillment of that between these two churches.”