Celebrating 30 years of service, the Rev. Hezekiah Benton Jr. is the 12th pastor of the Bethlehem Baptist Church. Established in 1849, the church building is known as the oldest edifice in the Newton County African-American Community and is located in the heart of the historical district in the city of Covington. Under Benton's leadership, the church has expanded its call to serve the community. A banner in the sanctuary states their motto and emphasis, "A Praying Praising People Serving a Powerful God."
The first services were held in the home of the Rev. Berry Fish until a log hut was built near the Central Depot and the church became known as the Colored Baptist Church. In 1851, the Rev. Toney Baker became pastor and served for 46 years. Under his pastorate, the church changed its name to Bethlehem Baptist. Leaders of this growing congregation included Henry Robinson, Joe Slaughter, Cole Johnson, John Bentley and Neat Bagby. A wooden structure was given to the church by a white fellowship in 1856. The church met on second and fourth Sundays until 1959. In 1963, the main sanctuary was completely renovated and an educational annex was added.
Other pastors who have served include the Rev. Fambro, the Rev. A.D. Williams, the Rev. John Lewis, the Rev. G.W. Woodson, the Rev. W. Kelley, the Rev. Joel King, the Rev. P.R. Geer, the Rev. C.W. Huff, and the Rev. E.L. Mitchell.
Bethlehem Baptist Church believes that its ultimate mission is to lift the name of Jesus, globally. The members are charged to walk in Jesus' footsteps and to invite others to share in building his kingdom.
Weekly events include Sunday school at 10 a.m. and morning worship at 8 a.m. and 11 a.m.; adult Bible study and youth ministry on Monday at 7 p.m.; hour of power on Wednesday at noon followed by Sunday school training at 6:30 and prayer service at 7:30 p.m. The 2008 annual theme is "Raising the Foundation of Many Generations."
The church functions to serve a diverse congregation through an organizational structure of ministries, auxiliaries, fellowship groups, boards and committees.
The music ministry consists of the senior choir, gospel choir, male chorus, youth choir, mass choir and the praise team.
New programs and improvements include an annual Prayer-A-Thon, Angel Food ministries, youth and adult Bible classes, youth summer feeding/enrichment program, the Bethlehem Scholarship, new carpeting, padding of the pews, a church library, conference room material, new organ and piano, kitchen equipment, heating and air conditioning and roofing repair. Youth visibility has increased by awarding certificates to the A/B honor roll each quarter.
The church purchased the parcel of land near the Hammonds House and the tennis court adjacent to the church. In addition, property was purchased on the corner of Emory and Usher Streets with plans to construct a Family Life Center and a Personal Care Home.
The Rev. Benton was born to Hezekiah and Rosie Hayes Benton, the sixth of seven children. His father, now 94, raised his children to honor and respect the gospel message.
"I gave my heart to the Lord one night at revival when I was nine years old," said the pastor. "I received the call to preach on Sept. 28, 1974 and was licensed and ordained in 1976."
Benton graduated from Hutto High School as salutatorian in 1962. He received a Bachelor of Science in Agronomy from Fort Valley State College and was awarded a Master of Divinity from the Interdenominational Theological Center.
Benton worked as a soil scientist with the Soil Conservation Service of the United States Department of Agriculture in Greencastle and South Bend, Ind. He was one of six black soil scientists in the country and was the first black soil scientist to publish a soil survey report in St. Joseph County, Ind.
Benton is a prior recipient of the Newton County Martin Luther King "I Have a Dream" Award, former President of the Newton County Minister's Union and New Era State Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia and served as Interim Administrative Dean of the Morehouse School of Religion at the Interdenominational Theological Center.
Benton spoke of many miracles in his life such as how his godmother, Mrs. Marie Hopson Dixon, was instrumental in connecting him to a job with free room and board and which provided income for him to attend college. The Saturday before he was to enroll, he accidentally cut the fingers on his right hand with the blade of a lawnmower. An Air Force surgeon sewed his fingers and told him it would be a miracle if he kept them.
"It has been a source of inspiration to me when I look at them and see the miracle that God did in my academic training," said the pastor. "I graduated with honors and made a living for 10 years as a soil scientist in Indiana testing soils with these three joints that were almost cut off."
His ministry partner and wife is Belinda Elaine Benton. Together, they have four children: Jocelyn Benton Glenn, Anthony Benton, Shametria Nolley Dixon and Quincy Nolley. Their five grandchildren include Jazmine and Kevon Edward Glenn, Israel and Amrin Dixon, and John Quincy Nolley
Benton believes it is important to nurture and train our children with the foundation of God's word so there is no abandonment of family principles when they reach their teenage years.
"I want to see a restoration of family values," said the pastor. "I want families to become self supportive. If we can get back to it, I believe the Lord will bless us."
For more information, call (770) 786-8229 or visit www.bethlehembaptist.covga.org.