“Here’s the church, and here’s the steeple, open the door and see all the people.” This children’s nursery rhyme really gets at the heart of what church is all about: community. And that’s what I have experienced while working with Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church members, their historic church records collection at the Indiana Historical Society and community partners. Community partnerships have been an integral part of preserving the significant history of this downtown Indianapolis church.
The Bethel A.M.E. Church and its steeple still stand at 414 W. Vermont Street along Indianapolis’s Central Canal where it has been since 1869, but the people (the congregation) have moved on to their new church building at 6401 Zionsville Road. This A.M.E. congregation is the city’s oldest African-American church congregation, founded in 1836.
Over the years, the cost of upkeep for Bethel’s historic building became unsustainable for the congregation, so the parishioners and their leaders decided to sell the church to SUN Development and Management Corporation in 2016. The company made plans to develop the historic church building and surrounding land into a hotel, while the congregation prepared to build a new church in Pike Township.
In addition to Bethel’s historic building being preserved and repurposed, the church’s history and significance in downtown Indianapolis will live on in many different forms thanks to the efforts of its church members in partnership with many local organizations. This month a new Destination Indiana Journey about Bethel’s history is available to visitors at IHS and online at destination-indiana.com. The church records are now housed at IHS and have been digitized as the Bethel A.M.E. Church Collection, a collaboration between IHS, IUPUI University Library, Indiana State Museum and Bethel A.M.E. Church. In another collaborative project, Virtual Bethel, the sanctuary and stories of the congregation have been preserved in a virtual reality experience. Spearheaded by IUPUI’s Media Arts and Sciences Program and Department of Library and Information Science, Virtual Bethel has provided an educational experience for IUPUI students who worked on creating the virtual environment, as well as the community who gets to experience a piece of Indianapolis history.
Bethel’s congregation dedicated their new church building on Zionsville Road on June 3, 2018, and ground was broken for Hampton Inn & Homewood Suites on the Canal Downtown Indianapolis (the hotel at Bethel’s historic site) just four days later. As Bethel’s history endures, its members are focused on carrying out the church’s mission and reaching people in their new community.