MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – During a year focused on social justice, a St. Paul church is celebrating its proud history. Pilgrim Baptist Church is the oldest Black Baptist church in Minnesota, and one of the oldest churches in the Midwest.

“It is your traditional Black, Baptist church. It is lively,” said Pastor Charles Gill. Even during a pandemic, when their beloved congregation can only watch from home, Pilgrim Baptist Church still finds a way to connect with its members.

Singing is a big part of their tradition too.

“Music is common ground pretty much for everybody,” said Gill.

The church formed in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War. Its founder, Reverend Robert Hickman, was born into slavery in Missouri but educated himself, and believed there were more opportunities in the north. So he led a group of people to Minnesota.

“When you think of a raft moving up the Mississippi, 75 people on it, and they are runaway slaves, they traveled by night,” said Nate Galloway of Pilgrim Baptist Church. “All they had was their faith.”

And even when they reached St. Paul, they faced barriers. People of color weren’t allowed to have a religious service with more than 10 people. Some from the group left, but Reverend Hickman and others stayed, and proclaimed themselves pilgrims.

“There are a lot of unwritten rules that aren’t in the history books, but Reverend Hickman overcame those challenges,” said Galloway.

The church changed locations before settling on Central Avenue in 1928. The original pews are still used, and history shines through stained glass windows.

“This is Reverend Lee Ward Harris. He was the 13th pastor and also my grandfather,” said Galloway while pointing at one of the portraits.

Today, Pastor Gill finds himself ministering during a pandemic and through a social justice movement. And older congregation still welcomes new thoughts and ideas.

“Our message is we need to take responsibility for our actions, ourselves, in reference to citizens. And do what we can do to protect ourselves, protect our families,” said Pastor Gill.

For nearly 160 years, Pilgrim Baptist Church has also been a network and a proud curator of history. They’re using their faith to strengthen both the past and the present.

“An African-American church administers to the head but also to the heart as well,” said Pastor Gill.

Pilgrim Baptist Church is on the the National Register of Historic Places and they are always looking for new members. For more information, click here.

In 1863, the first African Methodist Church, known as St. James AME, was also formally organized in what is now Minneapolis. It is believed that many of their early members came to Minnesota traveling as workers on Mississippi steamers from 1836 to 1856.

John Lauritsen