The congregation has dwindled to a thimbleful at the 131-year-old Lee Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, located at the corner of Cordell and Beaver streets in Brownwood.
The building — which boasts a plaque on its exterior from the Texas Historical Commission — has been at that site since 1906. Time and use have rendered the structure in need of infrastructure improvements including a new roof, electrical and plumbing work and interior remodeling.
Thomas Gilbert, who lives with his wife, Sandra, in Mineral Wells, has served as the church’s pastor for a year. Gilbert, who works in maintenance at the Mineral Wells school district, travels with his wife to Brownwood for Sunday services.
About 20 are on the church’s roll, and on a typical Sunday, about five attend, Gilbert said. “If two or three are gathered in his name, he’ll show up every time,” Gilbert asserted.
Longtime member Larry Johnson, who serves the church as a steward, recalled a recent Sunday service when Gilbert told the small congregation, “God told us to hang on. (Gilbert) said ‘help’s coming.’ He said ‘I don’t know when …’”
A building fund for the church exists at TexasBank, and the hope is that community members will donate to the fund. Help might also be coming from the organization known as Revitalizing Our Community (ROC).
Draco Miller, ROC’s founder and a member of the Brownwood City Council, said ROC is aware of the church’s condition and is interested in helping.
The Texas Historical Commission plaque contains a summary of the Lee Chapel A.M.E. church:
“Named for Bishop Benjamin Franklin Lee (1841-1926), Lee Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church was organized in 1888. Led by the Rev. George E. Smith, who also organized the first school for blacks in Brownwood, the congregation first held worship services in Mount Zion Baptist Church. Later services were held in a brush arbor at Smith’s home. The first church building, originally located at Cordell and Henderick streets, was moved to this site in 1906. An integral part of the city’s history, Lee Chapel A.M.E. Church continues to serve its community.”
A document provided by Johnson gives additional history and describes some of the building’s needs.
The document notes that the church “served as the first school for blacks in Brownwood.” The church has been served by many pastors who provided great leadership over the past century, and “many souls were saved in these time frames,” the document states.
The church looks forward to serving for many more years. “But unfortunately, with times comes changes and with these changes, age becomes a factor,” the document states. “There are a few dedicated and committed members who continue to keep the doors of the church open. But in order to continue this service to the Lord, the church is in need of some services which will help beautify and preserve the history.”
The church first needs a new roof, the document states. It is believed the building still has “good and sound support beams, rafters and joists,” the document states. “Some of the decking might not be as sound but we believe this is something that can be accomplished.”
Taking a visitor through the building on a recent Sunday afternoon, the Gilberts and Johnson noted the areas where repairs were needed. In some areas, old ceiling tiles have partially fallen.
Thomas Gilbert echoed the need for a new roof. “We really need to start with the roof and then we can come in and remodel inside,” Gilbert said.
Sandra Gilbert added, “there is a lot of water damage to the ceiling and floor, to the carpet as well. We need to really just kind of go through everything, go through the mechanical.
“Larry’s been a member for over 25 years and the same air conditioner was here 25 years ago. The kitchen — the stove is antique and if they had a work-friendly kitchen they could also probably continue to do fund raisers like they used to do in the past.”
Gilbert said he is 63 years old and he did not accept the call to preach until he was 50.
Gilbert said he told God, “I’m done, I’m through doing it that way, I’ll do it your way.”
But even after accepting the call to preach, Gilbert said, he had reservations. “I said ‘no God I won’t go here, I won’t go there,’” Gilbert said.
“I said ‘what makes me any different from anybody else?’ I said ‘OK God, wherever you send me I’ll go.’” The head pastor of the A.M.E. district in which Gilbert serves told Gilbert, “I need you to go to Brownwood.”
With no hesitation, Gilbert replied, “yes sir.”
Gilbert elaborated on his decision to accept the Brownwood assignment.
“It’s what God said,” Gilbert said. “It was time. A lot of times we’re asked to do things, and then we say ‘well, let me think about it’ or ‘no that’s too far.’
“But we just want to do whatever the Lord says to do. We accepted. It’s a challenge but we know that there’s a great reward in that challenge. We love it. We love coming to Brownwood.”
Twenty years ago, Johnson, the church’s steward, said the church was packed. Some members moved away, and others died, Johnson said.
When asked if the church’s situation is discouraging, Gilbert replied, “If we look at it through the natural eye, then yes, we’ll say we need to move on.
“But if you look at it in the spiritual, God already has people in place who are ready to come back to become members of the church. A lot of times we look at the glass half empty or half full, but we never look at it as being refillable. That’s what we’re standing on, is refillable.”