Since its official inception in 1870, Bethel Missionary Church has been a staple within the greater downtown area of Tallahassee. Throughout the years, Bethel Church has created and maintained a strong presence in the Frenchtown area by serving not only as a religious hub, but also as an epicenter for social engagement within the community. Recently Bethel has taken the initiative to fund and manage economic development projects to help stimulate the economy of the surrounding Frenchtown community. In these efforts, Bethel is an important part of a national movement by faith-based organizations focused on revitalizing key parts of American cities.
The origins of Bethel Church can be traced back to the early 1830’s. Prior to the opening of their first church building, very few places in the Tallahassee area allowed slaves to worship. Slaves on Leon County plantations would meet secretly to worship on a weekly basis until they were given a physical location designated for worship after the Civil War. This was the origin of Bethel church and its congregation. As the years progressed, the church relocated to different places around Tallahassee and eventually the congregation moved to the Frenchtown neighborhood.
Once settled, the church began to solidify itself as a religious mainstay for blacks in the community. But Bethel also sought to act as more than just a religious institution. In the late 19th-century, the church provided educational and social services to freedmen and freedwomen. Bethel utilized its church building as a school in order to give blacks an opportunity to obtain an education and provided a meeting place for empowering black organizations. In addition, it hosted weddings, graduations, and other social gatherings for blacks in the community that they would not otherwise have been able to celebrate due to exclusion from white-owned venues.
Today, the church continues to play a major role in the Frenchtown community, spiritually, socially, and economically. One of Bethel’s first development initiatives in recent years included the Carolina Oaks affordable housing subdivision in 1989. The church purchased the land for the subdivision and led in the oversight of construction for the project from start to finish.
Since the Carolina Oaks project, the Bethel Church has contributed to numerous other development initiatives. Some of these include the construction of Bethel Towers which is an affordable retirement home for the elderly, the opening and construction of the Frenchtown Credit Union, and the Bethel Family Life Center which serves as a recreation center. The main objective for each project is to provide the Frenchtown community with services and infrastructure to promote economic growth and stability.
The church is currently proposing to redevelop a block of land on the 400 block of West Tennessee Street. As a majority owner of this parcel, Bethel intends to construct a mixed-use housing complex ranging from 16 to 150 units, including apartment spaces, townhomes, a local grocery store, an urgent care facility, and a community bank. In conjunction with the Frenchtown Redevelopment Partners LLC, a limited liability company consisting of Bethel and other businesses owners within Frenchtown, Bethel has lofty goals for the Frenchtown community economically.