Paul Fields has seen his beloved Zion Baptist Church in McKeesport go through a myriad of ups and downs during his five decades of membership at the church.

“My mom and dad were members of the church and it is a family church,” explained Fields who has been a member of Zion Baptist since 1954. He currently serves as Chairman of the deacon board. “I was away from McKeesport for 30 years and I still went to Zion. It has a family atmosphere.”

PASTOR CRAWFORD JAMES (Photo by J. L. Martello)

Recently Fields and other worshippers who have attended the church for 50 years or more were honored with a presentation commemorating their years of dedication to the church during Zion Baptist’s 95th year anniversary celebration.

“I’m happy to be the pastor at the church at such a time as right now. I am only the fourth pastor of this church and this shows the commitment of the people to follow the leadership they are given. I don’t take this position lightly,” said Rev. Crawford L. James Jr., who was installed on June 13, 2010. James, 42, is a resident of Clairton.

Other highlights of the celebration included honoring recently deceased church members and reading of the church’s more than nine decade history.

Zion Baptist Church got its start in December of 1915 when a number of Christians, after having severed their connection with Bethlehem Baptist Church of McKeesport, met in their first worship service as a Baptist Mission with Rev. John Richard Saunders as their former pastor and leader in charge of the service.

The group continued to meet as a Baptist Mission in regular Sunday worship services and prayer meetings and grew in faith and numbers with the aim of organizing and being recognized as a regular and independent Missionary Baptist Church.

On Feb. 2, 1916, a meeting of this mission was held to consider the advisability of becoming a Baptist Church.

Twenty-five churches were invited to the Recognition Council held on Feb, 17, 1916, at the former Swedish Lutheran Church, which Zion now owns. The council recommended the mission be set apart as a Missionary Baptist Church in good order and standing. Rev. John Saunders was adopted as the church’s pastor and headed Zion until he retired in 1957.

After several successful fund-raising efforts, arrangements were made to purchase the building from the Swedish Lutheran congregation. The members took possession of the building in June 1917 marching from Clark’s Hall singing, “We’re Marching to Zion.”

In December 1920, a parsonage was purchased and remodeled. This property later passed from Zion’s possession. Despite that setback, the membership increased and Zion prospered financially and spiritually thanks to rallies and revivals.

When age and ill health required Rev. Saunders to retire, Zion called Rev. James Nelson to head the church. Under Nelson’s leadership, membership increased, a parsonage was purchased and remodeled and the church was renovated. Nelson organized the Youth Church, Young People’s Usher Board, Pastor’s Aid Society and the Ladies Official Board. Nelson resigned as pastor of Zion in late 1999. However, he received the right hand of fellowship at Zion in early 2000.

In June 2000, Rev. Henry Billingsley was installed as Zion Baptist’s third pastor. While holding the post, Billingsley reinstated the Mime Group and Youth Choir, started a Women’s Ministry, Monday evening prayer service and a Drug and Alcohol Ministry.

In addition, a new van was purchased, nine new deacons were ordained and five trustees were added. Rev. Billingsley resigned from Zion in August 2008.

Since Rev. James has been head of Zion, the church has purchased a new acrylic lectern, a voice recorder, DVD/CD multi duplicator and headset microphone. He is also formulating a male choir. James also wants to rebuild the youth presence at Zion.

“I don’t think the youth feel that anyone is there for them. We need to bring them in and visit their homes and follow-up with them and show them that we love them,” James said.

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