For more than nine decades Morning Star Baptist Church has been standing strong on the corner of Shaw and Boundary Avenues in the community of Clairton.
Come April 14-15, the church will celebrate its 99th anniversary.
The theme is, “Let Your Soul Return.”
“I’m having a renewal of the vows on Saturday. We have five couples—mostly trustees and deacons—who are renewing their vows for our 99th church anniversary and the colors are white and purple and on Sunday after service we’re going to have dinner,” said anniversary chairperson and lifelong Morning Star church member Marcia Walker. “I’m going out of my way to make it nice. I’ve always done things in the church, I’ve been in the church my whole life. I believe in the Good Lord and I try to do what he wants me to do.”
Morning Star Baptist Church came into existence through a split from Mt. Olive First Baptist Church. Twenty-three members met in the Old Eagles Hall on Reed Street with a council from Pittsburgh who gave them permission to organize this church. The Council named Reverend A. A. Martin as acting Pastor. On April 9, 1919, the following persons became Charter members of the Morning Star Baptist Church: Brothers (A. C. Glover, J. H Presley, W. A. Coley, A. Wiggins, Ernest Goodwin, Charles Williams, Randolph Campbell, Mel Gunn and J. Ronnie Powell); Sisters (Ida Glover, Emma Presley, Annie Hamilton, Victoria Moore, Manola Bonner, Bendell Goodwin, Ida Harbin, Elizabeth Powell, Della Williams, Mamie Smith, Fannie Taylor and Bettie Whitside). Harbin named the church Morning Star in remembrance of her church in Alabama. She was named the first mother of the church. She held this honor until her death in 1937. In the fall of 1919, Rev. J. H. Garner was called as Pastor. His wife, Ella Garner, served as organist and organized the first choir. The edifice on the corner of Shaw and Boundary avenues was completed and the first service was held there December 20, 1919.
On Feb. 22, 2008, Rev. Dr. Jerome Stevenson was called to Pastor at Morning Star Baptist Church along with his wife, Elaine. Under his leadership, he re-organized and established many ministries. The front of the church was renovated, and the long-awaited elevator and the electronic marquee was dedicated. Also, two new entry doors and a handicap ramp were installed. New pulpit furniture and flat screen televisions were purchased. Rev. Stevenson was also very active in the community. He was instrumental in raising funds to purchase tennis shoes for the Clairton High School boys and girls basketball teams. On January 25, 2012, Rev. Stevenson was called home to be with the Lord.
Then on April 28, 2013, Willie J. Thompson Jr. was called as the 14th Pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church. Pastor Thompson has a dynamic preaching and teaching ministry. Under the leadership of Pastor Thompson, Morning Star opened a second facility named, the “Morning Star Performing Arts Center.” In 2015, Morning Star ordained two Deacons, and its first females to ministry: Rev. Alice Flood, Rev. Gloria Gressem and Rev. Gloria Ruffing; and since 2013 licensed 13 ministers.
Community wise, Morning Star has forged new partnerships with The Jefferson Regional Foundation, The Forbes Foundation, Economic Development South, The Negro Education Emergency Drive (NEED), The Program to Aid Citizen Enterprise, Health GTECH Strategies, National Network of Library Medicine, University of Pittsburgh, Allen’s Place Community Services, The Clairton Youth Collaborative, The Pittsburgh Dream Center and Gwen’s Girls. Pastor Thompson led Morning Star teams on national mission initiatives and increased its female participation in national conferences. Thompson’s passion for this community revitalized Morning Star’s partnership with the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. The church’s soup kitchen now includes a team of certified food-handlers. Morning Star now serves as a Produce to People Drop Zone, allowing families in Clairton to receive much-needed food.
The church is currently without a full-time pastor (Pastor Thompson left in June of 2017 for a teaching position in California) and many of its duties fall upon the shoulders of the deacon board.
“We have some associate pastors there and some of them are very young and haven’t been there very long. We have had numerous guest pastors coming and the deacons keep things in order. We’re in the process now of looking for a new pastor. We are in the midst of a search, which is going well and we hope that in the summer we’ll have a call out to one of them,” Deacon Board Chairman Terrance Hammons said.
Morning Star currently has 200-250 active members in its congregation.
Lifelong member Ruth Benjamin-Smith is ecstatic to be a part of planning the anniversary festivities because of her family’s history in the church.
“For me, myself and my cousin Gloria (Ruffing) are probably the only two who are direct descendants because our grandparents, John and Mary Emma Presley, were the original founders of Morning Star. My mother was the church historian, so when it comes to the church anniversary we try to stay involved,” said Benjamin-Smith, who has been a member of the congregation since childhood. Despite a 30-year absence from Pittsburgh, she takes great pride in Morning Star.
“God-willing, I hope we can make it to the 100th year anniversary,” Benjamin-Smith said. “I am looking forward to it and we’re glad to see the people still coming to church. It has really been resilient through the many pastors we have had.”
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