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The “Gibraltar of Jackson Ward”

Building with tower in front
The Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in Richmond's Jackson Ward. (Photo courtesy of Martin Montgomery)

For a deeper look at this report, watch a television feature on Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church tonight, Mar. 31, at 8 p.m., on VPM News Focal Point . 

Formerly enslaved preacher John Jasper founded Richmond’s Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church in an abandoned Confederate horse stable, two years after the Civil War’s end. When Interstate 95 bisected historic Jackson Ward in the 1950s, the church – in the path of the roadway – survived. Today, it’s a local pinnacle of faith and service and remains an essential source of support and sustenance for thousands in the region. 

Pulling from its own resources and working with a host of community partners like FeedMore, Sixth Mount Zion’s food pantry ministry sorts, fills and gives away bags of fresh, healthy groceries each Friday to anyone who needs it.  

“Somebody is going to enjoy the content that we put in here,” says church member and pantry volunteer Keith Caleb as he sorts fruit to stuff into dozens of food bags in the church’s basement fellowship hall. “So we try to make sure we take the best apples; if things are rotted or damaged, we set them to the side. So we try to pick the best produce, stuff that we will eat ourselves. And it just represents a blessing. This is the best we can put together for you.” 

The church’s assistance exceeds meeting basic nutrition needs; community members say it offers them critical spiritual and emotional support, too. 

“They’re lifting [us] spiritually, they're motivating us,” says North Richmond resident Diane Johnson, who sometimes snags a bag of food from the church’s pantry to make ends meet. “I tell them that they … make me feel good about myself, because I know a lot of times … when you go to an agency for assistance, and they make you feel real low. [Sixth Mount Zion’s volunteers] have such a wonderful spirit that they make you feel wonderful about coming. They’re guardian angels, they really are.” 

Sixth Mount Zion’s modern-day service to their community reflects a long tradition of Black churches across the state and nation that have, for centuries, stepped up to meet the needs of African Americans relegated to second-class citizenship in a nation that once enslaved them.  

“For more than 300 years, the Black church in America has provided a safe haven for Black Christians in a nation shadowed by the legacy of slavery and a society that remains defined by race and class,” Harvard Divinity School professor Jonathan Walton notes in a PBS’ American Experience segmenton the legacy of African American houses of worship. 

Sixth Mount Zion has a history of overcoming obstacles, says church historian Benjamin Ross. 

“In the mid 1950s, Interstate 95 was being constructed. And it came through downtown Richmond and, specifically, through the historic Jackson Ward neighborhood, an African American neighborhood,” and the church’s home turf, says Ross. As about a thousand homes were destroyed to make way for the highway, white city and state officials eyed the church, in the planned path of the highway, as an obstruction. Sixth Mount Zion’s congregation heartily disagreed and pushed back against the intrusion, says Ross. 

“Three alternatives were offered to the church: one, tear the church down and let the highway come through. Two, move the church out of the way, so that the highway can come through. And then three, leave the church alone and swing the highway around the church,” Ross says. Members’ advocacy to save their spiritual home, combined with the weighty legacy of John Jasper’s pioneering work as a 19th century Black minister, persuaded officials to relent.  

“Well, of course, that third alternative did prevail, and the church was not demolished,” says Ross. The highway still snakes past the sanctuary, the traffic’s roar audible from the church’s steps. Thousands of motorists pass the sanctuary each day, likely unaware that it fended off a major, state-sanctioned threat to its existence. “I jokingly call our church the Gibraltar of Jackson Ward,” says Ross.  

Historic Black churches statewide – including First Baptist churches in Petersburg and Williamsburg, Oakland Baptist Church in Alexandria,   Shiloh Baptist Church in Salem and dozens of others – still sustain their cultures of community service. Like these churches, Sixth Mount Zion continues adapting in the face of modern challenges. 

“We were not live streaming before [COVID-19]; we had to make that adjustment, which was a steep learning curve,” says Sixth Mount Zion’s executive minister, Rev. Dwylene Butler. The benefits of keeping their congregation connected over the past two years via virtual Sunday services far outweigh the costs of the church’s digital revamp during COVID. 

“We have people, one of our member’s father, he's watching from Kansas City … so we’ve got people who are watching from all over the place,” says Rev. Tyrone Nelson, the seventh pastor in Sixth Mount Zion’s history. “When you are open to the technology part of it, you allow people to tap into your world and your space when they may not have initially.” 

Besides food, the church offers clothing, household goods, health and wellness resources and other services, and it doesn’t limit its care to its congregants. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that 55% of Black Americans say it’s essential that Black churches help people with bills, housing and food, in addition to serving their primary role as houses of worship. 

“They don't judge you; they don't look at you funny when you come to get your groceries. And then sometimes, if you're just there to get groceries, they also ask you what else you need help with, to let you know they're very concerned,” says Dorisha Sandford, a Gilpin Court resident and single mother of two who doesn’t attend the church regularly but relies on the church for help when she needs it. Assisting people like Sandford is how Sixth Mount Zion fulfills its mission, says Rev. Nelson. 

“[It’s] all about the relationships, and relationships are what make [a] community, anyway,” Nelson says. “I don't care whether it's in the church, outside the church – [it] is all about people bonding off of shared experiences.”  

Samantha Willis is an editorial producer at VPM, Virginia's Home for Public Media, and a journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans a decade.