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Wednesday, August 18, 2021

By Emily Cox

 

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP)—When the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church was founded, Indiana was 5 years old, Abraham Lincoln wasn't a teenager yet, and one year had passed since the state confirmed Bloomington as the site of Indiana Seminary, which later became Indiana University.

Now, in 2021, the church is celebrating its 200th anniversary throughout the year with the theme “Growing Under Grace.” Members of the church at 302 E. First St. have been researching its history, digging into its influence on the Bloomington community and planning events to celebrate the milestone.

The church is originally from South Carolina but formed in Bloomington as people moved toward the Midwest because of their opposition to slavery, Pastor Philip McCollum said.

“This church was part of the Underground Railroad,” he said. “This is what also makes us unique, historically, was that Reformed Presbyterians would not allow slaveholders to be members of the church to such an extent that they would be disciplined, they would be refused communion.”

Something else that sets a Presbyterian church apart is in the name, McCollum said. The word Presbyter derives from the Greek presbyteros, which means elder. Presbyterian churches are run by elders. That structure differs from a top-down hierarchy employed by many other denominations. The church being able to choose its elders and choose the pastor is a distinction, McCollum said.

Reformed Presbyterians, also known as Covenanters, also sing a cappella, singing from Psalms in the Bible.

McCollum said he thinks the church has stood the test of time because of its faithful preaching of God's word—and the desire people have to hear it. He said God has blessed the church because the church sought to be faithful to him even as many churches have compromised or taken their lead from the world.

“Slavery is really a case in point,” he said. “The world was saying slavery was good and right and they believed that slaves weren't equal, and Reformed Presbyterians said, no, that's not what the Bible teaches. So they stood against culture and were faithful to God's word, which meant giving up their homes.”

The church has a congregation of around 150 people, but the number fluctuates as students join during IU's academic year. It also houses the Bloomington Chinese Christian Church, which meets in the building on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons.

Germaine Santos-Cochran used to be on staff with the Campus Crusade for Christ in the Philippines. There, she attended a Reformed Baptist church that brought in thousands of people on an average Sunday. Top musicians in the country led worship, she said.

So when she came to Indiana, the Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church wasn't her typical preference or aesthetic for a church, she admits. But the first thing she remembers noticing is that “people here love people very well.”

“I came here because of marriage, but I've grown to appreciate the strong body life and the good worship,” she said.

Santos-Cochran moved to the United States from the Philippines in 2015. Her husband, Keith Cochran, is from the U.S. and works at IU. In 2019, Santos-Cochran started thinking about, and preparing for, the milestone in 2021.

“I feel like we're an undiscovered treasure,” she said.

She wanted to get the word out about the church's history which got her involved in its 200th anniversary communications committee. She came up with topics to research—from the church's involvement in the Underground Railroad to the Covenanter Cemetery, which it owns—and took on researching a topic herself.

Santos-Cochran said before digital GPS existed, people navigated a community by knowing street names, so it's always been her instinct to pay attention to them. She loves driving her red 2016 Subaru Forester, which she calls Barnabas because she wants anyone who gets in her car to feel encouraged. The name Barnabas means “son of encouragement.” It didn't take long for her to notice streets such as Covenanter Drive and Faris Way and wonder how they may be tied to the church. Through research, she found at least 18 streets in Bloomington with connections.

Another topic was spearheaded by Nora Shipp, a junior at Seven Oaks Classical School. Shipp has been going to the church for around six years, but she still remembers her first Sunday there. She was around 10 years old and her family had just moved to Indiana from Texas. Everyone was joyful and welcoming.

Shipp said she was asked to talk with families that have remained in the church for several generations. She asked people how long they've been attending, what they thought when they first started attending, the differences between then and now, how they've been involved over the years and their hopes for the future of the congregation.

“I think it's just interesting how they all had, in a way, a similar story of just how happy they were that the church has grown so much,” she said.

There was a period where there were a lot of older people in the congregation, Shipp said, and they had prayer groups together to pray for growth of the church. Their prayers were answered, she said, and the church has grown a lot, including more young people and children over the past 50 years.

This history and more has been captured by Cheryl Molin in her book “Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church, Two Hundred Years of God's Grace,” which she spent about a year working on.

Molin, a freelance writer and editor, and her husband, Greg Molin, have been attending the church for three years. She conducted research in various ways. Pastors at the church sent her information, such as essays written about previous pastors or about the church; she read an 800-page book about the history of the denomination and a handwritten history of the church from 1972. She combed through binders of newspaper articles from the church library and tracked down deeds for the church property and a map of the Covenanter Cemetery. People gave her photos from previous vacation Bible schools, church picnics and other events.

“There was a lot of information available, more in some aspects than I really expected to find,” Molin said. “So it was a lot of work, but it was also just fun to find how much information there was out there.”

She planned to go to the Lilly Library at IU last year, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she ended up setting up a Zoom meeting where someone from the library would hold papers up to the screen so Molin could indicate what looked interesting to her that she'd like a copy of. It wasn't as good as being there, but it was what was necessary in the midst of the pandemic, she said.

“I grew up, research is you go to a library and you pull a book off the shelf,” Molin said. “This is a very different way of doing it, but it was nice to have access to so much more than I would have had 30, 40 years ago.”

Molin said her husband looked through all the denominational magazines that were online, around 100 years worth, and made note of information such as when a new pastor was coming to the church. The Covenanter Witness magazine has all of its issues available digitally, she said, which led to finding things like the first couple married in the church.

“Without the internet, this book couldn't have been done,” Molin said. “Realistically, without being able to look through old archives, copies of the magazines, there's a lot I just simply would not have found.”

During the course of her research, Molin went to the Covenanter Cemetery, where some of the church's former pastors are buried, to take photos. After finding their graves, she was able to track down their obituaries online.

“I just stumbled on, in some cases, some fascinating aspects of our history, like the fact that there are at least two people born into slavery buried in our cemetery,” Molin said.

She said she was delighted to then find an obituary and photo of one of the men, as well as the obituary of a wife, who wasn't born into slavery, of another.

“I wanted to find something that nobody else had found,” Molin said. “I wanted to find information that wasn't available. And so finds like the photo of somebody who was born into slavery and is buried in our cemetery were just incredible to me.”

Molin knew people who had attended the church for decades knew more of the history. Rich Holdeman, senior pastor of the church and a senior lecturer in the department of biology at IU, gives talks about the history of the church. When Holdeman told her he'd learned some things by reading her book, she felt good.

“To be able to say I've found new information was quite satisfying,” Molin said.

James Faris was the church's first pastor, and Faris' son wrote an essay about his father and what church services were like in the early years. Molin said she included the essay as an appendix in the book.

“I was expecting to find almost nothing about some of our pastors and was really surprised how much information there was,” she said.

Molin said Holdeman wrote an introduction to the book and McCollum wrote an afterword.

Chapters of the book cover the heritage of the church, the denomination, church life, the church's pastors, race relations and the Underground Railroad and more.

“There's 200 years of history here, we've got 21 pastors, we've got our own cemetery,” Molin said. “There is a lot of material, and really the challenge was I can't use it all.”

The 190-page book will be printed on demand, Molin said, but copies will be available at the upcoming events to celebrate the 200th anniversary.

Santos-Cochran's and Shipp's columns can be found at HeraldTimesOnline.com/opinion. Other columns about topics including the Covenanter Cemetery and the church's involvement with the Underground Railroad will be submitted to The Herald-Times throughout the rest of the year.