This month marks a century since Macedonia Baptist Church first opened in Bethesda, Maryland, where it has since served as a hub for the spiritual uplifting of an untold number of African American worshippers, many of whom once lived along River Road and in the surrounding areas.
For lifelong congregant Harvey M. Matthews Sr., the upcoming centennial provides an opportunity to reflect on his childhood — a time when the state of Maryland hadn’t yet integrated eating establishments and fast-food franchises didn’t dominate the major corridors of Montgomery County.
“During the Sunday service, you got acquainted with the neighbors and people at the church — those who were already there and those just moving into the community,” said Matthews, 75. “The church fellowship was a big thing, because we took it more seriously than the young people do now,” he added.
At Macedonia’s inception, nearly 80 people — including members of Matthews’ family — regularly attended services and acquired leadership roles. Like him, many congregants lived along River Road and often travelled to church on foot. They took part in Sunday School classes and praise and worship services that culminated in the breaking of bread.
As a teenager coming into his own, Matthews immersed himself in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, sat at the feet of elders, and participated in various events. He said those customs anchored him in a tight-knit community dealing with racism.
“In my development between the Bible study and prayer meetings, I learned what prayer was all about, what it meant, and what you used it for in your relationship with the Lord,” Matthews told The Informer. “Growth was a great thing and I didn’t have to come to church to hear about Jesus Christ. You had that at home through your parents and grandparents.”
Last Saturday, Matthews spoke at The Ballroom in Bethesda during a gala that commemorated Macedonia’s 100th anniversary — which falls on March 15. Special guests confirmed for that evening included Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and Montgomery County Council members Will Jawando (D- At large) and Tom Hucker (D-District 5).
Celebrants danced, ate dinner, and collected funds for Macedonia’s scholarship fund. They also looked back on 370 years of Black history in Bethesda that started with the arrival of enslaved Africans in the 17th century, primarily as a reminder of the work to be done in memorializing those brought Bethesda — and other African American communities that have since been gentrified — to prominence.
Up until 1864, when Maryland abolished slavery, the space on which Macedonia currently stands housed enslaved Africans who often suffered atrocities at the hands of their captors. By 1920, when a generation of freed Africans turned the barren, red clay of River Road into a thriving community, the Rev. William Mason presided Macedonia Baptist Church, a place of worship that Black people on River Road would faithfully attend.
In the decades since, the demographics of River Road — and Montgomery County at large — has significantly changed.
The urban development of the 1950s and 1960s pushed several Black families out of River Road and into the District and other parts of Montgomery County, such as Rockville and Potomac. While some displaced members maintained their affiliation with Macedonia, the congregation increasingly became composed of migrants from North Carolina who settled along River Road, and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.
By the early 1980s, the Rev. Roy W. Warren — then pastor of Macedonia — had dedicated the church that had become the last bastion of Black history along River Road. Subsequent efforts to preserve the community’s African history would manifest under the leadership of the Rev. Segun Adebayo, now in his fourth year as pastor of Macedonia.
For the past three years, Adebayo and his wife, Dr. Marsha Coleman-Adebayo, head of Macedonia’s social justice ministry, have been on the frontlines of efforts to memorialize Moses African Cemetery, an unmarked burial ground, located less than a mile from the church, that’s believed to hold the remains of 500 Black people who once called River Road their home.
The Adebayos’ advocacy often takes them, Macedonia members, and other affiliates of the Bethesda African Cemetery Coalition before the Montgomery County Housing Opportunity Commission in Kensington, Maryland, each month where they vie for ownership of the burial ground — an issue they tie to the continuous marginalization of Black people in Montgomery County.
“We want to make sure that Macedonia is a community church that welcomes people to be a part of the tradition,” Adebayo said. “This is a church that delivers the Gospel of Christ and involves peace and fighting for social justice and those who can’t fight for themselves. We want to be part of the community, and get people involved in our programs. That’s our hope and passion.”