The oldest Black congregation in Terrell had yet another reason to celebrate. Bethlehem Baptist Church in Terrell honored Pastor Richard E. Rollerson during an evening worship service in February, recognizing his 25 years of service and his milestone surpassed as the longest tenured Pastor at the historic church.
Pastor Rollerson became the longest tenured Pastor at 15 years succeeding the now second longest tenured Pastor, Rev. B.W. McClendon who is now Pastoring in Austin.
According to the Texas Historical Commission marker at the front of the original structure of Bethlehem Baptist Church on Francis Street, “the oldest Black Baptist congregation extant in Terrell, this church traces its history to 1877, when a group of worshipers led by missionary A.R. Griggs met under a brush arbor. With the Rev. P.W. Upshaw serving as first Pastor, church members erected a sanctuary at what is now the 400 block of East Grove Street. The building was moved to the corner of South Virginia and Cottage Streets in 1889. A new facility, built in the early 1900’s, was relocated to this site in 1929. It was destroyed in a 1939 fire and replaced by a new structure in 1940.”
Pastor Rollerson said that he’s grateful to be a part of the legacy and grateful to God for choosing him.
“It [Bethlehem] has had a long list of Pastors who served here for those years. So, I’m just blessed just to be in that company. Scripturally speaking, somebody plants, somebody waters, but God gives the increase. And our task as servants is simply to keep the church moving forward and similar to a race, a relay, where one runner hands the baton off to another, with the church it’s perpetual. One Pastor serves, passes the baton off to another, he takes the baton, and he continues to run with it. And when his tenure is up, he passes it on to someone else. And just to have the privilege of being able to grow a fellowship … being able to keep the church moving forward and vibrant so that it would be in a position to be a blessing to not only the present generation but also future generation is really a blessing. I’m just grateful to be a part of that process,” said Pastor Rollerson. “The Lord could have done things without us, without people or human beings, but he chooses to use human beings. And when we are chosen by Him for a purpose … that’s a blessing.”
Pastor Rollerson expresses a passion for sharing what Jesus Christ has done and is doing in Him and in the lives of other Christian believers. He believes that his way of life is real.
“This church stuff, this Christian stuff, is real. And our transformation, the change that is taking place in our lives is real. And it’s tangible. People can see it, particularly, those who’ve known you over the years. And often times, Jesus would share with those … like this past Sunday we were sharing … the paralytic lying on the bed had four friends. And they brought him to Jesus. And the Lord, of course, impacted his life. And after the Lord healed him, he told him to go home. And why that? Well, those at home know his history, his condition, and when you leave home carried by four of your friends on a makeshift bed and you come back home walking and leaping, it’s a story behind that. And Jesus told him to go home and to share with others. And that went from his house. The neighbors knew his condition. And there are those familiar with our condition before we came to Christ. And once we share that, the Lord uses that to impact their lives,” said Pastor Rollerson.
Over his tenure, Pastor Rollerson has spent time at Bethlehem teaching the congregation to be proactive with the growth that is impacting the city of Terrell and cultivating a wholesome environment that would bring visitors and build members.
“During the week you encounter so much. Church should be a place where you can come and find some solace for at least a couple of hours. And then the Word of God equips you to move back into your various place of work and enterprise and to impact those lives there,” said Pastor Rollerson. “I always share with the membership, we all have a pulpit, but everybody’s pulpit is not necessarily behind a podium on Sunday morning. Wherever the Lord has strategically planted you in place of employment, that’s your pulpit, to let light shine in those places and not to get involved in the discussion in the break room around the water fountain. But to realize that the Lord has strategically placed you there for a purpose. It’s my job to feed them, believers, the Word of God so they’ll be built up to handle whatever they have to handle in the coming week … because the Lord knows what you need.”
Like so many Pastors throughout the country, Pastor Rollerson continues to see what he calls “the Sunday morning battle” play out in people. But he continues to encourage believers not to stay home and miss what God has for them.
“The biggest battle we are confronted with is the Sunday morning battle. Where that old mattress … we complain about that thing all week long. But on Sunday, that old lumpy mattress feel so good. But the enemy is trying to keep you from acquiring a Word that the Lord has for you for that Sunday meeting, which would equip a person for their task during the week,” said Pastor Rollerson.
Pastor Rollerson and his members of Bethlehem Baptist Church are also learning how to successfully navigate bridging the gap between high school graduates and young adults in their 20’s and 30’s by building a bridge of relationship, respect and mentoring.
“One of my challenges, purpose, as Pastor is that of making sure we close the gap … and my purpose was that of making sure we had not only grade school youth, but you had young adults who were not just spectating, but who were actively involved in the church. To me that’s very strategic. But the Lord has blessed us to close that gap. You do it by recognizing that when a person graduates from high school that person is no longer a kid. They become a young adult. And you begin to interact with them as adults, respecting them, and loving them, and they respond to that. It keeps them connected with the church because I know when I come back to Bethlehem as a Sophomore in college, as a Junior in college, as a Senior in college, as a college graduate, that Pastor is not going to treat me like a baby. He’s going to treat me as an adult. And you teach your older adults that principal. They are no longer babies. If you’re a 40-year-old women, the 22-year-olds are no longer girls. They are grown women. Men, I share with them the same thing. They are no longer boys anymore, they are young men. When you do that, the young adults feel like a part of the group. And understand they have gifts and abilities that can be used now,” said Pastor Rollerson.
Pastor Rollerson began preaching in August 1981. A year later, in August 1982, Pastor Rollerson married Renita Proby and they’ve been together for 37 years. Pastor Rollerson is grateful for Renita and considers it a blessing to have even his extended family support his ministry.