Blessed dreams: Church keeps youth program thriving after 30 years

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

COVINGTON -- Bethlehem Baptist Church has strong ties to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

King's maternal grandfather, Rev. A.D. Williams, and his uncle, Rev. Joel King, both were pastors of the church. His father has preached there. Martin Luther King Jr. himself used to visit as a child and play in a nearby creek with local children.

So it's only fitting that the 150-year-old church is the recipient of the 2011 Trailblazer Award given in King's honor to those who have made a difference through community service.

The award, handed out during Sunday's annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at Newton High School, came as a surprise to the Rev. Hezekiah Benton Jr., the church's pastor for the past 32 years.

"It shows persons are being blessed and those who see or give notice want to express it," he said.

Benton and members of Bethlehem Baptist have been blessing the Covington community through a program for youth for 30 years. The program was God's idea, Benton said, but it was communicated through the late Hazel Bostick, a longtime church member, who, after a period of spending one day a week in fasting and prayer with Benton, told him, "We need to do something for the children."

The result was the Summer Enrichment and Feeding Program, where youngsters can come and learn, play and eat for one month during the summer while their parents are at work.

"We determined how critical it is to do surrogate parenting," Benton said. Nowadays the program boasts 50 to 100 participants a day. The children learn about local government and receive visits from community leaders and public safety officers from the local police department, sheriff's office and fire department. They do arts and crafts and are fed a well-balanced, hot meal for lunch.

It's all free to participants and is mostly funded out of the church budget and through donations from Snapping Shoals EMC and others. Benton said church members have never wavered in their support of the program, even as economic conditions have made running it a greater challenge.

But there are great rewards, too. Many alumni of the program are now volunteers or are sending their own children there. Benton is now seeing grandchildren of early program participants come through.

"Whenever you give your spirit is blessed because you've released part of your love to someone else. What we do is release God's love to the community," he said.