About Our Church
The History of McGee Avenue Baptist Church
From an idea conceived by the late Reverend Silas Lincoln Tillman, a tiny Mission was organized in 1918 at 1934 Bonita Avenue in Berkeley, California. The purpose of the Mission was to meet the spiritual needs of the citizens in the rapidly growing City of Berkeley. The name, Mt. Pleasant, was given to the Mission because of the great love Reverend Tillman had for Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church, in his native home of Mississippi. Reverend Tillman served both as Pastor and Sunday School Superintendent of Mt. Pleasant Mission.
By June 1919, the Mission had grown to such an extent that a church was organized. The principal organizers were Dr. J.M. Riddle, Field Secretary of the General Baptist Association; Reverend G.A. Dennis, Pastor of Third Baptist Church of San Francisco; Reverend S. W. Hawkins, Beth Eden Baptist Church of Oakland; Reverend G. W. Hill, Second Baptist Church of Vallejo; Reverend J.A. Allen, Pastor of 85th Avenue Baptist Church of Oakland; and Reverend J.W. Jones.
During the early years, Mt. Pleasant had its share of trials and tribulations. Several ministers were called to the church during the period from 1921 through 1930. Among those called were Reverend T. Watkins, Reverend J.T. Muse, Reverend W.M. Dixon, and Reverend C. Brown.
In 1930, Reverend J.W. Jones was called to pastor Mt. Pleasant and the church was moved from its original location to its present site, on the corner of McGee Avenue and Stuart Street in Berkeley. During the Great Depression, the Mt. Pleasant Church building was destroyed by fire and was rebuilt under the direction of Pastor C. Brown. Reverend Brown was subsequently succeeded by Reverend J.L. Allen.
In 1935, Reverend James Dee Wilson accepted the pastorate of Mt. Pleasant Baptist Church. Reverend Wilson possessed the characteristics of strength, wisdom, and patience. Through his leadership and ministry, Mt. Pleasant became a moving force in the life of Berkeley. He began the task of raising funds to free the church of all indebtedness.
In 1944, during the pastorship of Reverend J.D. Wilson, the name of the church was changed from Mt. Pleasant to McGee Avenue Baptist and was incorporated during the same year.
After fourteen years of dedicated service, Reverend Wilson passed away on September 16, 1949, leaving as a monument to his memory a splendid record of wise and progressive leadership in the Berkeley community.
Reverend Wadie H. Sypert, serving in the capacity of Assistant Pastor, accepted the call to pastor McGee Avenue Baptist Church in 1950. He was a man of much versatility and was an accomplished pastor as well as an educator. resulting from the expansion program. On two occasions, he graciously refused large anniversary gifts and asked that the funds be given to the Church. The mortgage of the Church was burned under his pastorship. In 1971, he retired from the pastorate and was honored with the position of Pastor Emeritus of his beloved McGee Avenue Baptist Church.
Reverend Noah A. Osborne served as Interim Pastor from the first Sunday of June 1971 to the first Sunday of October 1971. In February 1985, Reverend Osborne was called to serve as Minister of Christian Education and served as Assistant Pastor. On October 1, 1971, Rev. James H. Stewart accepted the pastorship of McGee Avenue Baptist Church. Rev. Stewart took the reigns of leadership with enthusiasm and expanded the church programs to great proportions. He upgraded the existing facilities and helped the church to acquire additional properties.
Through Rev. Stewart’s guidance, the church membership was extended to include families living in surrounding communities while continuing to be a neighborhood church. Pastor Stewart’s ingenious plan of raising funds spurred the membership to free itself from a staggering debt. During the late 70’s and early 80’s, Rev. Stewart suggested ideas which have proven beneficial to the South Berkeley Community and the unemployed in the area. Most notably, Reverend Stewart extended the church’s mission to include a food program. As a result of Rev. Stewart’s efforts, the church channels 65% of its mission budget to feed the indigent and unemployed. In addition, Rev. Stewart led the church to give scholarships to young people for college and spearheaded the development of workshops for teenagers on drug abuse, crime, and violence. Under Rev. Stewart’s leadership, the church made a sizeable donation of $20,000 for famine relief in Haiti.
In the 70’s Rev. Stewart led McGee to house the first Senior Citizens Program in the City of Berkeley. In the 80’s, Rev. Stewart helped McGee to become more active in the political arena by increasing its Voter Registration Drive and holding political candidate forums.
Last but certainly not least, Rev. Stewart was the first Pastor of McGee to ordain women in the ministry as well as the first Pastor to ordain women as deacons. With a zealous taste for ministry, Reverend Stewart developed the Church Motto: “Live in Hope, Serve in Faith and Walk in Peace.”
Rev. Stewart served as pastor for 21 years and retired on June 1, 1992. On January 30, 1993, Rev. Stewart was honored with the position of Pastor Emeritus of McGee Avenue Baptist Church.
On the 3rd Sunday of October 1992, Rev. Dr. D. Mark Wilson began his ministry as pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church and was officially installed as pastor of McGee Avenue Baptist Church on February 21, 1993. In his first five years he led McGee to new heights, instituting home bible studies and remodeling the church’s kitchen, continuing its legacy of strong representation among American Baptist Churches, and extending the church’s denominational membership to include the Progressive Baptist Churches.
Pastor Mark, as he is affectionately called, expanded the church administrative staff to include a Business Manager and created the McGee Avenue Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit organization. Rev. Wilson also led the church to receive its first grant from the City of Berkeley to support the food program which provided two hundred to three hundred persons with hot meals three days a week. Pastor Mark also tapped into the gifts and talents of the church’s membership which resulted in the formation of an upscale Church Computer Center, Prison Ministry, Domestic Violence Ministry, and a HIV/AIDS Ministry. Through Pastor Mark’s leadership, the church became actively involved in BOCA which is Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action.
Reverend Wilson is well known throughout the country as a dynamic preacher, musician, social activist, and University Lecturer. Because of Rev. Wilson’s work at the local, state and national level, McGee is known as a vibrant community of faith and an important voice on issues of faith and theology, justice and social change, locally, statewide and nationally.
Under Rev. Wilson’s administration, the church developed McGee’s current mission statement and motto: “Loving God, Loving the People, Serving God, Serving the People.”
On July 31, 2004, Rev Wilson concluded 11 ½ years of faithful service to McGee and accepted a prestigious professorship at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California. Rev Wilson will always be remembered as a Pastor with a heart of love for all people, particularly those hurt by racism, sexism, and homophobia. Rev. Wilson sought to ensure that the young and old, the rich or poor, those from the church house or from the street house would always find a welcome seat at McGee’s table and the feet of Christ.
On March 26, 2006, Reverend Michael A. Smith was called to the pastorate of McGee Avenue Baptist Church by a near unanimous vote. Reverend Smith is a product of McGee as he attended McGee from early childhood, was baptized in McGee and was called to the ministry while worshiping as a member of McGee’s congregation. Rev. Smith accepted the pastorate with enthusiasm, excitement, and a sincere commitment to serve God’s people. Rev Smith expanded the church’s relationship with American Baptist Seminary of the West by serving as an adjunct professor, supervising pastor for seminarians, and establishing McGee as the host sight for the ABSW Pastoral Leadership Conference. Reverend Smith also developed a relationship with the City of Berkeley Black Infant Health Program by encouraging the church to lease space to Black Infant Health while collaborating with the agency to develop ministries to serve high-risk mothers.
To this end Reverend Smith established the FAITH Academy to support High-risk fathers by teaching them to become better parents and men of responsibility. Through Reverend Smith’s efforts the church received a $25,000 grant in 2011 to implement the FAITH Academy. Similarly, during Reverend Smith’s tenure the church received a mini grant from the City of Berkeley along with matching funds from the Chevron Corporation to begin the Soil to the Soul Garden Project which teaches urban gardening, health and nutrition classes while helping to grow fresh organic produce for the community and the McGee Food Program. In 2012 the church received a $50,000 community empowerment grant from the City of Berkeley Mental Health Division to begin a wellness program targeting African American families in the South Berkeley area. This grant has been renewed for an additional year which led Reverend Smith to lay the groundwork to develop the Center for Food Faith & Justice which is the church’s emerging non-profit corporation that currently directs many of the church’s community –based programs.
Reverend Smith has been an active leader in Berkeley and the East Bay engaging the congregation and the community in a variety of social justice issues particularly around violence prevention and youth development. This has been evident as Reverend Smith has served as the Chair of the Board for Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action (BOCA) for 3 years before being named as the Executive Director of BOCA in 2013.
In 2014 Reverend Smith established the Center for Food, Faith & Justice as an emerging non-profit extension of the Ministry of McGee. The Center for Food, Faith & Justice has secured several grants and contracts to address the issues of hunger, health, education, and the environment in the East Bay. Through the Center for Food, Faith & Justice McGee is primed to continue its legacy of justice and social action through the power of the Holy Spirit in the years to come. As Reverend Smith is fond of saying “When we, as a people, are committed to giving our lives to Christ Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we can develop healthy communities from the Soil to the Soul.”
In 2018, The Center for Food, Faith, and Justice was recognized by Berkeley’s Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast and Civic Celebration as this year’s Outstanding Community Organization. Through the Center for Food, Faith, and Justice McGee is primed to continue its legacy of justice and social action through the power of the Holy Spirit in the years to come. As Reverend Smith is fond of saying “When we, as a people, are committed to giving our lives to Christ Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we can develop healthy communities from the Soil to the Soul.” McGee looks forward to another century of service, praise, and worship of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ as we anticipate the power of The Kingdom on earth.