Bishop William H. Henderson, Buffalo, NY

Bishop William H. Henderson, Michigan St. Baptist Church, Buffalo, NY

The door to the Michigan Street Baptist Church was closed, but it wasn’t locked.  As I stepped inside I heard a voice from downstairs call, “hello?”

Michigan Street Baptist Church est. 1836

The voice belonged to a middle aged black man who introduced himself as Bishop Montgomery.  I chuckled a little and introduced myself the same way.  “Well aren’t we something?  That over there is Bishop Henderson,” Bishop Montgomery said, pointing to a grey bearded man seated at the table.

Bishop Montgomery showed me around the small chapel.  The pulpit is original.  It is where Montgomery speaks on Sundays, and where Dubois spoke once.  He showed me the progress of current renovations to the stained glass windows, and directed my attention to a small door leading to the attic.  “That up there used to hide runaway slaves.”  I was told about how hiding runaways was risky, even in a free state.  If caught, the church would be shut down.  But the church hid them still the same.  We talked for a bit as we walked back downstairs.

The "other" Bishop Montgomery

“This old guy here is the one to answer your history questions,” Montgomery said as Bishop Henderson slowly pulled himself up to his feet.

I haven’t met anyone quite like Bishop Henderson.

He took me to the back of the basement and into the bathroom.  Here he pulled aside a curtain to show a small compartment, smaller than coat closet.  He told me that people being ushered along the Underground Railroad would crouch here, hiding from slave catchers.  He told me the place was special and he wouldn’t let the workers patch up the hole in the wall when they modernized the building.  He told me how no one ever liked slave catchers, even people who didn’t like black people still didn’t like slave catchers.  These holders of negative opinion included the city judge, the one the slave catchers would have to go to get warrants.  This judge would start proceedings, excuse himself to use the restroom, and never come back, abandoning the court while in session. He told of how those running away had to rely completely on the goodness of others, others meaning white people, to usher them to freedom.  Black people could only conduct at night.  It was up to whites to open houses, drive wagons, row boats, as black people would all be targets of capture themselves.  He told the stories with energy, conviction, and surprising detail.

A small compartment once used to hide people looking for freedom in Canada.

I let him talk, he likes to talk, but one question started to distract me from all the rest.  Finally I asked, “You are a Baptist Bishop, you were the pastor of this very church, why do you wear a star of David?”

He smiled as his hand moved up to the pendant around his neck.  You see, my mother was African-American, but my Dad was a Jew.  I used to hate my Dad, but as time has gone along, I have grown to appreciate him and the culture he came from.  “So it’s an ethnic rather than religious symbol for you?” I continued.  “Yes.”

Now I had a whole new set of questions.

“You are, shall we say from a generation before my own,” I began; “More like two,” he interrupted.  “Was it difficult being raised the product of mixed parentage?”

Bishop Henderson, the in house historian.

He told me the following story:

“I wasn’t raised mixed.  I wasn’t raised by my parents.  A black family adopted me when I was very little and black was all I ever knew.  My family was black, everyone at school was black, and everyone in church was black.  I never knew of anything like prejudice till high school when I became best friends with a boy, six foot three and dark skinned… looked just like me.  Wherever we went, people would say, there go salt n’ pepper.  As I got older I would occasionally guest pastor at some other churches, black churches.  I would stand up in front of them and watch as they started whispering around to each other, who is this guy and what does he have to say to US?  I would just smile and say, my mom was black and my dad was a Jew. I’m not black or white, I’m a whole new creature created by God to preach of Christ!  He said this always went over well.

I knew my Dad growing up; I just didn’t know he was my Dad.  Our neighborhood was mixed back then, we had some of everybody.  We used to watch the Jewish people walk to church on Saturdays.  They wouldn’t drive, that was work, and they observed the Sabbath.

I had a dog, I loved that dog like little boys do; he was my best friend.  One day the dog was hit in the road and I remember sitting there in the street holding my dog as it died, tears flowing as I cried.  People were all gathered round, just watching, not doing anything.  Then, through the crowd, came this man.  He bent down and put his arms around me and held me, comforted me.  No one else moved, just this white, Jewish man, and I felt a special bond with him from that day on.  We all used to play in the streets and I would see him from time to time, watching from a distance.  I didn’t know till much later that he was my Dad, just as I didn’t appreciate till much later that my father had no choice.

I was a child born out of wedlock and as such had to be cast out.  It didn’t matter my race, I wasn’t allowed.”

He showed me a picture of his mother, who died while he was a child.  He showed me a picture of his wife and grown daughter.  I told him about my daughters.  I told him about how my six year old was confused when told about segregation, with special places for white and black.  She wanted to know where the tan kids sat.  He smiled; he does that easily.

“Talk to your kids.  You don’t have to tell them more than they are ready for, they learn bit by bit, but answer the questions as they come.”

“I warned you he liked to talk,” Bishop Montgomery interjected as he walked through the room.  It was time for me to go.

I think Bishop Henderson would have sat and talked with me all day had I kept asking questions.  I would have liked that.  But the parking meter was still running, I had a schedule to keep, and wisdom does no good if we never step back into the real world.

I shook his hand, took his card, and he showed me to the door.

Buffalo, NY

Big thanks to an eleven year old Facebook friend who suggested I visit some church I had never heard of, “Thanks Ka’anu.”

Advertisements

7 Comments

Filed under history, people, places

7 responses to “Bishop William H. Henderson, Buffalo, NY

  1. Another one of your best.

    I love what you are doing – what a wonderful way to turn this job into a great opportunity to do what you really want!

  2. Have you considered submitting this post to say… “The New Yorker” or NPR’s “This American Life”?

    Nice piece of writing here, good story, compelling topic.

  3. Dear Bishop Henry Henderson.
    Greeting and peace .Joy to the world the Lord Has come let earth receice her king.
    I am full aweare and discerned what the Lord use even my former experiences to reveal to us at this time. Praise God you are still alve and bouncing in the Lord. My memories at your ministry was during the time you served at Millard Fillmore Hospital in the Western Area. Well God has changed lives, places, environments since that time. You are really a strong Bishop so many decades has passed since. your time. During my time in your ministry it was you who trained me as an missionary, prayers and consecration. You were was the bishop that intoduced me to Bishop (Prophetic singer David and Bishop Thompson Nwosu of Jos, Plateau State,Nigeria West Africa many people still ask of you who remember America. I have been in Nigeria for twenty -five years and served faithfully, family, churches, school, medical,the country and villages that I almost became unknown to my country. I remember it was you who sent me off to Zion Bible College to read Biblical courses during the nineteen seventy-nine through nineteen eighty -one. .I had so many copetors such as the organists, missions ,department and fmilies. It is good to have good memories, testimonies of a firld and be able to return and excel and be power with Jesus Our Lord. The Just sahll live by faith in Christ who is our only hope, Faith, Courage, Grace and power. We need to continue to love, be at peace with our brother, sister and congradulate others on thoer good works.
    I want to tell our first daughter just deleivered a baby boy on June 11,2010 at Kaiser Permente, Hospital here in Bellflower, California I was was here during the delievery.It is a joy to expereince such good things and Eually David was present.
    We love as a family and will always think well of you.

    Reverend Mrs. Danette Albertine Nzewi
    95321?2 Los Angeles Street
    Bellflower, Californis 90706
    562-461-0707

    Famil: David Okwudri & Danette Albertine,DavidPentecost Odinachukwu,Danette Dirichukwu,Rapture Ogechi,New Heaven Ukamaka Nzewi 1981- …..

  4. It is my great honor to be able to sit at the feet of Bishop Henderson and learn the discernment of wisdom and truth. I have mede it a personal goal to bring great joy to his winter years as he has to my own.

  5. Sis. Joy Hallowell Forbes

    ThanX you for every thing Bishop William Henderson never can i forgets the years of Holy Convocations of Consecration…it is because of my solid foundation at El’BETHAL I have been allowed the much wisdom my life so desperately needed in Eschatalogy End Things Prophecy Unfolding. I love you and Diana always….Sis Joy Hallowell Forbes and all my beautiful boys i use to bring to The House of Worship and Elder Saul would his heart out when you let him and give everyone that rich chocalate candy¡ The best dayz for us!

  6. Sis. Joy Hallowell Forbes

    You are the most learned man in The Knowledge of The Holy Word Of God I have ever known. You said we may be the people to see JESUS come….i believe these are The End Of The Last Days, and He IS COMING FOR US SOON…THE RAPTURE..THE PAROUSIA….PRAISE JESUS….OUR SAVIOUR!

  7. Raquel

    I had the honor of meeting Bishop Henderson while vacationing in Niagara Falls in October. He wasn’t feeling well, but he was kind enough to show me around the Church as well as give me a history lesson that I had no clue about. I would personally like to take Bishop Henderson and Bishop Montgomery for their hospitality. I pray that Bishop Henderson is feeling better and if it is God’s will, I plan to bring my parents to meet Bishop Henderson, Bishop Montgomery and tour the Church.

    God Bless,
    Raquel Mingo

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s