July 26, 2014
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2 congregations lay claim to 1st Baptist church west of Miss.
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An artist's rendering of Joseph Willis on the cover of a biography by descendent Randy Willis depicts the church planter on his journey from North Carolina to the Louisiana Territory "with nothing but a horse, bridle and saddle."
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Thomas Walker (left) and Reginald Arvie, pastor two separate churches in Bayou Chicot, La., that both trace their founding to the historic Baptist preacher Joseph Willis, who established the first church west of the Mississippi River. Walker, pastor of the predominantly white Calvary Baptist Church, and Arvie, pastor of the mostly African American St. James Baptist Church, believe Willis founded their respective pastorates in November 1812. As friends, the two pastors are working for racial healing in the community.
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The current St. James Missionary Baptist Church building was constructed in the 1970s at 3378 Hwy. 167 N. in Bayou Chicot, about two miles from Calvary Baptist. Records are no longer available documenting when the first building was constructed at this location.  Photo courtesy of St. James Missionary Baptist Church.
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St. James Missionary Baptist Church records its founding in 1812 as the first church Joseph Willis established west of the Mississippi River. The congregation, affiliated with the National Baptist Convention, is celebrating 200 years of fellowship this year.  Photo courtesy of St. James Missionary Baptist Church.
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Bayou Chicot's Calvary Baptist Church, founded in 1812, currently sits about a mile from the original Calvary church building, believed to have been built at the site of the current Vandenburg Cemetery in the center of the small Louisiana town.  Photo courtesy of Joseph Willis Institute for Great Awakening Studies.
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This marker outside Bayou Chicot's Calvary Baptist Church states that it is Louisiana's oldest Baptist Church. St. James Baptist Church, just over two miles away, makes the same claim. Both churches say they are the congregation Joseph Willis started on November 13, 1812.  Photo courtesy of Joseph Willis Institute for Great Awakening Studies.
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Posted on Sep 28, 2012 | by Diana Chandler

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BAYOU CHICOT, La. (BP) -- Two churches sit just up the road from one another in this unincorporated town so small there's no official population count. Both claim roots as old as Baptist evangelism west of the Mississippi River.

Read the sidebar, 'Biracial church planter hailed 200 years later,' here.
Calvary Baptist Church, a white Southern Baptist church at 1059 Calvary Baptist Road, and the African American St. James Baptist Church at 3378 Highway 167 North, both trace their founding to Joseph Willis, a former slave of white and Cherokee heritage.

Both congregations say they are the church Willis founded in 1812 in Bayou Chicot and are celebrating their bicentennials this year, each laying claim as the oldest Baptist church in Louisiana.

But the churches are not fighting over the distinction. Instead the two young bivocational pastors, Reginald Arvie of St. James and Thomas Walker of Calvary, are working to heal wounds and remove barriers.

"Pastor Walker and I, we're younger pastors, and so a lot of ... the mindset of the older people, we don't have that," said Arvie, an African American pastor affiliated with the National Baptist Convention. "A lot of the boundaries, the walls that have been set up in that community, we don't see those things -- I guess first of all because of the way we were raised, our generation, and then second of all because we're both new to the area.

"From what I gather, the people don't mind being together in town. Seems like everyone knows everyone, both white and black," Arvie said. "But Sunday is probably the most segregated day in Chicot, because everybody goes their separate ways, and that's something he and I have discussed and a barrier we would like to tear down."

Walker's wife Gabrielle, a history professor at Louisiana College who has researched the churches' histories, said, "We are really hoping that this will become an opportunity for racial healing."

Much of the history of the two churches is not known. They trace their roots to Willis, born in 1758 Bladen County, N.C., to a wealthy English plantation owner and his slave, reportedly Cherokee. Historians say the church planter kept a diary, now lost.

The original Calvary Baptist included free whites and African American slaves, sources agree. Willis, who in 1787 gained freedom from slavery in a bill his first cousin John Willis introduced to the North Carolina legislature, himself owned slaves.

According to historians, Opelousas Court House documents show Willis buying and selling land and slaves in Bayou Chicot, including the sale of a slave for $500 and the purchase of a slave for $800, both in 1809, and the sale of three slaves for $1,500 in 1829.

Neither the date nor the reason African Americans left Calvary to form St. James is documented, but Arvie makes certain assumptions based on restrictions historically placed on African American slaves. Arvie speculates that when Joseph Willis secured after several attempts ordination from the nearest Baptist association, the Mississippi Baptist Association, Willis had to separate the black and white members into two congregations.

"Calvary has a lot of history as well as a lot of black history ... because Calvary was a white church at the same time [Joseph Willis] pastored some of the slaves there. From my understanding, during those times, it was almost impossible for a black church to be part of a white association, Baptist association," Arvie said.

"This is just speculation, but I'm gathering because of the African American members he had there, that gave him some problems as well [seeking ordination]. I'm almost positive that it did because he made three trips there [to the Mississippi Baptist Association] and I believe on the third trip some members of the association came and they installed Calvary as part of the Baptist association. I assume that he then had to make changes," Arvie said.

William Paxton recorded in his 1888 book "A History of the Baptists of Louisiana" that the Mississippi association in 1812 sent two men to Bayou Chicot to ordain Willis and constitute a church.

"On their arrival at Bayou Chicot, in the parish of St. Landry, which was one of the places at which Mr. Willis preached, they found five brethren and one sister, whom they constituted into a church called Calvary," Paxton wrote. "The church was constituted November 13th, 1812, the first in the State. At the same time, at the request of the newly constituted church, they proceeded to ordain Joseph Willis as their pastor."

Randy Willis, the church planter's fourth great-grandson, a genealogist and historian in Austin, Texas, said blacks and whites likely worshipped together unrestricted in Calvary Baptist at the time.

"I mean Joseph Willis, if you look at the rolls, [there were] so many people getting saved. He's got different races going to his church. He made no distinction between them," Randy Willis said. "Obviously with millions of slaves in the South, there's prejudice prior to the Civil War. But the reason blacks became Baptists after the Civil War was primarily the denomination. It was not really theology.... Churches were autonomous, and the slaves wanted to rule their own churches and you can't blame them."

Upon Willis' ordination and Calvary's installation into the Baptist association, the two congregations -- one white, the other black -- likely began worshipping separately in the same building in order to comply with probable rules and regulations of the association separating the races, Arvie speculates. He has found no records documenting when St. James became an individual congregation nor when the church built a separate building, although its current location was built in the early 1970s, Arvie said.

The original location of Calvary Baptist is believed to have been in the center of town, on the site of what is now Vandenburg Cemetery. The church is currently in its third facility.

Walker describes Calvary as committed to spreading the Gospel, with a heritage of church planting that began with Willis. When Willis and others founded the Louisiana Baptist Association in Cheneyville in 1818, all five charter member churches were outgrowths of Willis' ministry.

"Our first church plant is 195 years old. Our newest church ministry/plant is about seven months old," Walker said. "As far as we can tell, we have planted churches throughout every generation of the church.

"Calvary has accepted the Acts 1:8 challenge. Calvary is not just an old Southern Baptist church. It is a prime example of what every SBC church should strive to be like. We are faithful in doctrine, in witness, in unity, and seek to fulfill the Great Commission," Walker said.

Calvary's most recent mission is New Beginnings in Bunkie, La., which Walker said likely will remain in mission status for some time.

Approaching the bicentennial, Walker and Arvie have held joint activities such as shared Vacation Bible School nights, and expressed hopes of preaching in one another's pulpits before the anniversary. The two men are friends and Walker has invited Arvie to join the Southern Baptist Convention.

"At one time, I was slowly prodding him to become SBC, but they are happy with their [National Baptist] district," Walker said. "I brought a light fixture over to replace his single light bulb fixture in his office. So now our friendship between the churches shines every time he turns on the light."
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Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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