The Rev. Stephen Cobb was black at a time when it wasn’t particularly easy to be black. He was a former slave and it was a short two years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. He lived in Texas, one of the most segregated states in the country.
But on June 10, 1866, Cobb and 17 other former slaves chartered New Hope Baptist Church in Waco, the first African-American church in Texas. Their desire was to see the African-American community in Waco liberated through religious and organizational freedom.
For many slaves, the biggest degradation in a life of bondage was being denied a choice in how they could worship – slaves were only permitted to go to church with their owners or hear preachers chosen by their masters, if at all. This injustice stuck with Stephen Cobb and the other 17 founding members of New Hope Baptist Church.
After Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the former slaves requested letters of dismissal from First Baptist Church of Waco.
Their request was granted and New Hope found a home in a timeworn building on the corner of Jefferson Avenue and Sixth Street.
Stephen Cobb, the first ordained African-American minister in Waco, was a fervent minister. Cobb led many successful revivals – one lasted 30 days and resulted in 107 conversions to the Baptist faith.
The church battled deep racial tension in its early days, however. Local Ku Klux Klan members even shot a gun through a window of the church during a Sunday night revival. But nothing deterred Cobb from his dedication to ministering God’s Word. During his 10 years as pastor, New Hope grew to a congregation of 260 members.
A century later, the church had grown to a congregation of more than 500 members under the Rev. Marvin C. Griffin’s leadership. After beginning his ministry at New Hope in 1951, he developed the church’s first financial bookkeeping system, implemented a bus system for church services and hosted a weekly radio broadcast. Griffin also spearheaded great strides in race relations with other churches. He organized interracial services with Lake Shore Baptist Church. These services would become known as Race Relations Sunday.
The large membership would not last forever. In 1994, after the removal of the pastor by the board of deacons and church trustees, many members of the congregation followed him out the door.
Doris King has been a member of New Hope her entire life. At 74, she is statuesque with a warm hug and bright smile. King vividly remembers the controversy surrounding Austin’s removal.
“He could preach and sing really well, so many people were frustrated that he was forced out,” she said.“We definitely had to cross some Jordans in the next couple of years. All churches go through problems but I was even considering leaving at that time. I had a son and I just did not feel he was getting the spiritual upbringing he needed then with all the drama.”
Something Old, Something New
Today, the Rev. Dr. Richard Blanton stands in the same position Stephen Cobb, Marvin Griffin and the pastors of New Hope who came before him. Each pastor made his mark on New Hope without altering the traditional setting that continues to draw members. Blanton knows and appreciates his role.
“I see stability in this church,” he said. “A lot of people look down on tradition, but I believe that you can be relevant and still be reverent.”
Jocelyn Pierce, who has been a member of New Hope for 26 years, has a calm, composed demeanor, but softens whenever she mentions New Hope.
“Most folks are looking for the traditional,” Pierce said. “The contemporary comes and goes, but the traditional will always be here. Pastor Blanton has the right perspective because he is adapting things but not coming in and totally changing everything.”
Blanton is a fusion of old-school and new-school pastors. He loves anything to do with traditional Baptist churches but can deliver a slew of lines from popular rap songs in his sermons without missing a beat. A former Air Force chaplain, Blanton graduated from Baylor University in 1974. He obtained his Master of Theology from Southern Methodist University and his Doctor of Ministry from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Blanton and his wife, Shelia, joined New Hope in 2010 after Blanton was invited to speak at New Hope for a Black History Month event. They were looking for an old-school church experience and found it at New Hope.
Blanton said he planned on only being a member of New Hope, but God had other plans. A few months after joining, New Hope’s former pastor left unexpectedly. The pulpit committee asked Blanton to serve as interim pastor in September 2010. They later asked him to apply for the pastorate and in April of this year, Blanton became the 15th pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.
“I find that a lot of people that come to new churches in new towns are looking for a place to hide, but we were looking for a place to serve,” he said. “I had no vision of any of this but I believe in God ordering one’s steps and this was obviously in his plan for me because everything just kind of fell into place.”
King believes Blanton is a good fit for New Hope because of his love for the Lord and love for people.
“He and his wife are strong, devout Christians,” she said. “They visit our sick and shut-in members. They called to ask how my son was doing when I was in the hospital with him. They just care and you can tell.”
Jessica Pierce, 24, who grew up going to New Hope before she left for college, can also see a change under Blanton’s leadership.
“Right away, I recognized a difference with Pastor Blanton,” she said. “It’s all in the leadership of the church and because of the vision that Pastor Blanton has, there is a new direction and vision for the members. I think he will be able to help New Hope restore itself to what it once was in the Waco community.”
Blanton has settled in quickly. He led a strategic planning meeting to draw on advice from church leaders and formulate a vision for the church’s future.
The vision, called “REER” for short, says New Hope will “recruit, equip, engage and replicate kingdom leaders in the Central Texas community.”
“I asked them [the church members] to tell me what the needs were so they have that buy-in that motivates them to work hard and see the vision come to fruition,” he said.
Age is Just a Number
New Hope’s congregation has aged with the church. Over half of the members are senior citizens. Pierce says the community may see that as a disadvantage, but she believes it benefits New Hope.
“They are young at heart and they are a cooperative group,” she said. “I think that is what has held the church together so long. They want to do whatever is good for the church.”
Blanton, like Pierce, can also see the strength that the older congregation brings to New Hope.
“The smart road to take is to appreciate and tap into that experience,” he said.
And he has tapped in. Stemming from the church’s strategic planning meeting, Blanton developed surveys to identify the types of ministries senior members were looking for the church to provide. As a result of the surveys, New Hope has implemented a senior lunch bunch. During the lunch sessions, seniors can come, eat and listen to a speaker discuss a variety of topics. Plans for future speakers include a registered nurse and a social worker.
While Blanton appreciates the experience of the seniors, he is recruiting younger members. He attended a church fair at Baylor earlier this fall.
“If you are looking for a place for opportunity, if you are looking for a place to work, if you are looking for a place to grow spiritually, then this is an excellent place to be,” Blanton said.
Once a church of more than 500 members, New Hope now has 150 active members. But what the church lacks in size, it makes up for in activity of the members.
“We just rise to the occasion wherever needed, which is something different I see here from other churches I have been at,” Jocelyn Pierce said. “People are willing to step up to the plate and do whatever it takes to keep New Hope a force in the community.”
Pierce said that she believes this attitude is inspired by the church’s history.
“The theme for our 145th anniversary was the vision is alive and well. People seem to think that because of the age of New Hope members, we would just die out,” she said with a laugh. “But we are on the road to recovery.”
King said that while she would like to see New Hope get back to its larger size, she does appreciate the closeness that comes with a smaller congregation.
“Our building is huge, so we basically have our own pews during service,” she said, smiling. “But we do have that sense of family that is harder to get in a big church.”
No matter how large or small the membership is, church service continues at New Hope. The choir sings traditional Baptist hymns.
Younger church members help the elderly members to their seats. The sun beams in through the stained-glass entrance doors. Blanton takes his place at the pulpit to deliver his message.
Richard Blanton lives generations apart from Stephen Cobb. But they are tied by New Hope’s living, breathing vision of seeing African-Americans liberated through religious freedom.
“I feel that I stand on the shoulders of those who have come before me and I would like to continue to build on that tradition,” Blanton said.