There is a small token that Reverend Miniard Culpepper has taken to giving out over the decades: a mustard seed, about the size of a single peppercorn. He gives it to visitors and to congregants, anyone who might be facing a hard time.
“The Bible says if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can move mountains,” Culpepper often reminds his congregation.
And in the eyes of his congregants, it is that mustard seed of faith that is the backbone of the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church in Dorchester, where Culpepper is the pastor. The church, a squat red-brick building with a white steeple, is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year. It has weathered challenges over the decades and survived, with its members holding fast to the idea that a little bit of faith can go a long way.
“The church has continued to fight for what’s just and right. I think the church has continued to be a moral voice in our community,” Culpepper said on Sunday, after an exuberant morning service that followed a week of revival services celebrating the milestone. Representative Ayanna Pressley spoke at a banquet on Friday, and Senator Edward Markey and state Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz both attended the Sunday morning service.
“This institution is a cornerstone, it is a foundation for the community,” Markey said in a short sermon during the service. (Perhaps alluding to Markey’s primary challenge from US Representative Joe Kennedy, Culpepper introduced him by saying, “Anytime the senator’s in a battle, I’m going to fight right along with him. And we don’t lose battles.”)
The church is particularly known for its social justice work. Culpepper called on “the God of Martin, Malcolm, and Medgar” to begin Sunday’s service, in addition to the God of “Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” In between the prayers and the singing, a guest pastor delivered a sharp critique of racist social policy during a sermon about how hard it can be to face the truth.
“Truth that incarceration is destroying black life. Truth that too many police officers kill our men without accountability,” said Rev. Jarvis Williams, as congregants nodded and clapped in agreement. “When our children were sick, they told them to ‘just say no’, and when other children get sick now on opioids, they say they need help.”
It is that spirit of reverence along with resistance that has been a mainstay at Pleasant Hill over the decades.
Culpepper’s grandfather, Rev. Samuel H. Bullock Sr., founded the church in 1939, running it out of his home around the corner. The congregation grew, and soon Bullock moved it to a piece of land on Humboldt Avenue, where it stands today.
Bullock marched with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Culpepper said, and taking to the streets for a righteous cause is one of the church’s foundational theologies. Culpepper has been a leading antiviolence advocate, working with young people to prevent gang violence and intervening with police on young people’s behalf.
Some of the early adherents to Bullock’s church remain attached, and returned to its pews for the birthday celebration.
“My father was a deacon and my mother sang in the choir,” said Teresa Ware, 69, whose parents met at Pleasant Hill and who grew up attending Sunday school there. Ware’s mother came from North Carolina and her father came from Georgia; Pleasant Hill was a place they could feel at home even in an unfamiliar city.
“The first thing that a black family did when they left the South was find a church home in the North,” Ware said. Pleasant Hill became that home for them, and for their daughter.
Every service began with Bullock and the deacons entering the church singing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” dressed in black robes and white collars, Ware recalled. The children would sit in the very front with the mothers of the church — the older women — who would make sure they sat properly and paid attention. At the end of a revival at Pleasant Hill when Ware was 11, she chose to be baptized and to give her life to Christ.
“It seemed like the sun always shined when I came to church here,” Ware said.
Now Ware is part of a different church community in Pembroke, where she lives, but she still returns to Pleasant Hill every once in a while. It is the place where she grew up, where she first learned about faith, where she first felt she belonged.
“All of my people are here,” she said. “When I come here, I just exhale. I’m home.”