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Preserving the legacy of Indy’s Bethel AME Church

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — For 182 years, the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church has served Indianapolis and while it’s set to become a hotel by 2019, its congregants and admirers are finding new ways to preserve its legacy.

“The church was the centerpiece,” said Olivia Lockhart, “keeper of the history” for Bethel AME Church. “The church was where you could gather together.”

Lockhart has attended Bethel AME Church for decades and mingled within faded photos and yellowing programs, you’ll find her smiling face, surrounded by some of the most well-known figures in Bethel’s history.

“So these were some of the folks that groomed me as a young person,” smiled Lockhart, referring to a photo of a Rose Tea Event.

Bethel AME Church is technically the second AME Church in Indiana, but is still known as “Mother Bethel” for the state.

Congregants met for the first time in 1836 members’ homes or in rented spaces, before moving into their own house of worship in 1841. The location of that facility is still unknown, but wherever it was in Indianapolis’ downtown landscape, many know Mother Bethel played an important role in the Underground Railroad.

“It’s the kind of thing where it wasn’t advertised. Nobody carried signs to say, ‘This is where you come,’” said Lockhart, explaining that Bethel AME Church was also known as the “Indianapolis Station.”

“There was a certain kind of information you could share with someone else and they knew where you had come from,” Lockhart said. “That was probably something that really and truly helped a lot of people get from one place to another.”

Even in a free state, Bethel congregants were met with opposition, and the Bethel AME Church burned to the ground in 1862. Lockhart explained it would be the most obvious way for dissenters to stop the work of the Underground Railroad at Bethel AME.

After those dark days, Lockhart said congregants rebuilt their sanctuary on at 414 W. Vermont Street in 1869 to continue helping those not welcome elsewhere.

“The church became a convention center,” she said. “The church was where a classical recital took place because that was their stage. The church was where the NAACP had its first organizational meeting. There was no other auditorium where they could have it.”

The church also hosted services like day care, educational courses, and even a baby clinic for young families in the 1960s.

“It was just another effort in terms of offering some services to members of the community who perhaps were having difficulty getting it,” said Lockhart.

As the church continued to serve its people, the building aged expensively. Church leadership said they were forced to sell their Vermont Street building in 2016 after failed attempts at fundraising money for the extensive restoration work required. Sun Development and Management Corporation purchased the church for $3.8 million in April of 2016 and revealed plans to turn the church into a hotel lobby and conference center and construct a skywalk connecting it to a newly constructed hotel.

Andrea Copeland, a library and information science associate professor at IUPUI, considers Bethel AME Church’s story one of amazing strength and overcoming obstacles. She was disheartened to hear the building would leave the hands of its congregants.

“This was sad to many of us because it’s quite a remarkable place,” said Copeland. “So we began again looking for money, looking to find a way to preserve, a way to preserve the interior of the church.”

She teamed up with Bethel’s leadership and the IUPUI School of Computing and Informatics, and together they raised the funds to create a virtual reality scan of the church: Virtual Bethel.

“With virtual reality, you can actually go in and experience what it was like to be in that sanctuary,” explained Copeland.

Their team held an “open house” at the Indianapolis Historical Society, which helps preserve part of the Vermont Street building, to allow the public to try out Virtual Bethel. Several community members donned the headset and virtually walked around the sanctuary, which is closed to the public while Sun Developers begin their construction.

“Now we’re looking to partner with historical institutions to embed historical facts about the congregation — baptisms, oral histories and other documents in the virtual space,” added Zeb Wood, a developer on the Virtual Bethel Project.

“I feel like it’s been an experience; it’s not just some academic exercise. It’s really enriched my life,” said Copeland.

However, the new developers insist Mother Bethel won’t lose its spirit.

“Everything in the hotel, including even smallest thing, like a restroom, will have church,” said Bharat Patel, CEO and chairman of Sun Companies. “If you look at the mirrors in the restroom or public space, they’ll be arched up so it’ll look like a church.”

Patel also explained how his team will restore the original stained-glass windows and will use artifacts in the sanctuary as part of the hotel lobby, including the pulpits and benches. He also said historical photos of Bethel Church will adorn the walls of the hotel as artwork.

“The church’s history, the church’s existence, the church’s purpose will continue on in the minds and the hearts of other people,” said Lockhart.

The Bethel AME congregation is building a new church on Zionsville Road in Pike Township, with some financial support from the hotel developers.

The new Bethel hotel complex on West Vermont Street is expected to be complete by 2019.

Those interested in experiencing Virtual Bethel should be able to pilot the program from their home devices in May of 2018, according to developers. Learn more here.