Local layman’s passion helped raise ‘Old Bethel’

Local layman’s passion helped raise ‘Old Bethel’

By Brian Koonce
Staff Writer

JACKSON “To God Be Glory.” So reads the sign marking the entrance to the site of the newly reconstructed “Old Bethel,” the oldest permanent non-Catholic church west of the Mississippi River.

“To God be glory” is also the constant refrain of Melvin Gateley. The retired school administrator from the Bootheel wants and takes absolutely zero thanks for taking charge of the project and turning a 200-year-old pile of poplar logs into a monument to history, religious freedom and, of course, the glory of God.

Gateley has served as one of 10 commissioners of the Missouri Baptist Historical Commission (MBHC) since 2005. It was shortly after being elected to that post by the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) that he became familiar with Old Bethel.

“He has a love of history,” said David Daughenbaugh, one of Gateley’s fellow commissioners. “He really and truly desires for people to see what Old Bethel is about and to remember where they came from.”

What Old Bethel is about and where Missouri Baptists have come from is tale worth telling. It was illegal, not to mention dangerous, to worship freely in what was then French-controlled territory. Protestants certainly were not free to organize publicly until the United States entered into the Louisiana Purchase and made freedom of religion the law of the land.

In 1806, after several false starts, worshipers organized Bethel Baptist Church near what would become Jackson. They didn’t have plush pews, state-of-the-art sound equipment, heating and air conditioning or indoor plumbing, but the believers met there for one reason, the same reason Gateley has labored so hard to rebuild the church: to give glory to God.

“My mind goes back 200 years,” Gateley said. “I think of how those people persevered and suffered. They were so determined to cross the Mississippi and start this church.”

Because of their determination and by the grace of God, the church grew and prospered, planting new churches all over the area and sending out missionaries. Unfortunately, they were soon plagued by infighting and the church disbanded in the 1860s. The building was dismantled and the logs thought lost until 2002, when they were located in a barn and Second Baptist Church in Springfield bought them and donated them to the MBC.

That’s where Gateley came in. Soon after he was elected commissioner, he was brought to the overgrown graveyard where Bethel once stood. He immediately took the reins and led a small army of volunteers – a large number of which traveled from Second Baptist in Springfield – to raise funds, clean the overgrown graves, fit each piece of timber into its original slot, chink the gaps and make it as good as, well, new.

“It got into my heart,” Gateley said, tears coming to his eyes. “My wife and I made a pledge to rebuild it. I had a feeling that this would be my last project. I just want to see the great old building stand for the future to see.”

Regardless of whether or not this is his last project, it is just one on a list of many accomplishments of a man who spent his life serving his fellow man and his God.

“He’s done so much in this community, I don’t think I can remember half of it,” said Melvin’s wife, Ella.

After serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II, Melvin returned to southeast Missouri and earned his degree in education from Southeastern Missouri State University (a scholarship to the university now bears his name) and then a master’s degree in education from George Peabody College in Tennessee. He served as a high school principal in Cape Girardeau for more than 40 years, spent eight years on Cape’s city council and was mayor pro tempore for a short time. He planted more than 5,000 roses and jonquil bulbs in the city’s intersections as part of a city-wide beautification campaign, and is a deacon at Lynwood Baptist Church.

Even at 80 years old, it’s hard to imagine him not taking on other, new projects, especially considering how he attacked this project with vigor and grit that would make men a quarter his age blush with shame.

“He’s the type of person who (once he) decides something has to be done, he gets on it and doesn’t give up,” Ella said. “Some people will look at a project that big and say it can’t be done. He never thinks that way. ‘We’re going to get it done,’ he says. I worry about him being out there five days a week but it’s what he loves to do.”

Melvin won’t admit to those five days a week. He claims it’s only three, OK, sometimes four. But regardless of the hours he’ll never get credit for, there can be no doubt among Missouri Baptists that the fully restored and resurrected Old Bethel would not be standing today if not for him, said Daughenbaugh.

“This project ‘might have maybe someday perhaps gotten around to being completed without Melvin,” he said, “but there’s no way it could have been done so fast, so well and so far under budget. He knew the people to get the work done and has this way of inspiring people to care as much as he does.”

Joanna Perkins, the MBHC archivist, has worked closely with Gateley on the Old Bethel project.

“Melvin has been unfailing in his dedication to the rebuilding of this church,” she said. “This is a heart dream for him. He’s an amazingly hard worker.”

Gateley’s humility is just as noticeable as his drive.

“He doesn’t care for any honors,” said Ella. “I say he deserves it, but he’d say no, he did it for the Lord. If there’s anything he can do to further God’s kingdom, that’s his calling.”

Now, 201 years after the congregation first met and formed Bethel Baptist, Gateley is scheduled to see the fruits of his literal labor with the dedication of the rebuilt structure, complete with a protective awning and a beautiful sprawling garden of rose bushes, which he, of course, planted in his spare time. The ceremony is scheduled to take place 9 a.m., Aug. 18, just outside Jackson, only three days before he turns 81. The occasion is such a momentous event in Missouri and Southern Baptist history that Gov. Matt Blunt is scheduled to speak, along with Frank Page, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. The interim executive director of the MBC, David Tolliver, and John Marshall, pastor of Second Baptist in Springfield, are also scheduled to speak.

While the ceremony will honor those believers who founded this church and the God who has so richly blessed their efforts even through today, Missouri Baptists can afford to give Melvin Gateley a pat on the back.

“With every project of this sort, a ‘Nehemiah’ is needed,” Tolliver said. “Someone who is willing to humbly serve, committed to the task, and will not leave until the work is finished. Melvin has certainly been ‘Nehemiah’ in this project. Thank you, Melvin Gateley.”

Gateley’s response?

“Old Bethel was a light in the land of darkness,” he said. “I just want people to come here and walk being reminded of the light of our wonderful savior. To God be the glory. That sums it up for me.”