Archeologists make surprising discovery at Bethel church

“There,” archeologist Ken Brown said, pointing up to the X marked in the concrete. “Right there. See that?”

We were standing in the remains of the old Bethel Missionary Baptist Church – remains that form the centerpiece of Houston’s newest and most haunting park, which opens Saturday. The three brick walls and concrete supports that survived a 2005 fire are supported by a metal, open-to-the-sky skeleton. Long concrete and brick boxes form rows of pews atop artificial grass. And where the old stained-glass windows once were, there’s now new, simple yellow and purple glass.

It was easy to imagine a wedding there, or a memorial service, or even just a moment of quiet in a frazzled city person’s life. But what interested Ken most weren’t the park’s possible future uses. It was the park’s hidden past – a past that shows how surprisingly long pieces of African culture stayed with the descendants of former slaves.

The X he was pointing to, in the concrete support that once held up stairs to the church’s second story, is a crossroads mark, a mark that West Africans believe creates a crossroads between the spirit world and ours, a place where it’s easier to cross from one world to the other. In West Africa, Brown said, you might make that mark if you were swearing an oath; it’d be bad to lie if the spirits might punish you.

MORE INFORMATION

Bethel Park opening

What: Mayor Annise Parker officially opens Houston’s newest park, the artfully preserved remains of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church.

When: 10:30 a.m. Saturday

Where: Bethel Park, 801 Andrews

As an archeologist, Brown has studied those X’s in the United States. They’re found at old slave plantations: in churches and praise houses, but also in places of birth and death and healing. Slaves hid those marks. Slave owners weren’t fond of displays of African culture.

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