After nearly a century of service in the heart of Harlem, the Morning Star Church is about to be born again.
"We are like the children of Israel coming out of bondage, being lost in the wilderness and now coming into the Promised Land,” said Morning Star Pastor Beverly Frazier. “It really is. It’s a rebirth.”
The church’s history dates to the Roaring Twenties, when the Rev. Ivy Braithwaite opened the doors of her Harlem living room as a truly down-home church known as the Morning Star Pentecostal Chapel – among the first neighborhood churches in the Pentacostal movement and perhaps the city’s largest.
Braithwaite, according to church lore, was an immigrant who settled in Harlem and felt the calling of the Lord. She responded by opening her doors and her heart by starting – quite literally – her own house of worship.
The church, still operating out of her residence, was incorporated with the state of New York in 1951. The move was Morning Star’s first step into a more traditional home, eventually located on the ground floor of a four-story Harlem building with room for about 100 worshippers.
Braithwaite signed off on the move with the church’s six trustees, and the church relocated from the living room into a building at 308 W. 133rd St. in 1956. The church’s founder remained as its pastor until her death, serving as a beacon of life and light for the congregation.
“What was so striking about her was this lady was one of several women around the country in the 1950s starting these small holiness churches,” said Frazier, a student of African-American church history. “But they could not pastor on their own at existing churches.
“So as they felt the call to minister, to preach, they would have to start the church themselves.”
Deaconess Mary Mitchell arrived in 1977, following Pastor Wallace Edward Smith from Mount Vernon to his new assignment in Harlem. Under his stewardship, the congregation rebounded from a tough stretch – with its numbers increasing from single digits into the dozens and services held five days a week. Other Pentacostal congregations would visit for revival meetings, but she remained even after Smith’s death.
“The peace within, that’s what kept me going back,” explained the 78-year-old Mitchell. “I had peace.”
With Smith came his wife, known as Mother Mary, who worked tirelessly alongside her husband for 28 yearsrebuilding the church property and its spirit. Pastor Smith passed away in 2005, and hard times again came upon Rev. Braithwaite’s once-thriving church.
Dwindling attendance and financial problems threatened the 133rd St. congregation’s home – and its very existence.
By 2013, Morning Star, its leadership gone and its deteriorating property on the verge of condemnation, was facing its possible demise after decades.
Enter Pastor Frazier in January 2014. She answered the call to become the church’s sixth pastor (and the second female leader), and immediately went to work. When she first took over, Frazier recalled, a grand total of six parishioners greeting her.
Two were Morning Star loyalists (Deaconess Mitchell and Mother Mary) who remained to ensure their church would survive no matter the odds. The new pastor credits their tenacity in part for the church’s continued existence.
“Somebody prayed,” offered Pastor Ferguson. “And God heard.”
With the church building in disrepair, Frazier once held a July 2014 Sunday service in nearby St. Nicholas Park before relocating to a YMCA and then sharing space with another church on Edgecomb Ave. for two years.
Pastor Frazier says closing the doors was never an option: “You can close a building, but you can’t close a church. Like a building is the church!”
She recruited a leadership team to assist in the resurrection of Morning Star, well aware it would take more than three days. Dr. Joann Sutherland was convinced of Frazier’s mission after attending a Sunday service at the new pastor’s invitation.
“She was my friend, and I was just visiting,” recalled Sutherland. “What made me stay was the warm welcome I went when I got there. I went there to visit and I never left – that’s the truth.”
Pastor Neil Joseph Ferguson came aboard in 2014, and just marked his third anniversary with the church.
He admits signing up without much knowledge of Morning Star’s myriad woes.
“I had no idea,” said Ferguson with a chuckle. “And we had a lot of work. There were no financial records. And there wasn’t enough insurance on the building. If something would have happened, unless a miracle took place, the church would have closed its doors permanently.”
But nothing happened to the building – a miracle in itself. The church was first issued an order to vacate the premises in 2012 because a rear wall on the building was in danger of collapse.
It remained standing, , until the church finally sold the property last year. A permanent home was secured in January 2017 -- the church is now based at 435 W. 141st St., offering a new vision with its new location.
“We are trying to build something here,” said Sister Tanisha Ferguson, whose duties include welcoming new members to the venerable church. “In a sense, you see where everything can go and you just can’t wait until you get there. Right now, we don’t look at what it looks like – we look at what it’s going to look like.”
Bringing in new parishioners remains a top priority. The current total is about two dozen, a mix of young people and longtime Harlemites.
Restoring the church to the halcyon days of Rev. Braithwaite, while a worthwhile goal, is not their main motivation.
“We’ve been so busy working, we haven’t had time to reflect on the church’s glory days, so to speak,” said Tanisha Ferguson. “We’ve been working on a plan.”
One thing hasn’t changed through the years: Faith, it seems, will always be rewarded at Morning Star.
Church Administrator Miranda Walker knew Pastor Frazier, Pastor Fergsuon and Sutherland from years back when they were all at the Elim International Fellowship in Brooklyn. She contacted Ferguson after leaving her longtime job with the Daily News, where she was an invaluable asset to both management and the staff.
“I reached out to Pastor Neil, who encouraged me to meet with Pastor Beverly to apply for the opening position,” recounted Walker. “This is a perfect example of how Morning Star actually practices what they preach, in how Christians ought to act when someone is in need.
“They know how to exemplify the love that Christ lived and shared throughout the Bible.”
Ferguson recounts a similar incident in his life: “I was looking for a new church home, praying and praying and praying since March 2013.
And Pastor Beverly graciously called me and asked if I could lend a helping hand.
“It worked out.”
The church’s leaders share the same vision for Morning Star – most importantly, an expanded role in the community life.
Among their hopes: A church with its door open daily for prayer and meditation, interaction with students at the nearby Convent Ave. campus of the City College of New York, an after-school program for local children and a Bible study class for senior citizens. The sky is the limit, and the optimism is unbounded.
“Now that we have our own space, we can plan things and do our ministry as we want,” said Frazier. “I see us a lot more active and engaging of the neighborhood and our neighbors.”
By last year’s 2nd Pastoral Anniversary of Pastor Frazier, acknowledgement of her efforts came from both City Council Member Inez Dickens and longtime Harlem Congressman Charles Rangel.
“It is truly a blessing to see the foundation of your anointed leadership begin to take hold in order to bring Morning Star Pentacostal church to a ‘New Level,’” wrote Dickens.
Sutherland believes the church can offer something that other houses of worship cannot: “Love on a different level, where people can feel the presence of God as they walk in the building.”
Pastor Neil looks back at his arrival and finds it hard to comprehend the turnaround.
“What the Lord has done for us, through Pastor Beverly, within a matter of three years has been amazing and mind-blowing to me,” he said. “It’s been almost a century, and I’m convinced that God is keeping the doors open for us, because He has a plan and a purpose for Morning Star.”
Asked what comes next for Morning Star, Sutherland offers an apropos verse from the Bible: Jeremiah 29:11.
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’” declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”