A bright yellow bulletin board in Bethel CME Church’s fellowship hall uses just a few words to tell the church’s purpose. Essentially, it’s that transformed lives serving and witnessing can help others live transformed lives and, as result, change the world.
“Bethel is a beacon, a gospel-oriented beacon,” said the church’s senior pastor of three years, Rev. Bruce W. Burns Sr. “We’re believers in Jesus Christ sharing the gospel and serving others. We’re a witness and a service provider — all born out of God’s love.”
Burns said Bethel Christian Methodist Episcopal Church’s roots go to 1863 and meetings on the banks of the Ocmulgee River. The church’s first pastor was Rev. John Zorn.
Burns said the church next moved near what is now Winship Elementary School on Pio Nono Avenue and Beech Avenue where it stayed until moving further down Pio Nono to its present location.
He said through its long history, Bethel has had a unique colleague, neighbor and competitor in Macon’s Unionville Baptist Church.
“Bethel and Unionville were once a dual congregation, meaning they shared and met in the same building in the early days,” he said. “There would be a Methodist meeting one week and a Baptist meeting the next.” Burns said the arrangement changed when a landowner told the congregations he would give a certain plot of land to the first congregation that could put a piece of lumber on it.
”Unionville won out on that,” Burns said. “But later, Bethel was given a portion there also. The churches remained neighbors until Unionville moved away.”
Burns said Bethel experienced two fires, one in the mid-1950s and another earlier, that caused them to build new sanctuaries.
He said Bethel has attracted teachers, professionals and civic leaders through the years who’ve been civic and political leaders and prominent civil rights activists.
“There are many, but I think of Frank Johnson whose widow, Dorothy P. Johnson, is still here,” he said. “Frank Johnson was known as the unofficial mayor of Unionville and active in social justice and civil rights work. Bethel has been education minded and supportive of young people and education. It’s also important the younger crowd knows the richness of their history and keep the same intensity to be on the lookout for injustice wherever they find it and also have a heart for reconciliation.” Burns admitted sometimes the two can seem at odds.
“It can be difficult, but it’s important,” he said. “Seeing the evil of injustice without being contaminated by the negative is challenging, but part of what we must do. We have to teach a hatred of injustice but the value of forgiveness and reconciliation along with other Christ-like virtues. That’s the only thing that will bring real change. The ultimate change has to come to the heart of a person.”
Burns said those concerns have led to working for social change and serving to meet practical needs. He said Bethel has a ministry each Wednesday at 1 p.m. that gives a meal to homeless persons and others in need. He said he enjoys talking with each person that comes and providing a Bible study.
“We have that and I’m excited and blessed Katrina Curry, our outreach pastor, is heading a new medical ministry starting in October,” he said. “We’re partnering with Mercer University School of Medicine to have medical students and others provide testing and care for people in need. There are students and people at the school with the same passion we have to help others. There’ll also be partnerships to help provide follow up care as needed, plus we’re putting in health education.”
For Burns, it all ties to the few words on the bulletin board. The motto: hearts for witness, hands for service. And the vision: a body of believers equipped for witness and service.
“If your heart’s right, it changes everything,” Burns said. “We’re to be Christ’s witnesses. Once I develop a heart to be a witness, to be Christ-like and gospel-centered, I can take my body and be a servant with real love for others and not selfish motives.”
Burns said before becoming a Christian his heart was far from right and that even for a while after, it was far from what it should have been.
Originally from New York state, he said he retired from the Air Force having served on active duty and as an active and regular duty reservist. He served in Desert Shield and Desert Storm. He also has had more than 30 years in ministry, though he admits it was with a rough start during the first few years. He has been in churches in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and now Georgia. He has also worked in the corporate world, sometimes alongside his work in ministry.
“My heart was definitely not right at one time,” Burns said. “When I tell people now I used to literally be on the opposite side of God they find it hard to believe. But while I was stationed overseas I was exposed to the occult — to the Wiccan lifestyle — and got very involved. I almost abandoned everything to it. My son was five at the time and I knew they were eager to see him trained up in Wicca. If it had just been me I would have been all on board, but there was enough papa bear in me that I would not allow that.”
Burns said dramatic encounters with God turned his life around and sent him toward ministry. But still, he said, he allowed a drive for ministry success and money in the corporate world to work just as evilly as the occult might have.
He said his neglect of family to pursue success led to divorce and his turning away from ministry, the church and God himself. He said it took yet more dramatic God-encounters and the efforts of his own children and a group of young wrestlers he was coaching, to bring him back.
“And I’m happy now,” he said. “Finally happy. I’ve seen decades of God faithfully working such wonderful things. It took a while and I sabotaged it again and again at first, but he finally taught me how to live with an attitude of love and of really meaning it when I say, ‘thy will be done,’ instead of my will. And I’ve learned to just be myself and let God use me as he wants to. That works a lot better than trying to impress everyone or being something you’re not. He wants to change you for the better, we all want that, but he created you to be you.”
Contact writer Michael W. Pannell at email@example.com.
Bethel CME Church
Address: 1668 Pio Nono Ave., Macon, Ga. 31204
Phone: (478) 746-8007
Leadership: Rev. Bruce W. Burns Sr., senior pastor
Worship: Sunday school 9:45 a.m., worship 8 and 11 a.m., Bible study Tuesday 6 p.m. & noon Wednesday