Bessemer Born Again
By: Cyrondys Jackson
Nearly a decade ago, Queen Williams walked into the sanctuary of The Salvation Army Bessemer Corps one Sunday morning, and instantly knew she was where the Lord had called her to be. “I was looking for a church—not just a church, but a place where I was welcomed,” said Williams. It did not take long for her to find her place amongst the families and friends that worshipped and served at the Bessemer Corps, nestled in a once bustling industrial suburb of Birmingham, Alabama. Williams recalled Sunday services filled with joyful praise and worship, and sermons that called on people to be “fishers of men,” by living the gospel and leading the lost to Christ.
“It was a great time because everything felt like a family. It didn’t matter what color you were or what you had. Everyone was just so in love with Jesus,” she said.
Queen Williams didn’t just find a church that Sunday – she found a home. The Salvation Army Bessemer Corps had been changing lives in western Jefferson County for more than 70 years. The corps fed the hungry, housed the homeless, and was a social hub within the neighborhood. Williams jumped right in, serving where needed. Arts and crafts, women’s Home League, sports clubs, and camps were just a few ways the congregation and the community came together.
But almost five years ago, during the New Year holiday, a broken pipe in the ceiling caused considerable damage and flooding inside the chapel, and the sanctuary and adjacent multi-purpose were closed. Plywood went up over the windows, and most of the building sat unused. Then came the decision to shutter the corps but keep the social service programs up and running.
Over time, the building began to deteriorate, becoming an easy target for copper thieves and vandals. The prayer garden was overrun with weeds and crabgrass, and the once vibrant touchstone became an eyesore within the community it served.
The future of Bessemer was uncertain. Then in the summer of 2021, newly appointed area commanders and corps officers, Majors Robert and Karen Lyle, were riding through the communities they would soon be ministering to. “We saw all the boarded windows and the Holy Spirit tugged on my heart and said, ‘You know, Robert, this is where we need to be,’” said Major Robert Lyle.
In 2022, Major Lyle approached the Advisory Board about reengaging ministry and outreach at the Bessemer location, starting with renovations to the fellowship hall. “We knew that it was going to need some repairs,” he said. Within a few months, Major Lyle convened a committee to explore ways the corps could reopen and what was needed. He enlisted the help of Bessemer Service Center’s Social Services Director, Sebrena Davis, Christian mission associate, Terri Campbell, and retired officers, Majors Jim and Beverly Lawrence, to begin the process of restoring “hope” to the Bessemer area.
For Major Beverly Lawrence, the Bessemer Corps is home, and its people are family. She grew up in the corps, after her father and brother survived a near fatal accident. “He was drinking and almost went into the lake with my brother, and the only thing that stopped him was a tree.” Lawrence said that same day, her father met with Captain Curtis Frierson at the Bessemer Corps, and a miracle happened.
“He was saved and delivered from alcohol, and all of that saved our family,” said Lawrence.
Lawrence’s father went on to serve as the young people’s sergeant-major. Her uncle Fred was a corps sergeant-major, and his son Kenneth, was like a second father to her. The Bessemer Corps is where she met her husband of 48 years, Major Jim Lawrence, and together they served as Salvation Army officers for 33 years. They have unbelievable stories of dry bones coming alive and souls saved at the Bessemer Corps. There were men coming to Christ on the rooftop, Sunday services filled with worshippers, and the camaraderie between officers and staff.
Major Jim Lawrence knelt and gave his heart to Jesus in the Bessemer chapel fifty years ago, and he and his wife were overjoyed to learn that Major Lyle was working to reopen the location.
“This is a family corps. We would cook hamburgers and hot dogs and the families would come out and we would just have a great time,” said Lawrence.
Within two months, the newly named “Salvation Station,” launched a weekly, faith-based senior program, Salvation Army Leadership Training (SALT), and held its inaugural “Resurrection Week Old Fashioned Tent Revival” leading up to Easter. Dozens attended the three-night services, which included praise and worship led by Major Karen Lyle, featuring local singers and musicians. That Saturday, the campus was buzzing with dozens of children and families for a carnival and cookout. Bounce houses, face painting, and an Easter egg hunt drew neighbors, fellow pastors, and city leaders.
Jefferson County Bessemer Division District Attorney, Lynneice Washington, said, “We are grateful to have The Salvation Army in the Bessemer-Cutoff because of the wonderful work that you do. You are going to reach people for God, and in doing that, change the entire city.”
On Easter Sunday, the “Salvation Station” hosted a prayer breakfast and its first “Resurrection Sunday Sonrise Service.” As the outreach programs and worship services grow, Major Lyle is looking forward to the official reopening of the Bessemer Corps and official worship service on June 12, 2022, at 10:45 a.m.
Shortly after the Easter weekend services, a bullet from a drive-by shooting pierced a window and came to rest eight feet away in the wall of a classroom. “This is why we are here,” said Major Lyle. “We’re going to be in this community, and the Lord’s going to change this area, and if Bessemer can change, Birmingham can change. If Birmingham can change, Alabama can change, and if Alabama can change, the world can change,” he said.
Cyrondys Jackson is The Salvation Army’s communications manager for the Greater Birmingham Area Command.