ENID, Okla. — One hundred and twenty-four years of church history will come to a close Saturday, as Bethany United Methodist Church closes its doors one last time.

The congregation, which traces its roots to 1895, is disbanding and hosting a public farewell service at 10:30 a.m. Saturday in the church sanctuary, 931 E. Maple.

Bethany was founded on July 10, 1904, as First United Evangelical Church, after nine years of members meeting informally in each other's homes.

Over the years the church has had several name changes, as it moved through the Evangelical, United Evangelical, Evangelical United Brethren and United Methodist denominations.

The congregation met in its first church structure at 6th and Broadway from 1904 to 1927, which was sold and later demolished around 1979.

The current building was completed and dedicated on Feb. 12, 1928, as Bethany Evangelical Church, and took on its current name when the congregation merged into the United Methodist Church in 1969.

In its heyday, church members report as many as 200 people attending services, with more than 100 children in the Sunday School program.

But, as times and the neighborhood around Bethany changed, membership and attendance dwindled. By 2017, Sunday attendance was down to about 25-30 people.

In hopes of bringing new life into the church, a second congregation was added in 2017, when Peace Korean UMC moved into Bethany. Both congregations shared the building under the pastoral leadership of the Rev. Kwan Young Kim.

That arrangement only lasted two years, though. About a month ago, Kim and the Peace Korean congregation moved to Christ UMC at 2418 W. Randolph, where the Peace and Christ congregations now share that space with Kim as pastor.

The Rev. Patricia Malloy, Northern Prairie District superintendent for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, said the decision to close after the Peace Korean move was up to the Bethany congregation.

"The superintendent assists them in the closure, but they ultimately make their own decision to close," Malloy said.

No decision has been made on what to do with the property, Malloy said, but it remains under the ownership of the Bethany congregation, held in trust for the United Methodist Church.

"They are a part of making decisions over their own property, up to the point they let it go," Malloy said, "and then it falls to the United Methodist Church."

With Bethany closing, Malloy said it is "a significant concern" there will no longer be a United Methodist presence on the east side of town.

"We do have several other churches in the Enid area, but not in that part of town," Malloy said, "and honestly, that was one of the hardest parts about closing that church."

Another concern, Malloy said, is preserving the future of Shepherd's Cupboard, an independent food pantry that feeds 125-150 families twice a month.

"That was a big part of the concern about closing," Malloy said, "because so many people are served out of that pantry."

Joan Neighbors and her late husband, Ed Neighbors, helped found the pantry 19 years ago. In a 2018 interview, Neighbors said the pantry was founded and has been sustained through a sense of Christian mission.

"I've always been interested in missions, and I don't think you're really a church unless you have missions," Neighbors said, "and that's kept me coming here."

Malloy said there are no immediate plans for Shepherd's Cupboard to move, and for now will continue operating out of the Bethany location.

While congregants, and if necessary, the pantry, can move to other locations, Malloy said it's much harder to leave behind the emotional attachments to the church building and the congregation that once thrived there.

"They have stories about 'I was baptized here,' or 'I was married here,' and that makes it sacred space to them, and that is hard to let go of," Malloy said.

Marilyn Wilson and husband, Stephen Wilson, have a lot of those life memories at Bethany.

The couple first met in 1946 while sharing a crib in the nursery. They grew up together in the church, and were married there in 1968.

Marilyn learned to play organ at the church when she was 14, launching a lifelong passion for church music.

She said it's hard to see Bethany close, but she knows it will live on through those, like her, who have moved on, but carried a piece of Bethany with them.

"It's sad the church won't continue in this location," she said, "but I think of all the people who grew up here, and they've gone on to influence other churches and other communities in their lives."

Gary Young also has been a member at the church since he was born. At 3 months old, he was baby Jesus in the annual Christmas pageant.

"It's all pretty much downhill after you've been baby Jesus," he said with a laugh, reflecting on his years at the church that's now closing.

His wife, Sherry, joined the church after they married 56 years ago. She said she will miss the community effort that went into so many chicken and noodle dinner fundraisers over the years.

Doris Eifert, who joined Bethany in 1959, said that community effort was the backbone of the church throughout its life.

Her children are the family's fourth generation at the church.

"All our kids were baptized and married and everything here," Eifert said.

Asked what she'd want people to remember about Bethany, Eifert said people should know "we became like a family." And, she added, "we fought to the end."

Susan Eifert Knight, Doris' daughter, said she couldn't talk much about Bethany closing without breaking into tears.

"As a child, this was literally my world," she said, "because all my friends were here, and my cousins and aunts were here."

Anita Cribley, who served as choir director at Bethany for 30 years, said those family connections to the church are hard to leave behind.

"I was married here. My kids were baptized here. So, it's hard," she said. "It's extremely sad."

She said Saturday's service will give the Bethany family, and the community at large, one last chance to celebrate the church's history and contributions.

"It's a solemn service, but yet it's joy-filled," she said. "I just feel certain our mission is going to continue on. Our music is going to continue."

The service, known in Methodist liturgical terms as a Leave-Taking, will include six former ministers, three ministers who received their call at Bethany, former choir members, four former choir directors and four former organists.

"Even though this is a solemn occasion, this final service will be filled with uplifting music and inspirational messages," Cribley said. "We will celebrate the glorious history of Bethany UMC, all the while focusing of the 'going forth' from this place."

While the future of the building is uncertain, Cribley said its history will live on in those who are leaving, but continuing to serve.

"When we go forth from these doors, we will take Bethany everywhere we go," she said.

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Neal is health, military affairs and religion reporter and columnist for the Enid News & Eagle. Follow him on Twitter, @jamesnealwriter, and online at jamesrneal.com.
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