Historically Black Utah church opens its doors to other cultures, becomes ‘a picture of heaven’

The Point congregation in Kearns is celebrating its 100th year.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pastor Corey Hodges poses for a photograph at The Point Church in Kearns, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The Baptist congregation, which has been under several different names and locations, is celebrating 100 years in the Salt Lake Valley.

Kearns • When Pastor Corey J. Hodges preaches at The Point Church, everything is intentional.

He shortens the service. He swaps out the traditional suit and tie seen in other Black Baptist churches for sweaters, jeans and casual shoes. He lowers the intensity of his cadence and regularly incorporates celebrations of cultures that are not his own.

It wasn’t always like this. The Point Church, a congregation celebrating its 100th anniversary, started as a safe haven for Utah’s small evangelical Black community. That began to shift in 1998, when Hodges arrived. Under his leadership, that safe space has been extended to other communities in the Salt Lake Valley.

“I felt like God was calling me to intentionally diversify the church so that it wasn’t just African Americans,” Hodges said. “And I wanted to be obedient. I wanted to do what the Lord was leading me to do in the congregation. I didn’t want to pattern my leadership style after anyone else that may have been established here in the valley.”

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lead Pastor Corey Hodges poses for a photograph at The Point Church in Kearns, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The Baptist congregation, which has been under several different names and locations, is celebrating 100 years in the Salt Lake Valley.

Still, the change proved challenging. In 1998, Black Utahns amounted to 0.8% of the state’s population, and the church enjoyed a deep-rooted legacy for congregants, who, beyond religion, attended to connect with those who were part of an overwhelming minority.

Even so, Hodges pressed on. “I felt like I had to do it because I was compelled by God to do it,” he said. “God didn’t just call me to be a minister for African Americans. God called me to be a minister for all people, regardless of their race, regardless of their culture or ethnicity.”

Consequently, the tacitly formal dress code was relaxed, worshippers from other ethnicities joined the leadership, and the preaching gave way to teaching.

Black preaching is an art. It’s as much an art as it is a call of God, just like other things in Black culture,” Hodges said, especially in the South, where energetic sermons are a constant in African American Protestant communities. “I just changed that a little bit, so it wouldn’t be so surprising or uncomfortable, maybe, to some.”

How the change helped congregants

(The Point Church) A service by The Point Church in Kearns.

Achieng’ Reggy has attended The Point Church for 20 years and witnessed the multicultural transition. It wasn’t easy, she said, but there was always space to process and discuss the change.

“In retrospect, you’re not losing something,” she said. “You’re gaining a lot more than what you would feel like you’re losing by embracing other cultures and by being open to accepting other people into the community.”

Reggy has volunteered often in the church since her arrival in Utah in 2001. Being an active member became a family tradition that her 22-year-old son, Otelo Reggy-Beane, follows — even away from home. He moderates the online chat for the church’s livestreamed services from college in New Haven, Conn.

Other young people, who attend the special service for children and teenagers, help with cameras and other tasks. Reggy has found young congregants are eager to participate in church activities, a phenomenon that, in her view, is uncommon.

A native of Nairobi, Kenya, before moving to Ohio and then Salt Lake City, Reggy hadn’t seen such a diverse group of worshippers under one roof. She said she has made meaningful friendships with people from various backgrounds through the church and values the safety these new connections provide.

“I can come to church in my clothes and not feel strange about that,” she said. “People ask me questions, and we’ve created an environment where I can talk to people and I can ask people questions that I probably couldn’t do outside the bounds of a relationship.”

The church’s evolution

(The Point Church) A service by The Point Church in Kearns.

In the late 1990s, Hodges, then 27, had reservations about making the move from St. Petersburg, Fla. But he found a kind community in Utah and ended up planting roots in Taylorsville, rearing three boys with his wife, Benita, and becoming the church’s longest-serving pastor.

Since its founding in 1922, The Point Church has changed its name and location multiple times. It evolved from Pilgrim Baptist Church and New Pilgrim Baptist Church to The Point. It also moved twice in Salt Lake City — where fires and highway expansions displaced them — before landing in Taylorsville and ultimately Kearns.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Lead Pastor Corey Hodges poses for a photograph at The Point Church in Kearns, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. The Baptist congregation, which has been under several different names and locations, is celebrating 100 years in the Salt Lake Valley.

Previous to its current spot in Kearns, the congregation worshipped at an old Latter-day Saint schoolhouse and ward in Taylorsville, a site it also had to give up to make room for roadwork. The location also proved too small for the growing church. When Hodges arrived, about 200 people attended services. Today, church regulars top 1,200, some of them decadeslong attendees who embraced every move along the way.

Multiculturalism stretches beyond ethnicity, Hodges said. Yes, the congregants are a mix of races, but they’re also diverse in their political beliefs, their interests and their occupations. They come from across the valley, most of them ranging from ages 18 to 35.

“On Sunday morning, sometimes, when I look out on our congregation, I literally feel like it’s a picture of heaven,” Hodges said. “Gone will be the days where we’re divided over so many things, including the color of our skin, including our economics, including our beliefs and passions. Heaven will be a place where we’ll all be together regardless of those things that separate us.”

About 51% of the congregation is African American, but a regular Sunday service typically draws another 20 to 30 people from dozens of nations. There’s also a Spanish service and an American Sign Language interpreter.

“We really work hard at that, intentionally making sure that it really is diverse and it’s not just a few white people in the sea of African Americans,” Hodges said. “We really want to make sure that all people feel welcome.”

‘It’s all about Jesus’ — still

(The Point Church) Lead Pastor Corey Hodges gives a sermon at The Point Church in Kearns.

The African American-style of Southern worship may have changed, but hints of the culture continue as part of the church’s DNA. Hodges is an outspoken advocate of civil rights. He incorporates Black hymns and, every now and then, brings back his cadence. It’s a way of honoring the church’s roots and a celebration of Black identity.

The religious content also remains.

“I know some people may criticize, ‘Oh, is it more about culture than it is Jesus?’ No, the answer is no. Jesus Christ is our common denominator. It’s all about Jesus,” he said. “But we want to celebrate Jesus with the cooperation and fellowship of many cultures.”

The building’s lobby even hosts an unorthodox amenity: a coffee shop named “Hebrews.” It’s a distinct departure from Utah’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are taught to abstain from coffee, but represents a normal practice in many evangelical churches.

It’s not an act of rebellion, Hodges said, it’s just a way of encouraging connections over food, as in many biblical passages.

“Everybody has a story,” he said. “And so the coffee shop is a space for people to sit and have a tea or coffee or doughnut and just talk and get to know one another before they go into worship services.”

A part of Kearns

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Point Church in Kearns, Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. The Baptist congregation, which has been under several names and locations, is celebrating 100 years in the Salt Lake Valley.

The Point Church also desires to play a role in the Kearns community, Hodges explained. “We wanted to make sure that we weren’t just a building in the middle of a neighborhood.”

The church has a “For Kearns Initiative” in which it adopted Western Hills Elementary, the school across the street, and tutors students. It hosts food drives on Saturday mornings, organizes donations of coats and gloves, and hands out Christmas gifts during the holidays.

At times, the pastor said, Kearns is a “victim of statistics.” At the beginning of the church’s construction, some contemplated building a fence around it in response to worries about graffiti and vandalism. In the end, church officials opted against it.

“We wanted the community to feel that this was their church. That we’re here … for them,” Hodges said. “And I think because of the ministry that we provide in the community, we haven’t gotten any vandalism.”

Since its arrival in Kearns, the church has made a difference, said Paula Larsen, chair of the Kearns Community Council, who described the congregants as “an asset and a blessing” for the metro township.

“[They are] the most loving, kind, giving people that I have seen in a long time there. We have a great Kearns community that is full of people who are very kind and giving, and we band together out here, and they fit right in,” Larsen said. “They have the same morals and values that our community does and the same standards that our community does.”

And, like Kearns itself, they’re diverse — which is the point at The Point.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.