Rev. Bartholomew Orr
The Rev. Bartholomew Orr, pastor of Brown Baptist Church, delivered this keynote sermon last year during a City Wide Revival service hosted by the Memphis Baptist Ministerial Association. (Photo: Tyrone P. Easley)

by Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell 
Special to the New Tri-State Defender

…And as I stand before you tonight, I must still say that the Church is the most segregated major institution in America, and we must face the shameful fact that eleven o’clock on Sunday morning, when we stand to sing, “In Christ there is no East or West” — we stand in the most segregated hour of America…

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pronounced this declaration often with those who worked closely with him, disappointed that this statement was “still a reality” – even after the triumphant Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963 at Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial.

It is only one of several inspirations by which Pastor Bartholomew Orr has grown a small church of 300 to megachurch proportions. Brown Missionary Baptist Church stands out among DeSoto County churches in encouraging a diverse and culturally blended membership.

His 29th anniversary this past weekend, highlighted with a Saturday afternoon Father/Daughter Dance and a Sunday morning celebration with guest church Temple of Light in Southaven, was a time of reflection and gratitude for Orr.

“We’re just so grateful for how the Lord has been with us down through the years,” said Orr, who grew up at Brown Baptist and began preaching at the age of 11. “It has not been our doing, but God has helped us to grow and see our vision for global ministry come to fruition.”

Under Orr’s leadership, Brown hired its first white staff member in 2016, adding Stephen “Wade” Steelman as a discipleship pastor. “God not only intends, but He requires that we love our brother and sister, despite race. Yet, one of the most racially segregated places in our society has historically been places of worship.”

Orr’s vision “to exemplify how we nurture unity and understanding and lift each other up spiritually through Christ” continues to bring hundreds of members from Memphis-area churches.

Tyra Taylor, owner of Mid-South Ambulatory and a longtime member of Brown Baptist from Memphis, was impressed by Orr’s care for his elderly congregants.

“I came to Brown Baptist back when my Granny was still living,” said Taylor. “She would always say, ‘I just love my little pastor.’ Although there were thousands attending service, Pastor Orr would take the time after church to shake hands and hug everyone. And he always showed a special caring for seniors. He remembers all of their names. I knew then he was a pastor who really cares for people.”

Others have expressed appreciation of the fact that Brown “remains a loving, family church” despite its large numbers.

“This was my mother’s church,” said Crystal Fields of Nashville. “And when I come to town to visit family, I go to Brown Baptist. When my mother was ill during the last two years of her life, Pastor Orr made quite a few personal visits to the hospital and at home to check on her, although the church has an exceptional sick and shut-in visitation staff.

“He clearly loved her, and I know many have had that very same experience with Pastor Orr. Mother was always so happy to see him. Our family will never forget his kindness and caring, not only to her, but other family members who have passed as well.”

Looking forward, Brown, which hosts three services on two campuses each weekend, plans to build new walking trails and refurbish its cemetery grounds.

Pastor Orr promised to continue “doing all to the glory of God.”