Passers-by can catch earfuls of the soulful, contemporary gospel music spilling into nearby streets just outside of the Ninth Street Baptist Church on Sunday mornings.
Inside, the sermon is delivered to a congregation overflowing into the aisles. The service is far from structured, and that's the way it's been for nearly 140 years.
"It's almost like being in heaven," said Rene Brown, pastor of the church, 847 Ohio.
Brown is referring to the spirituality of worshipping in a church with such a storied past. Church members will celebrate the 140th anniversary with a string of events beginning in January 2003. A committee is currently working on a festive yearlong outline that will focus on the future as much as the past.
"Every quarter we will focus on an aspect of the church from where it was to where we are headed," Brown said. "By the start of 2004 we plan to unveil a new vision God has given us that will take us into the next 140 years."
The congregation prides itself in carrying on a tradition that began during a tumultuous time in history for African-Americans. In the 1850s, members of the New England Emigrant Aid Society, abolitionists from the East, settled in Lawrence in hope of conquering pro-slavery proponents ambitions of admitting Kansas into the Union as a slave state.
The society initiated the First Missionary Baptist Church for blacks in 1862. Father Charles Barrymore served as the church's first pastor, and Brown said that even though Barrymore was white, blacks reveled in the house of prayer.
"The church served as a pillar to give people direction," Brown said. "I think the church was that central place where black people could come together and discuss the problems with the new society and freedom in its infancy stage."
Church members initially congregated on Massachusetts St., until the site burned to the ground in Quantrill's raid in August of 1863. Moving to its present-day location, members worshiped in a wooden structure until the current building was finished in 1872.
First Missionary would change its name twice. It became Second Missionary Baptist Church when the congregation branched into North Lawrence. The entire church became known as Ninth Street Baptist Church when the city changed street names, including Warren Street to Ninth Street.
Through the changing times, the church served as a bedrock for many.
"It played a great role in my life," said Daphne Payne, a member of Ninth Street for nearly 40 years.
Nearly a century after its inception, longtime members say the church played a pivotal role during another hostile period for African-Americans in Lawrence. In the late 1960s and early 1970s racial tensions had increased forcing the city, Kansas University and Lawrence school district to address equality and integration issues.
Brown said the church played a big part in the civil rights movement by conducting meetings and serving as the headquarters for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
"That's when there was quite a bit of unrest, uncertainty," Payne said. "We did lean on the church quite a bit."
Payne, a one-time church organist, said the turbulent time and commitment toward the church was similar to what the country experienced after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
"People were closer," she said. "There was more togetherness."
In January, the congregation at Ninth Street Baptist Church will come together to begin the yearlong anniversary celebration.
Brown said church members would celebrate the organization's longevity, and set new goals for the next century. Brown envisions a more active role in the community and wants to ensure the church maintains its tradition.
While other churches and other community cornerstones have collapsed or closed, Brown said, the Ninth Street church still stands.
"And that speaks volumes of our founding fathers and the families who kept it together," he said.