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  • Dianna Penny, soul of Bethel A. M. E., by David Henderson

MULTIMEDIA: Audio Slide Show

Bethel AME before construction of the new sanctuary

Video: Groundbreaking ceremony highlights

New sanctuary under construction

Bethel AME after the 2010 completion of the new sanctuary

Dianna Penny's Chronicles

Dianna Penny holds in her lap a three-ring binder containing decades of her research and writing, drawings, photographs and paintings chronicling the history of this tiny church, Iowa City’s original Bethel African Methodist Episcopal. Until 2010 this room (maximum capacity 50 persons) was all there was to it. Services could be “cozy,” as Bethel’s Reverend Orlando Dial puts it--a worship experience not for the claustrophobic.

            Penny dresses elegantly. She’s serious yet laughs easily.  Her binder displays a series of photographs she took while walking north down Governor St. toward the church---starting a ways off, her view obscured by trees along the sidewalk and then getting closer and closer to the church till its full stature comes into to view. The virtues of maintaining architectural integrity and historical continuity are a given for Penny, who is the unofficial historian of Bethel A. M. E.

            She writes poems and prose; her essay “River Town Chronicles” was published in the Daily Palette and the prestigious Iowa Review in 2009. She has played piano and organ during Sunday services for decades. She makes books and bookmarks and all sorts of arts and crafts; and she has drawn and painted portraits of many parishioners. Though she never followed her father’s path to the ministry, Dianna Penny just might be the soul of this noteworthy church. 

            The original structure may not look like much if monumental grandeur is the standard; the plain white building is much like a one-room schoolhouse, only smaller.  But as a living document, this church, built just outside of the original city limits in 1868 (because Blacks were not allowed to own land in the city), plays an outsized role in the history of the African Americans’ presence in, and contributions to, Eastern Iowa. In many ways, Dianna Penny is one of the connecting threads to this history and the revival of the Bethel A. M. E.‘s fortunes. Her father, the Reverend Fred Penny, served as pastor of the church for 37 years until his death in 1994 bringing it back from decades of decline and neglect.

            Now this church is not merely surviving, it’s thriving. A new 4,000 square foot sanctuary, more than a decade in the works, was added to the property in August. It’s completion gives Penny a chance to relish a look back and appreciate the work it took to get to this point.

             Venise Berry, University of Iowa professor and Bethel parishioner, marvels at Penny’s talent and creativity, and observes that in spite of not driving, Penny seems to be at more events at church and around town than anyone she knows. “Dianna’s hardworking, dedicated, committed,” says Berry. “One of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet.”

            On a recent Wednesday night, Penny bought two cartons of vanilla ice cream at Hy-Vee for the raspberry pies she was making for a church function. She often spends part of a Saturday afternoon making large batches for a Sunday occasion.

            She reads the Bible and enjoys its insights into human nature and spirituality but is annoyed by those who read Genesis as a science textbook. She can talk about this at length. And Penny knows how to tell a good story. “Having a preacher for a father, one of the things you learn early on is how to talk,” Penny says.

            “So even as kids we were winning little trophies. They had a school carnival where you had various little contests. And several of us won little certificates for best extemporaneous speech. You see, when you have a father for a preacher it’s something you’re exposed to all the time. He was very gregarious, a very talkative person.  And you would’ve had to have been deaf not to be the same way.” 

            Her life is so bound up in the church it is hard to separate the two. She invokes a passage from somewhere in the Bible, Penny doesn’t remember exactly where off the top of her head, to explain the key to the church’s renovation and expansion: When you ask God for something, behave as if you have it already.

            “I hear too much of, ‘I’m gonna do such and such when I get such and such,’ she says. “And that almost guarantees it will never happen. You just have to move forward, and you say, ‘This is what I want to do and do it!’”

            That’s how Penny and other influential worshipers at Iowa City’s Bethel A. M. E. church saw the construction of a new sanctuary. There were many times when the plan to expand the tiny clapboard church to more comfortable dimensions might have seemed doomed--held up by city regulations, historical preservation concerns, and funding shortages. But Penny was undeterred, even intrigued by the delays.

            “The whole process of getting all this done was most illuminating,” Penny reflects. “As we were planning for expansion, we also respected what we had and worked to get it placed on the national registry of historic places.”

            The national registry framed certificate is hanging by a coat rack in the original church; soon it will be proudly displayed prominently in the new sanctuary, maybe somewhere in the Fred Penny Fellowship Hall in the basement. Leading a visitor on a tour, Penny straightens the black and white portrait of her father that designates the name for the space, which has plenty of room for tables and chairs and a big kitchen with expansive counters (Penny insisted on that) where high volume meals could be prepared and enjoyed. None of this would have been possible in the original church; they could only set out tables in the yard and hope for good weather. Penny looks at the portrait again, stands back and re-straightens it.

            When her father first arrived at his new parish, the black population of Iowa City had dwindled even from its modest beginnings in the state -- an old woman was the only member of the congregation. 

         “It’s been quite a journey,” Penny says. “Things were kind of down when my father got here in the late fifties and he revived it back to life and the vibrancy and activity that’s here now. But he had his work cut out for him.”

            At the church’s annual regional conference, the bishop said, “Who will take Iowa City?”  Penny’s father volunteered, “ignoring the muffled snickers around him,” says his daughter. “Because they apparently knew more about the situation here than he did, but he didn’t mind, because he was accustomed to reviving things.”

            There were unpaid electricity and water bills waiting for him. The electrical system of 1920s vintage and the lighting was a bare bulb. Penny says when she started working (her day-job is secretary at the University of Iowa Hospitals) one of her first paychecks went to upgrading the electricity at the church “so you couldn’t have Christmas tree lights and a toaster plugged in at the same time without blowing a fuse.”

            Reflecting on the near demise of Iowa City’s Bethel A. M. E., Penny remembers the beginning of racial integration in the 1950s and how many blacks neglected or abandoned their own institutions. “A lot of blacks started thinking ‘Well, we don’t need that anymore,’ you know, totally ignoring the fact that integration is a two-way street,” Penny says.

            “You don’t throw away what you have. You invite others in. But integration was the shiny new thing. Well you know how we are in this country. We go for the shiny new thing. ‘Well we don’t need that [the black church] anymore, let’s go over there.’ My father said, ‘I believe in integration but let some come here. Let it flow both ways.’ Because if you follow that philosophy that they had at that time you end up with nothing. Cultural diversity is a sharing, not a flight. It’s a sharing.”

            Penny notes that the original philosophy of Bethel AME church from its founding in 1787 shares this inclusionary ethic. “Even though the blacks were sort of kicked out of the church they were in they said well, ok, they closed the circle and shut us out, but we will draw a bigger circle that takes them in. That was the motto of our founder,” says Penny.

             Reverend Orlando Dial, the pastor of Iowa City’s Bethel A. M. E. today, often has to remind the general public that his church was never limited only to black people. “We welcome anyone that Jesus would have welcomed,” Dial says.

            In 1926 the church’s first basement -- dirt covered with a wood floor -- was put in. Poured concrete replaced the buckled wood floor in 1988. An old bookshelf that hadn’t been moved in decades was shifted in the process and a sheaf of yellowed notebook paper fell out. The sheet contained the only written history of the church. “It was hand-written and the ink was brown and the paper dulled,” says Penny. “I was almost afraid to breathe on it for fear it might disintegrate.  So I got to the nearest computer I could get my hands on and typed it. Got it right in there.”

            Much of the historical chronicle in Penny’s binder comes straight from that discovered sheaf.

            Penny does not neglect the present but has vivid sense of history and how it animates the present. Her father grew up in Chester, Illinois, a town where schooling for African-Americans ended in eighth grade. Then one day her father saw a black man dressed in a suit (a doctor from Chicago, it turned out) and his family in a shiny black car that pulled up in front of the house. That caught his imagination. 

         “Every other black adult male he knew wore bib overalls and worked with a pick and shovel,” says Penny. “And the only black male he had seen that was dressed up was the preacher, and everyone else was in bib overalls and straw hats. Those were their expectations. But when he saw that model of success it changed his life. He said, ‘I want more of that.’”

            Fred Penny was 14 when he left home. He kissed his parents goodbye and went hitchhiking with a quarter in his pocket. He wound up getting a good high school education elsewhere. He had the smarts to be a lawyer but he felt an increasing sense of disquiet, feeling a pull to divinity school and the ministry. 

            “You know how there’s a call on your life,” says Penny about her father, “and people sometimes run from it. ‘Oh, no, no, that’s not me. I don’t want to do this.’ But there was this call on his life that he couldn’t escape.”

            Penny went to Payne Theological Seminary in Ohio. He had married and eventually had six kids, Dianna being the eldest. She was born in 1940 in St. Louis.  Her family lived in ramshackle house in downstate Illinois with no indoor plumbing until her father’s pastoral assignments brought the family to Muscatine, Iowa (where Dianna graduated high school) and then Iowa City, where she enrolled at the University of Iowa as an art major in 1962.

            Her father never pushed any of his children toward the ministry, though her younger brother is a pastor at a Bethel, A. M. E. church in Moline, Illinois. When it came time to decide on a college major she was torn between art and music, two long-standing passions. She began piano lessons at age 12 and before long was entertaining the congregation.

            “As soon as you could play one hymn, my father would have you in church playing,” Penny says. “He didn’t mess around either. Whatever you knew, you had to get up and do. So I got accustomed to playing and performing in public at a fairly early age.”

            Berry describes Penny playing style as impressive, featuring a variety of styles, “from gospel to choral to an almost operatic style.”

            Penny prefers piano but also plays the organ for church services when it’s more appropriate to the song.  “When I sit down at a keyboard instrument, what you’re likely to hear is Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms or somebody, but not rap,” she says with a laugh.

            But music performance was something she already could do and she didn’t aspire to a concert career or teaching, Penny decided to study music privately and focus her academic attention on art, where she studied with Mauricio Lasansky and James Lechay. Lechay taught reinforced the lesson of seeking out the “important essence” of things and not getting bogged down by irrelevant detail. “It’s actually a matter of learning how to see and select,” Penny says. “I mean, the ability to draw, you have that from birth. It’s the sharpening your powers of observation and what’s important about what you seeing that you record.”

            She draws portraits of people and says she has never had trouble getting a likeness. “Every person has something about that’s unique, that no one else has, and you have to capture that. Even identical twins are not the same. And it’s amazing what you record.”

            And though she was a preacher’s daughter, drawing life models in the altogether did not present a moral dilemma for Penny or her father. “He wanted us to see life in realistic terms, not walk around like little cardboard saints, as if we were above it all,” Penny says. “He wanted us to see what life looked like.”

            And this applied to the political tumult of the 1960s that coincided with her time at the University of Iowa. She never marched in any protests in Iowa City, but she says it was an “exciting backdrop in socio-historical, cultural terms.” She recalls the civil rights and anti-war marches and protests, particularly in 1970 just after the Kent State and Jackson State shootings. “Downtown Iowa City was literally trashed,” she says. “We were on the CBS evening news for a week. Every night.”

            The plate glass windows at Iowa Book Supply were shattered over and over.  Her brother worked there part-time and said he was tired of sweeping up broken glass every morning.

            Her father would counsel kids and help raise bail money, especially those involved in civil rights marches. She remembers Fred Penny’s work in that era as more subtle and behind the scenes than those who took to the streets and stormed the barricades, a ministry and outreach with an impact different than protests and marches.

            “My father certainly got around to his congregation, which was a good portion of eastern Iowa. His outreach extended far beyond the walls of this building and beyond just the black population.  Much of rural Iowa still reveres his memory. He knew every back-country road in eastern Iowa, because he had friends just all over.”

            He was a frequent speaker at many country churches in Eastern Iowa, and even as far west as Tingley a tiny town in southwest Iowa, where no black people lived for miles.

            “People were coming up to shake his hand after one of his sermons,” Penny says, “and a little boy came up and said ‘Well, my mom told me not to shake your hand because the black might rub off.’ And my father smiled and said, ‘Oh, she did?’ And the little boy stood there sizing him up for maybe a couple seconds more and then he reached out his hand and touched it. You know, being a child, he had to find out for himself. When you give people a chance they will figure out their shared humanity. Somehow they just figure it out.” 

            Her father died in 1994 and he left Iowa City’s Bethel A. M. E. much more robust than he found it, but the church door was still too narrow to fit a coffin through. And now, in no small measure to the work of Penny and dedicated core of parishioners, the church is thriving with room to grow.

            The planning for a new sanctuary began in earnest about 15 years ago. Though Fred Penny brought the church back from the verge of extinction when he first arrived with his family, he never got to see the place large enough to comfortably accommodate all its parishioners. “It’s the realization of a dream my father had for decades,” Penny says. “He always said, ‘One of these days we’re going to knock out that back wall and keep going.’”

            That’s not exactly how they did it. The original back wall is more or less intact, though a new doorway now joins the old to the new portion of the church.

            Penny keeps the binder full of church history up to date--sheets of paper with text and photos and drawings encased in protective plastic. “It will be ongoing as things change,” Penny says. “So that when I pass off the scene, I can hand this to someone else to continue it. Keep the history ongoing and up to date instead of letting it stop.”


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