By Rosaland Tyler
New Journal and Guide
About a decade after Bank Street Memorial Baptist Church held its first worship service in its current building on Chesapeake Boulevard in December 1968, the Rev. Dr. Joseph P. Lee Jr. saw a blinding light miles away in Richmond.
Lee said he was about 21 when he saw a blinding light for a split second. “My conversion was something I did not expect. I just knew I wanted to serve as a pastor.”
Today, the church is celebrating its 175th anniversary. And Lee is its pastor.
“What excited me most on my first visit was the service that Bank Street Baptist Church has always provided to the community,” said Lee who became the church’s 17th pastor about eight years ago. “I believe that is what the 21st century church should be about.”
In addition to operating a child care center, the church also operates a food pantry, provides meals, educational programs, and health-related recreational programs. In 1998, congregants established The Oakmont Community Development Corp, which provides an array of services including small business development, vocational training, housing, neighborhood improvement and economic development programs.
“Life would be more difficult for some, if we did not provide those services to members of our community,” Lee said. “We are in an urban setting. And this is a plus because volunteers provide all of our services. Our people are our resources.”
In a sense, Lee’s and the church’s history move like two trains racing over twin tracks toward the same goal.
This means community service was a priority in 1839 when a group of freed men and women of color began to hold worship services in a vacant building owned by First Presbyterian Church. It remained a priority in 1840, the year the Virginia Portsmouth Baptist Association formally recognized it as the First Baptist Church in Norfolk.
Despite a facelift in 1886 and a name change around that time, Bank Street Baptist Church continued to serve the community. The congregation remodeled the church in 1886, changed its name, and decided in 1959 to build a church in another part of the city. Several sites were considered before congregants chose the current location at the corner of Johnstons Road and Chesapeake Boulevard in 1962. An original plaque, The First Baptist Church Norfolk, is prominently displayed in the church’s prayer garden.
Bank Street Church’s website notes that it is the mother of several Norfolk churches. First Calvary Baptist Church; First Baptist Church, Berkley; Queen Street Baptist Church; and Holy Trinity Church are among those established.
In December 1968, congregants attended the first worship service at the new site, where the fellowship hall and part of an educational building had been completed. According to news reports on the church’s Facebook page, the church burned its mortgage in October 1971. The total financial outlay to be written off represented a total expenditure of $402,000.
Of his own history, Lee said he was about 21 when he felt called to the ministry.
“It all started with a Bible I found in my grandmother’s house,” Lee said, smiling widely. “I didn’t realize God was shaping me back then. God was putting me on the track that He wanted me to be on. In 1990 I accepted the call to ministry. I just started reading the Scriptures. I felt led to be a pastor.”
“From 1980-1990 God was shaping me and putting me on the track He wanted me to be on,” said Lee, a songwriter who began to pastor Ebenezer Baptist Church in Lanxa, Va., in 1995, the year his first son was born. He owned an insurance agency in Richmond for 15 years.
And he has earned several degrees. He earned a bachelor’s degree in business at the University of Richmond, a bachelor’s degree in theology and master’s degree in divinity at the Richmond Virginia Seminary. He also earned a master’s degree in divinity at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University. In 2006, he earned a doctoral degree in ministry at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.
“I accepted the call to ministry because I believe that is what God wanted me to do,” said Lee. He and his wife Kimberly have three sons; Joseph III, Jonathan, and Joshua. His oldest son is a student at Hampton University.
“More people from the community are coming to church,” he said. “More young families are coming. I believe more are coming because our church is receptive.”
Pointing back to the blinding light that launched his career as a pastor, Lee said, “That is why I admire the Apostle Paul so much. He took his ministry so seriously. He took a 180 degree turn after he saw the light. He was serious about his calling and accepted it wholeheartedly.”
In addition to serving at a church with a robust history of service, Lee belongs to several ministerial associations including the Tidewater Metro Minister’s Council and the Norfolk Pastor’s Coalition.