Volunteer restoration effort underway for oldest Native American Baptist Church

Dating back to 1691, the church is undergoing a multi phase restoration project funded by a Vineyard Preservation Trust grant 


Much needed repairs to Aquinnah’s historic Community Baptist Church took place this week in the first of a multi-phase restoration project. 

The church’s new pastor Michael Gilman, an Aquinnah community member for more than 50 years, helmed the project alongside Gerry Locklear of the North Carolina-based Native Ministry, who enlisted a group of volunteer construction workers to repair the church. 

Some volunteers traveled from as far away as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Oklahoma, all paying their own way to support the mission. 

Established in 1693, the Community Baptist Church is even older than the town of Aquinnah. “Gay Head” having been incorporated as a town in 1870, and the name then changed to Aquinnah in 1997.

The Community Baptist Church of Gay Head, as the sign still reads, is the oldest continuously operating Native American Baptist church in the US. While there may be older churches in the country dating back to the early 1600s, Aquinnah’s is specifically the oldest Native American Baptist church. 

The church was originally located further down Aquinnah’s Church Street, but was relocated by horse and buggy closer to the main road. Gilman said that was likely in the late 1800s. Due to its historic nature, the church received funding from the local Community Preservation Committee for the latest round of restoration.

Locklear’s Native Ministry, a service mission made up of volunteers, worked this week to repair the historic church’s exterior. Volunteers were provided free room and board at the former Totem Pole Inn located just down the road from the church grounds. The owners are members of the church and pitched in to support the project. The project already seems to be uniting the community. Pamela, a new attendee of the church, stopped by the construction site with home-made pumpkin pecan bread for the volunteers. 

“They get nothing financially in return except our thanks and most importantly the blessings from God for doing it,” said Gilman. 

Volunteers included Pastor Michael Gilman, islanders Tom Green, Derril Bazzy, and Tim Larsen; from the Native Ministry was Gerry Locklear, Josh and Kathy Lanning, Tim Reeves, John Dale, Glen Holman, and Vic Woods. 

Locklear and his Native Ministry have traveled all over the US to help Native American churches, from Alaska, Idaho, Arizona, North Carolina, and now Massachusetts. 

“We want the folks here to realize they are not alone in the struggles of native missions,” said Locklear.

For 20 years Locklear and his wife Sheril have done mission work with Native American Mission Fund Ministries. The work ranges from traveling with volunteer mission groups to build or repair baptist churches, both on and off reservation land, to setting up vacation bible schools, to helping support Native churches in the ways they can.  “We financially support 13 missionaries monthly, we send out Christmas shoeboxes to reservations because a lot of the time the kids will not receive any gifts at Christmas, so we want to be a blessing to them. We raise money to buy bibles to be able to give out to people at no charge,” Gilman told the Times. “So, we stay pretty busy.” 

Expenses for the Aquinnah church project have accrued to around $10,000 so far, according to Gilman, and are going towards machinery and equipment rentals and building materials, the costs of which will be reimbursed by the Preservation Committee grant.  

The multi-phase restoration project will address needed structural repairs for both the interior and exterior of the building. Phase one will address repairs needed for the church’s steeple and repairing and painting the shingled walls on the front of the building. 

Phase two will focus on repairing the back of the building, which has extensive rot and will need to be fully redone, says Gilman. 

In addition to repairing the rotting steeple, the sagging roof and ceiling are also in need of restoration.  “It has to be replaced,” Gilman said of the roof and ceiling. Gilman is also hoping for new windows for the building. 

Gilman expects Phase Two to commence sometime next year after finding funding. He’s optimistic about the project and its potential to revitalize not only the church membership, but also the town’s overall sense of community. 

Being partnered with Vineyard Haven’s First Baptist Church, for years the Aquinnah congregation shared a pastor with the down island town. “What that meant was that we’d have a pastor come in on Sunday, preach the sermon, and head right out the door. As a result, over the years, membership has fallen off,” he said. 

Although Gilman has only been the official church pastor for about 2 months, having officially taken up the position in March, he says he hopes the newly restored church will help enliven the church congregation. “I’d like to see the church filled again,” Gilman said.

“That’s one of the things I hope to maintain and build upon, that sense of small town community, which you can still feel here, but it’s not like it was 25 or 30 years ago, where everybody knew everybody and everybody was willing to pitch in and help out. There’s still a sense of that on the island and in town, but we’re losing it, even today.” 

The importance of the church to the community of Aquinnah is not lost on the new pastor. “In terms of establishing a community, this church is it,” he said. “This church was here before the town, established in 1693. Aquinnah 1870. The tribe would not have its federal recognition without the church and the records the church maintained about the tribe. So this really is the town, even though the town by and large has forgotten it.” 

A forgotten element of community, religiosity, and island history, the church remained open through the Covid-19 pandemic. Gilman doesn’t plan on letting it close up any time soon.

“God woke me up in the middle of the night and said, pick it up son,” he said. “It’s intimidating, but it’s also very rewarding and a lot of fun.” 



  1. Missing from this piece is the fact that the indigenous people of what is now the United States had deeply rooted spiritual beliefs long before christianity arrived on these shores.

    • Good point Liz. But for some reason, as a society most of us think that the Wampanoag story of how the Vineyard got here is a “myth” . Some people think the idea that the giant god named Moshup created the vineyard with sand shaken out of his sandals is some sort of mythological myth. We all seem to to be sure this is fslse.
      But the idea that an old white guy who has been around for eternity just wished it into existence seems more plausible for some reason.
      If a member of the Wampanoag tribe actually stated that they believe the Moshup story, they would be mocked and ridiculed as a nut case.
      Like I am for putting forth the proposition that the Flying Spaghetti Monster created it all.
      But for some reason, the christian myth about creation is revered as truth.
      I don’t get it.
      Unless of course, anyone who questioned that myth was murdered, and the decedents of the murdered people realized it might be better to tow the line than to suffer a similar fate.

  2. The sub-headline says the restoration is supported by a Vineyard Preservation Trust grant, but the body of the article says it is being supported by a town Community Preservation Fund grant that I see was voted at Aquinnah’s recent town meeting. Did the Trust also award a grant?

  3. Isn’t this the same church that turned down an offer by a cell tower company to put a new steeple up there with a tower inside it about 10 years ago.?
    But I do wish them success.

  4. kutaputush, liz! you may be on to something! and our aquinnah wampanoag, as well as many other missionized peoples have been through, are deeply in the middle of, or likely someday will be having discussions/a reckoning about how to go forward in a good way for our children and the lands that we are one with – based on our cultural/community beliefs, or based on the influence of people that seek to tell us how to think – or maybe somewhere in between. i could write a long essay about the current “indian” baptist church situation and/or the concerns with this article. i’ll TRY to keep it somewhat brief and to the point: give the land and agency to run the church/parsonage and other assets back to the Tribe or a tribal serving organization. and also: where were the Wampanoag voices in this article? it seems like we were used to raise a lot of money and support, but we might have some different ideas about what we really need help with. i appreciate peoples’ callings, but we don’t need another white savior in aquinnah. we need church leadership to listen to the people you’re trying to connect with – people like me, who is a church member! i’ve had good discussions with mike gilman, and the previous pastor and other active and inactive members of the church about what the wampanoag community needs, but it seems to be a disconnect when it comes to real action. for me personally, we don’t need more Christian church services – we need more housing, and other community development/connections, as well as an embrace of addressing what WE think is important to preserve in the Wampanoag community. what if we spent more time raising money to put housing and other infrastructure up on current church lands, than trying to restore a church that very few people are going to (particularly wampanoag people) anymore? i’m not saying there’s any one answer for how to go forward, but i’m weary of the current church direction, that the only thing many people think is worth saving is a relic of our colonization, and annoyed that our voices aren’t being highlighted. please don’t censor me.

  5. Whatever your thoughts are of the impact of Christianity on the Wampanoags this building is historic and should be preserved. Right or wrong we can’t just ignore our history or us we’ll never learn from it. Thanks to this group for their hard work.

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