To say that Zion Baptist Church is a sanctuary is a bit of an understatement. Since its founding 125 years ago, ZBC has been the home church—literally and spiritually—to the Black community on the Main Line and beyond. For 50 of those years, the church has been led by Rev. Dr. James Pollard Sr. “We’ve always had congregants from the whole region,” he says. “Now, because of COVID, we have people from around the world join us on Zoom.”
And while COVID-19 is new, racial inequity is not. Indeed, racism is woven into the story of Zion’s creation. In the 1800s, local Black Baptists joined their white neighbors to build First Baptist Church of Ardmore, contributing money and other resources. When it opened, Black worshippers were confined to the balcony and barred from sitting in the main sanctuary. Their children weren’t allowed to attend Sunday school.
Refusing to accept that reality, Black members resigned from First Baptist and set out on their own. Led by Mother Strothers and others, they started over, pooling funds to buy a plot of land. In 1890, they built Zion Baptist Church where it still stands, at the corner of Greenfield and West Spring avenues.
In 1970, Pollard arrived at ZBC—first as youth minister and assistant minister, then succeeding Rev. Leonard M. Jones after his sudden death. Only 22 years old at the time, Pollard leaned on his faith and the fortitude of his family. His parents were born in North Carolina, working on their families’ farms before moving to Philadelphia in search of better lives. Pollard’s father worked in refuse; his mother owned a beauty shop near their home in Southwest Philadelphia. He is their only child. “It was my mother’s dream, before I was born, to have a son and have that son serve God,” he says. “And here I am.”
Pollard met his wife, Virginia, on a blind date—one that almost didn’t happen. He was supposed to call her in December 1969, but she didn’t hear from him until Easter of 1970. “When I picked up the phone, I said, ‘Are you always so punctual?’” Virginia recalls. “He said, ‘I lost your number.’ I said, ‘You should’ve kept it lost.’ He said, ‘When could I see you?’ I said, ‘You can’t.’”
Virginia was a busy young woman, pursuing her degree in music from Temple University. Eventually, though, she relented. Their first date was a 5 a.m. sunrise service. “I fell in love on March 29, 1970,” Pollard says.
Virginia admits that it took her a little longer: “I told him, ‘I’m saved. I committed myself to Christ, so anything not in line with the precepts of that will not be part of my life. So don’t bother me with it.’”
After their marriage in 1971, Virginia became known as the first lady of Zion Baptist Church—and for good reason. She’s the powerhouse behind several of ZBC’s community initiatives, including a program to combat food insecurity. In its first year, ZBC provided 2,000 lunches to school-aged children in Lower Merion Township. The following year, ZBC added “weekend bags” filled with fresh food and shelf-stable items, providing everything without financial assistance from local or state governments. “Synagogues and other churches help us with funds, and those with food pantries give us items,” says Virginia. “The plea went out after the first year, and houses of worship responded.”
ZBC has many other programs—tutoring, scouting, music—that provide building blocks for Black children in the region. The Pollards recite a long list of ZBC alumni who graduated from college and went on to work in education, law, medicine and the arts, sometimes with the assistance of ZBC’s financial aid programs. Their three sons are on that list.
When the Pollards arrived at ZBC in 1970, Ardmore was known as the Main Line’s “servant belt.” It was home to the nannies, butlers, cooks and drivers who worked for wealthy white families. These were coveted jobs, and ZBC was happy to function as a career center. “People would call here looking for ‘a nice Zion girl’ to be a domestic,” says Virginia. “But the best day was when I got a call from a woman looking for a nanny, and I said, ‘I’m sorry, I have no one for you. All of our young women are in college.’”
The Pollards recognize that institutional racism remains firmly in place. They believe that time—along with hard work and prayer—will bring more of the same sort of positive change they’ve seen in their lifetimes. “My son says we opened the door, but once the door was opened, we let the baton drop,” Virginia says. “To my grandkids, the status quo is unacceptable. They want change to happen right now.”
There’s a Black Lives Matter sign in front of ZBC, and it’s a sentiment that’s built into the church’s history. “We may trip, but we have a base that keeps us from falling,” says Virginia. “I know that my church family is praying for me. I can feel those prayers. I know that my fellowship embraces me.”
Her husband turns to the Bible. “The Lord is our light and our salvation,” he says, reciting a favorite verse. “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven. I will forgive their sin. And I will heal their land.”
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