Did You Know? 1958.

A Penny From Heaven – Rev. Fred L. Penny.
Did You Know? the audio version

Did you know that in 1958, Rev. Fred L. Penny and his family came to Iowa City to take over the struggling Bethel AME Church? The church was formed in 1868, but at age 90, it had fallen into deep debt and disrepair.

Over in Muscatine, Pastor Penny had made a very big decision. His daughter puts it this way…

“We were in Muscatine for a year,” Dianna Penny recalls. “Then my father attended the annual AME conference in 1958 and the bishop called out, ‘Who will take Iowa City?’ My dad raised his hand – ignoring the muffled snickers around him – because they apparently knew more about the situation here than he did, but he didn’t mind, because he was accustomed to reviving things.”

Dianna first visited Bethel AME with her father in 1958, when she was 17 and a freshman heading to the University of Iowa to study art. She vividly remembers seeing the church on Governor Street for the first time. “It was a tiny, little, weather-beaten, grey structure that resembled an old one-room schoolhouse from the pioneer days,” Penny said. “Out front, there was a rusted old hitching-post for horses that was left over from the 19th century.”

“The church had a heavy oak door, and I was right behind my father when he pushed it open. There was this tiny, but very dignified, little old lady sitting beside the stove that she had lit to warm the church to welcome her new pastor.”

Much to Pastor Fred’s surprise, Margaret Winston wasn’t there to greet the new pastor on behalf of the entire congregation – she was the entire congregation!

Well, over the next 36 years, Rev. Penny made one big difference not only at Bethel AME but to our entire community. Before he died in 1994, Penny not only turned the church around, but became a true friend to the entire community of Iowa City with his caring hands, his friendly smile, and determined effort to help anyone in need.


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