McALLEN — Hector Vargas said he can still hear the worship songs here at the Little Bethel Baptist Church more than 60 years later. The choir voice used to serenade his whole neighborhood.

Community volunteers clean and restore Bethal Garden on Saturday, June 13, 2020, in McAllen. Bethal Garden is located in south McAllen and was the former site of Bethal Missionary Baptist Church which provided services for African Americans in 1941. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

The church, the first African-American church in the city and a historic landmark recognized by the state, was torn down about 20 years ago. Bethel Garden now occupies the land in honor of it.

On Saturday morning, more than a dozen people came together to clean up the garden to commemorate Juneteenth, which is Friday. Community members from across the Rio Grande Valley, some as young as 10-years-old, were seen planting flowers, repainting benches and pulling weeds.

“This is beautiful,” Vargas said, looking at the garden. “I feel great being here. This is a place where a lot of good has come from. This is a holy, spiritual area. It was a church where people came together, and now it is still bringing a lot of people together.”

The garden is tucked inside the La Paloma neighborhood, where Vargas grew up, and has benches where the church’s pews used to stand. A mural that depicts how the area once looked like is also on display.

When Vargas was an elementary student, he would sell vegetables around the neighborhood. While he walked door-to-door with the tomatoes and potatoes his father gave him that morning, he would listen to the songs coming from the joyous church.

“I can still see it and hear them,” Vargas, a 73-year-old Vietnam veteran said. “The ambiance here was beautiful. The music, the sound, the African American people have a beautiful way of singing.”

It’s a small plot of land, but isn’t short of a rich history.

The church was built in 1936 by Eugene and Georgia Hubbard, when segregation laws were still in place. The couple, along with several other local black families, used to commute to Victoria for church services, until they decided to build their own holy place in McAllen.

After segregation laws were repealed, and local black people began to attend other churches, fewer people went to Bethel Church. The church was torn down about two decades ago, and remaining members joined BT Church in McAllen.

Vargas does not want the community to forget about the church, so he built a small model of the church from his memory, which was on display Saturday morning. The model showed how large windows surrounded the building, since it did not have air conditioning.

The cleanup project was the first of several events planned for next week by the city of McAllen’s Juneteenth celebration committee. Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, is a national holiday that commemorates the end of slavery on June 19, 1865. Village in the Valley, a local nonprofit with the mission of bringing together the black community in the region, is working with the city’s committee to plan events.

This comes at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has demanded the country’s attention. After the death of George Floyd, a black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police officers, protests have erupted across the nation against systemic racism.

“I hope people learn to be happy, whether they are black, blue, yellow, green or whatever — color is what makes beauty,” Vargas said, sitting next to a section of the garden which boasted flowers of many vibrant colors. “If people cannot accept that, they should look at the mirror and look at one color, and see if they like that. See that just one color is boring.”

Eight-year-old Leo Caudwell said that besides learning how to use a pickaxe, he also learned about the history of the church during Saturday’s cleanup. He was helping pull weeds that morning, and said he wishes that people will understand the strength of unity.

“Because if no one was nice to each other and worked together, we would not have the stuff we have now,” he said. “We have to work together to be able to grow.”

Nicholas Maddox, who was helping manage the projects of that morning, was the last pastor of Bethel Church before it merged with BT Church. When he moved to the Valley from Washington in 2007, he said he was immediately drawn to the church — it was the center of his ancestor’s investment for a better life for local black people.

“I always want to find the history, the heritage,” he said. “I always want to know the culture of the place I am at, so I can know what I can celebrate and what I can build on.”

Maddox said the garden serves as a reminder to him that good can come from hard work.

“What this place means for me is that for African-Americans, and for anybody anywhere, if you go in with faith, family and hope, you can build a life. You can make it.” he said.

As an associate pastor of BT Church, Maddox said he uses the pioneering story of the people who built the Bethel Church as a tool to empower others, because learning from history is crucial in striving for a better community.

“I am standing on their shoulders, I am walking in their dreams,” he said. “For us to be out here working and beautifying this place, it is awesome for the city of McAllen, but it is awesome for my life, too. To be able to touch and work with and get my hands in the soil, the same soil that my ancestors worked on to build a life here.

“I want to show the people of the Valley that we do not have to hide from history, and that we have a shared story. The story of African-Americans in the Valley is part of the Rio Grande Valley story, and so we can tell it. We can tell it proudly.”

Though laws now are very different from those that were in place when Bethel Church was still in use, Maddox said there is still a lot of work to be done to achieve equality.

“We have not seen our best days yet,” he said. “And so by telling the story of Bethel Church, and how they worked and lived and loved, and how they made their life here and spent it working to make a better life for me, it will get better.”

He said it will not be a simple fight, though.

“I believe that the world will not drift into light, the world will not drift into hope, the world has to be dragged and pushed into hope, pushed into light,” he said. “I am a hopeful fighter, and so are the people who are out here today. So we are going to keep pushing and keep fighting.”