Service Overcomes Two Centuries of Division

October 29, 2009

By Suzy Keenan
Oct. 27, 2009 | Philadelphia (UMNS) 

The first members of their congregation marched out of St. George's United Methodist Church more than two centuries ago to protest a segregated sanctuary.
 
On Oct. 25, hundreds of congregants from Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church poured into St. George's for a combined worship service, the first since the breakup.
 
"This is beyond a historical moment; it is a day of rejoicing, of true enlightenment, and of gratitude - of moving from the past into the future," said Veronica Saunders, a member of Mother Bethel AME who welcomed worshippers at the door dressed in her starched white usher's uniform and cap.
 
Pausing to smile, she added, "Mother Bethel has so much history, love, and light, it brings chills to me to think of this day - of bringing us together in a new unity."
 
Laticia Stauffer, who was one of St. George's representatives to the combined team that helped plan the worship, also welcomed worshippers. "This event came together effortlessly, like it was meant to be," she said. "This is a great step to building new history."
 
That history began in the 1780's. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones became the first African-American lay preachers at St. George's Methodist Episcopal Church, licensed by Francis Asbury, Methodism's first bishop in America. The growing number of African members brought in by Allen and Jones led to the building of a balcony, completed in 1792. With the balcony came segregated seating.
 
One Sunday when Jones was forcibly moved by a church trustee from where he was praying, Allen and Jones led a walk out of the African-American members. Allen began Mother Bethel Church, whose struggles with the overseeing church, St. George's, continued with a "long, distressing and expensive lawsuit" over rights to self-determination. In 1816, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Mother Bethel, and Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.
 
Hope from hurt
 
The Rev. Alfred Day (above (left) preparing for worship with Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler), pastor of St. George's, welcomed the brimming sanctuary to the special Sunday worship. "We're here today because God's Spirit is full of surprises," he said. The combined worship resulted from an invitation to the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler (below), pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, to preach as part of St. George's 240th anniversary. Tyler's response was, "Sure, but how about if I bring Mother Bethel with me?"
 
In asking why the churches were coming together, Day said, "The God of our mothers and fathers is busy pointing to the Promised Land more than back to Egypt."
 
He added, "Why do we keep coming back to something that happened so long ago? Because in church and community there are still people pushed into balconies or as far to the edges as we can push them…because we must never forget – God's people of St. George's and Mother Bethel - the story our ancestors have lived, hope can rise from it amidst the hurt. The work overcoming racism, discrimination and division is work that every generation must do in and for its own time."
 
Two stories
 
Day presented a gift to Tyler, a cross made of the original nails taken from the very balcony that had led racial segregation and division.
 
Tyler preached from Genesis, when two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, bury their father, Abraham. He pointed out that there are always two stories at a funeral - the one in the bulletin and the one in the parking lot, and that the story of Hagar and Ishmael is part of the latter.
 
He paraphrased what Ishmael might have said, "Mama, the bitterness is your stuff. Maybe I can go back and get rid of my hate and say thank you. I return because my brother needs me to stand with him." The text shows a new way, he pointed out -- that the children get past the anger, and that blood is thicker than water.
 
Mother Bethel and St. George's shared a common father, John Wesley. "The same blood that runs through our veins is thicker than what divides us," Tyler said.
 
But he admitted that he did not know how he would end his sermon until the moment Day handed him the cross – "until Fred put the nails in my hand, and I remembered it's all about the blood - that Jesus' blood is thicker than water!"
 
The congregation shared in communion using a chalice sent by John Wesley to the Methodists in America, and is thought to have been used to served Richard Allen and Absalom Jones communion.
 
The service was accompanied by the noise of jack hammers and air hoses from crews working on repairs to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which lies on 14 feet from St. George's walls: "Here is a message that will not be silenced!" Day quipped at the end.
 
Church universal
 
Fourteen-year-old James Bradley surveyed the gathering from the balcony. He faithfully attends worship at Mother Bethel every Sunday and looks forward to becoming a member in the near future. "This is a beautiful church and a great day today, in the joining of the two churches together," he declared.
 
Also sitting in the balcony was Melissa Miller McGinn, a member of St. George's. As a young professional in the city, she has friends of all backgrounds, and found it "a big deal" to sit where, 200 years ago, the Africans-Americans had been forced to sit, and look down upon the congregation where everybody was mixed together.
 
Florimel Brown, a 72-year member of Mother Bethel, centers her life around the congregation. She was so excited that she called her family in South Carolina to tell them of the historic coming together of the two churches.
 
"The world is in such turmoil," she said. "At a time when we really need it, maybe this will bring peace to our city, our country, and the world."
 
Following the service, worshippers were invited to have refreshments and tour St. George's museum. This was of special interest to retired United Methodist Bishop Forrest Stith, president of the African American Methodist Heritage Center located at Drew University.
 
"Old St. George's will never be the same again," Stith said. "They were the greatest hosts one could ever imagine. The persons who were visitors from Mother Bethel and the AME churches in Washington, D.C. and New York all felt extremely welcome and well received. The joy was real – not artificial – and this was the time to do it – right now."
 
A tour guide in St. George's museum, Vicki Lock also serves as the church's lay leader, parish relations chairperson and trustee and had participated in a reconciliation service held at St. George's with Mother Bethel in 2001. "Rev. Tyler's sermon was great – that we're all one in God and the rest doesn't really matter - that is the ultimate message," she said.
 
Vanessa Thomas Smith has been a member of Mother Bethel for nine years. Her sister, Jacqueline King, is a United Methodist Church planter in Houston. The two had recently walked from Mother Bethel to St. George's to take in the history of the two churches.
 
"Today, there is historic significance of the church being universal," she said. "There are times when you have to separate and go where your heart goes, and times to come together in remembrance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. It is a highlight for us at Mother Bethel to be a part of this gathering. I am hoping we do more together in the future."