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Philadelphia Methodists join to reverse history

Members of Mother Bethel AME Church (left) and St. George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia will worship together Oct. 25. AME founder Richard Allen walked out of St. George’s 200 years ago because of racism. 
A UMNS photo illustration by Ronny Perry.

By Linda Bloom*
Oct. 20, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Two Philadelphia pastors hope that a “reversal of history” between their congregations will set an example for present-day Americans.

Richard Allen founded Mother
Bethel and later served as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Instead of storming out of historic St. George’s United Methodist Church in disgust – as their founder, Richard Allen, did some 200 years ago – the African-American members of Mother Bethel AME Church will return there Oct. 25 to embrace members of the denomination that had segregated them in the balcony.

The reunion at St. George’s, located three blocks from Independence Hall, was sparked by a conversation between the Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel, and the Rev. Fred Day, pastor of St. George’s.

Day asked Tyler if he would preach at St. George’s as part of its 240th anniversary year. Day remembers his response: “What if I bring Mother Bethel to church with me that day?”

“I can’t even say that we really planned it,” Tyler said. “It just kind of happened spontaneously.”

Then they realized that Oct. 25 would be the first time the two congregations had worshipped together on Sunday morning since Allen’s walkout so long ago. “I think that’s when it really hit us how significant it was,” Tyler added.

For the congregants at Mother Bethel, “this is really a first step in what we hope will be some ongoing dialogue and continuing fellowship together,” he explained. Showing how to heal two congregations that had been torn apart so violently, he added, “can say something about how we handle this kind of division in today’s world.”

News events in 2009 provide the examples: a Louisiana justice of the peace refuses to marry people who are of different races; children of color are banned from a Philadelphia area swimming pool; an African-American Harvard professor is accosted by police in his own home.

Filled to the rafters

Members of Mother Bethel, who average 200 to 300 at worship, will outnumber the 40 to 50 who currently fill the pews at St. George’s, but Day doesn’t mind. “Imagine our church filled into the rafters!” he wrote in a letter to members and friends this week.

The Rev. Alfred Day, pastor of
St.  George’s, leads communion.
A UMNS photo courtesy
of David Fonda.

As Tyler brings the morning message on Sunday, he will talk about family. A silver chalice that, tradition says, John Wesley himself sent to St. George’s, will stand near the communion rail. “We’re going to break the bread and share the cup from that very chalice,” Day said. Tyler believes it is likely that Richard Allen received communion from the same chalice. “For us, that’s a very significant symbol in our coming back together and our shared heritage,” he said.

Francis Asbury, the first bishop of the Methodist Church, was a pastor at St. George’s, which had a membership of 100 in 1769. Allen and Absalom Jones were licensed as the first African-American lay preachers in Methodism in 1785. Allen’s preaching brought in a number of new African-American members, many of whom contributed to the building of a gallery, or balcony, in the church to provide additional seating.

Tensions increased in the late 1780s, however, as the African-American membership expanded at St. George’s, and the new gallery—completed in 1792—was designed to segregate them. One Sunday, Allen, Absalom Jones, and prominent black church member William White were directed to the new section, but sat elsewhere. A church trustee then literally tried to wrench Jones to his feet during prayer. Another trustee came over and tried to pull White off his knees.

According to the historical account on Mother Bethel’s Web site, Allen recalled that "By this time, the prayer was over, and we all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church." He founded Mother Bethel Church, dedicated by Asbury in 1794, and later became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination.

The Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler
is pastor of Mother Bethel
AME Church, founded in 1794.
A UMNS photo courtesy
of Leslie Patterson-Tyler.

St. George’s lost its prominence as the neighborhood around it changed from a residential to industrial area. At its peak in 1835, the congregation claimed 3,200 members, but that number had declined to 25 people by the turn of the last century. St. George’s itself was nearly demolished in the 1920s to make way for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

Historic significance

Neighborhood gentrification has helped boost the membership in recent years and thousands of people “from all Methodist stripes” take tours of St. George’s every year. “What makes this place distinct from other highly important (Methodist) places, like John Street and Lovely Lane, is that we are in the same building where we have met continually since 1769,” Day explained.

Before coming to St. George’s in 2005, Day was pastor of another Philadelphia congregation, First United Methodist Church in Germantown, when his associate, the Rev. Beth Stroud, eventually lost her clergy credentials from the denomination after announcing she was in a lesbian relationship. The United Methodist Church states in its Book of Discipline that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

Day said he couldn’t help but think of the parallels in the stories of “who we push to the margins and who we don’t push to the margins.” As visitors tour St. George’s, they learn about the founding of Methodism in the United States but also come to realize the “inescapable infamy that has tainted this place as well because of that bitter past.”

Steps have been taken to come to terms with that past. Day was a delegate to the 2000 United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, which publicly repented for the sin of racism and adopted a study guide, “Steps Toward Wholeness: Learning and Repentance,” for local church use. The denomination’s Eastern Pennsylvania Conference held a Sunday afternoon service of healing and reconciliation at St. George’s that July.

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For the past few years, the congregation at St. George’s has re-formed relationships with the congregations that grew from them. During Holy Week, they participate in a Maundy Thursday footwashing service at Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church, built in 1796 by former members of St. George’s led by "Black Harry" Hosier, a frequent companion of Asbury. Joint Good Friday worship takes place at Mother Bethel, and the Easter dawn service is at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, founded by Absalom Jones.

“Historic churches have to be careful that we are not just shrines to the past,” Day said. “We can send a light from what we’ve learned from the past into the future.”

And on one Sunday morning next year, St. George’s will close its own doors and join Mother Bethel in worship and celebration of the 250th year of Allen’s birth.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org. 

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