|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.
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.
Richard Allen founded Mother
Bethel and later served as the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
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
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.
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.
The Rev. Alfred Day, pastor of
St. George’s, leads communion.
A UMNS photo courtesy
of David Fonda.
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reconciliation service addresses churches’ 200-year-old rift
Forum addresses racism, need to recognize ‘those who stayed
Methodists join in service of reconciliation
Unlocking the Future
St. George’s UMC
Mother Bethel AME Church
2000 Liturgical Act of Repentance for Racism
Richard Allen: Profiles in Black History
Interdenominational Cooperation Fund
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