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Commentary: Remembering Delaware Conference, 40 years later

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The Rev. Patricia Bryant Harris
Sept. 20, 2005

A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Patricia Bryant Harris*


The old Delaware Conference remains a source of pride for African-American United Methodists, yet it also marked an era of shame for the church.

Nearly 40 years after it was merged into other areas of the church, the conference will be remembered and celebrated at a black-tie gala Oct. 29 in Wilmington.

The old Delaware Conference, as it is affectionately referred to, was organized after the Methodist Episcopal Church’s 1864 General Conference, which authorized the creation of Negro annual conferences. Delaware was the first annual conference of African-American Methodists organized after that meeting.

The conference comprised all 34 African-American churches in New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chester, Del., the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and the Eastern Shore of Virginia. At the same time, there were Anglo conferences for New York, Northern New Jersey, Southern New Jersey, Philadelphia, Peninsula and Virginia.

During the Delaware Conference’s 101 years of existence, the spiritual life of the pastors and the people was primary. Time was devoted to examining the character of the clergy, to building clergy and spousal support systems through “preachers’ meetings” and “ministers’ wives” organizations. The old Delaware Conference placed emphasis and intentional planning and focus on the theological education of the clergy and the religious education of its congregations, including its youth.

Congregations were taught about the general church and its mission. They also learned about stewardship, which led to supporting missions, locally and churchwide. The pastors and congregations of the old conference had a sensitivity and concern for the human condition, and a unique understanding of the social gospel as though Jesus had taught them in person. The Scriptures themselves became alive through the enactment of their faith.

The old Delaware Conference was a living witness of the love of Jesus Christ, as each clergy and lay person took responsibility for looking out for the other, caring for one another, and living with dignity and integrity in the midst of the Anglo Methodist Conferences’ committed sins of poverty, segregation, racism, oppression, discrimination, hatred and omission to live according to God’s law of justice.

Those sins made the Delaware Conference era one of shame for this Methodist denomination.

The conference was birthed in dignity by its African-American founders and born out of the sins of its white brothers and sisters. For 101 years, African-American churches and Anglo churches were both called Methodist. Both belonged to the same denomination, both were governed by the same Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, both preached from the same Bible, and both proclaimed salvation through Jesus Christ. But the Anglo Methodist church practiced that which grieved the heart of God.

I remember the joy. I remember the pain. I was a child of the old Delaware Conference of the Methodist Church. My parents, the Rev. Commander R. Bryant and Rose Bryant, along with my two sisters, Rita and Mildred, lived with pride during this time of shame for the church.

As an African-American minister’s daughter, I lived through the era of non-equitable compensation for African-American clergy, the late development of a self-contributing pension plan as the only pension plan (with a pastor’s yearly salary of $1,800-$2,400 as late as 1963), and nonexistent or inadequate medical insurance. I lived through outhouses and manual water pumps.

I lived through my father growing vegetables, raising livestock, hunting game and fishing. I witnessed my mother canning, and preserving and curing foods so that our family would have food to eat — especially during the winter months, when on any given Sunday, the churches would not have money to pay the pastor’s salary.

I also lived and learned that for all that we may have been lacking, there were families in our congregations that had even less. Meanwhile, Anglo pastors and their families of the Anglo Methodist conferences lived in a different world, with better salaries, better housing and benefits. I know it was the spirit of the Delaware Conference that sustained the African-American Methodist churches.

The spirit of joy that is within my heart for the old Delaware Conference is always bubbling inside me. This was the foundation of my spirituality. This was where I met God at a very young age. This was where my father founded St. Matthews church in Newark, N.J., and where I learned that if you plant a seed with prayer and work, God will water and grow the garden. This is where I learned the true meaning of sisterhood, brotherhood and fellowship. This is where I learned about the meaning and holiness of worship — the worship of God in truth and in spirit.

It was through the teachings of the Delaware Conference and that of our parents that my sisters and I learned about our obligation to the social gospel of justice and love, caring and sharing, the giving of our tithes and our offerings to a gracious God, our Jehovah-Jireh.

The Oct. 29 gala will commemorate, pay tribute, and honor the old Delaware Conference and those great leaders, visionaries, pastors and laity who left us its rich heritage. The intent is to bring together African-American churches and pastors from the conferences that once constituted the old Delaware Conference from New York City to Cape Charles, Va. The gala will also bring the Anglo pastors and churches from that area together in this celebration to enjoy fellowship, be blessed with the gospel in song, and to sit under anointed preaching.

As we celebrate the old Delaware Conference, we shall also give thanks to God that today we are one body in Christ because 40 years ago we merged to become a new creation.

*Harris is pastor of Marshallton United Methodist Church, Wilmington, Del. For information on the old Delaware Conference gala, contact Harris at delconf40@comcast.net or at (302) 322-8586.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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