(RNS) — Two and a half centuries ago, Francis Asbury arrived in the United States from Great Britain, bringing with him what would become the Methodist faith. He went on to spread it across the country, with St. George’s Church in Philadelphia as his home base.
St. George’s will mark the occasion of Asbury’s arrival with a weekend of events at the end of October. But the historic church, which remains the oldest continually used Methodist building in the United States, is also the starting point of three African American churches and one denomination after a “walkout” by Black worshippers.
Over time, recounts the Rev. Mark Salvacion, St. George’s current pastor, African Americans —some recently freed from slavery — were segregated to the sides of the church, to the back of the building and to a balcony, preventing them from receiving Communion on the church’s main floor.
Salvacion describes this and other parts of St. George’s history in the church’s “Time Traveler” program for teen confirmation students learning about their faith and in classes of middle-age adults training to become certified lay ministers.
Teenage confirmation students attend a “Time Traveler” program at Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia in 2018. Photo courtesy of HSG
“It’s not just telling happy stories about Francis Asbury itinerating to West Virginia,” said Salvacion, pastor of what is now called Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church. “It’s uncomfortable stories about race and the meaning of race in the United Methodist Church.”
The turning point for many African American worshippers, already dissatisfied with mistreatment, was a Sunday morning in the late 1700s. Lay preacher Richard Allen saw another Black church leader, Absalom Jones, forcibly pulled up while praying on his knees at St. George’s.
That led Allen and some of the other Black attendees to leave what was then known as St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church and strike out on their own — in different ways.
Portraits of Absalom Jones, from left, Harry Hosier and Richard Allen in Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church museum in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of HSG
“This raised a great excitement and inquiry among the citizens, in so much that I believe they were ashamed of their conduct,” wrote Richard Allen in his autobiography. “But my dear Lord was with us, and we were filled with fresh vigour to get a house erected to worship God in.”
In 1791, Allen, who had been a popular preacher at St George’s 5 a.m. service, started what is now Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Asbury dedicated its first building, a former blacksmith shop, in 1794.
“Here’s Asbury and he comes in and he still has this kind of relationship with Richard Allen that is more than just collegial,” the Rev. Mark Tyler, current pastor of Mother Bethel, said of the men who were the first bishops of the Methodist and AME churches, respectively.
“I mean, you go out of your way as the representative and the saint of Methodism in America and you dedicate Mother Bethel. That is a statement that you’re behind this and endorsing it.”
Bronze statue of Richard Allen, founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, on the property of Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia on July 6, 2016. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
In 1816, after winning a court battle for its independence from the Methodist Episcopal Church, Allen started the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the nation’s first Black denomination.
Jones went on to serve as a lay leader of the African Church that began in 1792. Two years later, the congregation became affiliated with the Episcopal Church and was renamed the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Jones was ordained a deacon in 1795 and a priest in 1802.
Arthur Sudler, director of the Historical Society & Archives at the 1,000-member church, said the 250th anniversary of Asbury’s U.S. arrival is significant not only for the three Philadelphia congregations that began after discord with St. George’s but also for the city and the three denominations they now represent.
“It’s an epochal moment simply because Francis Asbury’s role in helping develop Methodism in America, in part through his participation there at St. George’s, is one of those factors that gave birth to the Black Christian experience in Philadelphia,” he said. “And in America more broadly, because of the seminal role of Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, and Harry Hosier and their connections between what became these three denominations, the AME Church, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church.”
Service at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in 2019. Photo by Dale Williams for D’Zighner Studios
Hosier initially stayed at St. George’s with other Black attenders who did not leave with Jones and Allen. He also was a closer colleague to Asbury than the other two men, having been a traveling companion who preached with the Methodist leader across the South. Allen, a free man, had declined the offer, avoiding a risky return to the region of the country where slavery remained legal.
Hosier helped found another Philadelphia Methodist congregation, which initially met in people’s homes and eventually became known as Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church. Asbury dedicated its building in 1796 and preached there a number of times, according to the United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Archives and History.
After it celebrated its 225th anniversary, Mother Zoar retained its name but merged with New Vision United Methodist Church in north Philadelphia, with a current average of 75 people at in-person worship services. It thus remains the oldest Black congregation in the United Methodist tradition in continuous existence.
Portrait of Francis Asbury in 1813 by John Paradise. Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery/Creative Commons
Given the steps of Allen and Jones, why did Hosier and other Black worshippers who once prayed at St. George’s remain within the Methodist Church?
“That is a million-dollar question,” said the Rev. William Brawner, the part-time pastor of Mother Zoar.
He said he assumes “those who left with Absalom, those who left with Richard were tired and figured that they could not change the system of injustice from the inside.” The founders of Zoar chose a different approach, hoping that remaining Methodist would help “change the hearts and minds of the people that were literally oppressing them.”
All these years later, Brawner said he does not judge the different decisions made by African American worshippers at St. George’s, who were unable to freely use spiritual practices that were different from those of white congregants and reflected beliefs some had brought with them from Africa.
“I think people left because of feeling uncomfortable and unaccepted in one place,” he said. “So the split could be celebrated now because of what has become of the split, but people didn’t split out of privilege. People split out of pain. They split because they were hurting.”
The emotions arising from the divisions transcended the centuries.
The Rev. Mark Tyler. Courtesy photo
Tyler, whose church has more than 700 members today, recalled the 2009 service when congregants of Mother Bethel worshipped at St. George’s for what was believed to be the first joint Sunday morning service since the 1700s. As the preacher for that day, he said the gathering was a “cathartic moment,” prompting many of his church’s members to weep.
Salvacion and the clergy of the other churches say occasional joint gatherings have continued since then, such as some of the congregations sharing Easter sunrise services and the annual Episcopal Church observance honoring Absalom Jones.
St. George’s currently has about 15-20 worshippers and a membership of about 50. It expects dozens of United Methodists and invited guests from other churches to attend the Oct. 30-31 commemoration.
Its pastor also expects exchanges and shared events will continue in the future among the congregations whose first members left his church building.
“We all view this history as being common history that we share,” said Salvacion, an Asian man who is one of St. George’s first pastors of color.
Interior of Historic St. George’s United Methodist Church in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of LOC/Creative Commons
Tyler said the ongoing connections between St. George’s and Mother Bethel probably weren’t envisioned by anyone two centuries ago.
“The current relationship of these two congregations is, in some ways, a sign of hope for what’s possible,” he said. “If it can happen in these two congregations maybe it’s possible for us as a country and as a world. I have to take it for what it is — just a small sign of hope, in spite of all the kind of guarded optimism that I have.”
(RNS) — Sen. Raphael Warnock, who continues to pastor his historic Atlanta church while serving as Georgia’s first Black U.S. senator, has received the Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom of Worship Award in a ceremony focused on racial justice.
“I really felt that the strength of his pastoral voice was unique,” Anne Roosevelt, granddaughter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and board chair of the institute, told Religion News Service hours before Warnock was honored in a Wednesday (Oct. 13) ceremony.
“And now, he’s in this new role in addition to his role as pastor at the church, but his voice is consistently counseling, teaching, making himself vulnerable in order to help the rest of us make sense of the world,” she said.
Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was once co-pastor, was honored on the same evening with New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. She was awarded the institute’s Freedom of Speech and Expression Award after spearheading the newspaper’s 1619 Project that explored the history and legacy of slavery in the U.S.
The senator, interviewed during the virtual ceremony by Community Change President Dorian Warren, said he views himself as a “pastor in the Senate,” reminding the powerful not to ignore people with no wealth.
Dorian Warren, left, interviews Sen. Raphael Warnock during the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Awards, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021, in a virtual ceremony. Video screengrab
“For me, faith gets engaged in the messiness of worldly struggle; it’s not hidden behind stained-glass windows,” Warnock said. “You probably could step over (the poor) but you shouldn’t. God warns us not to do that. My work is putting them always at the center. Because in their faces we see the face of God.”
The respective names of the Four Freedoms Awards are taken from fundamental liberties laid out in a 1941 speech to Congress by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected to four terms in the Oval Office. He spoke of the “freedom of every person to worship God in his own way — everywhere in the world.”
His granddaughter, 73, said the institute, which has published reports and fact sheets on racial inequities, chose to take an “extra step” toward racial justice through this year’s awards.
“This is one event where we could say, ‘So what does it mean to be an anti-racist giver of awards?’” she said. “And to challenge ourselves and bring it to our own consciousness.”
Anne Roosevelt opens the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Awards virtual ceremony, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. Video screengrab
Anne Roosevelt acknowledged that African Americans and other people of color were often left out of her grandfather’s New Deal reforms.
“We are still falling short of making sure that we deliver the same benefits of our democracy to every person in our country,” she said.
While Anne Roosevelt’s grandfather and grandmother, Eleanor Roosevelt, were lifelong Episcopalians, she said she was raised Catholic and is not currently affiliated with a denomination. But as a member of the committee that nominated Warnock for his award, she said she appreciates him as a leader and as a person of faith.
“I don’t often reflect on Jesus, but when I do, I picture him being surrounded by the people who followed him,” she said. “He taught them how to live, how to live as the fullest and best expression of humanity. And I feel like Senator Warnock is in that mode.”
Juneteenth, observed June 19 each year, has a long history of commemoration among African Americans in the United States. It has been observed by Black people in Galveston, Texas and the immediate surrounding area for generations. But within the past few years, Juneteenth has become a national Black holiday. This year, I have seen advertisements for Juneteenth merchandise, Juneteenth celebrations, and Juneteenth marketing from major corporations and institutions. Why is this small commemoration that was lost from mainstream history now becoming such a big deal in the media? I offer a few observations that I believe are making Juneteenth the new national Black summer holiday.
Juneteenth commemorates the day when former slaves in Galveston received the news that they had been freed after the U.S. Civil War on June 19, 1865. President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing slaves in rebelling states under Confederate control two years prior, in 1863. The Union Army won the Civil War, making that action permanent, and Congress officially freed all slaves through the thirteenth amendment in January of 1865. But because Texas was the westernmost former Confederate territory and Galveston an island in the far south of the state, it took a long time to bring the news to the Union Army from the battlefields in the southeastern United States of America. The soldiers shared the news that the over 250,000 formerly-enslaved Africans in the state of Texas were free on Juneteenth. As a result, to the Black community starting in Texas and spreading over the decades, Juneteenth became a second Independence Day for African Americans–the day that the last slaves received freedom. But why is Juneteenth going viral now when it wasn’t even on most Americans’ radar a decade ago?
Black Pride Is Making A Resurgence
In the post-Obama era, it became clear that a backlash of White supremacy would continue to expose racism at the individual and systemic levels across the nation. While literal chants of White power became more prevalent in cities across the United States, African Americans who had in many cases taken a position of assimilation were faced with a choice to feel uncomfortable and complicit with the societal racism around them or respond with messages and attitudes of Black empowerment and self-determination.
This was, of course, not a new choice or a new phenomenon. There was a similar dynamic of racial tension after WWI that gave birth to the Red Summer of 1919, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, and the resurgence of the KKK codified in the film Birth of A Nation. In response, the Harlem Renaissance provided a focus of Black empowerment and self-determination in the midst of the Great Migration. This happened again during the Black power movement after the hope of the Civil Rights era ended in Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X’s assassinations, as White Americans pushed back against integration around the nation. In response, African Americans embraced Black power, which fueled reinvestment in Black communities, the creation of Black political parties, and the beginning of Black theologies. In our current historical moment, the Black disengagement from White systems has looked like reinvestment in HBCUs, the proliferation of Black businesses, and Black artists creating Afro-centric art and entertainment. It has become meaningful to be “Black Black” again, and to embrace African American identity in every layer of culture. Juneteenth has become a national way to celebrate Black Identity at the moment when the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming manageable and society is opening back up.
Black Lives Matter Is Mainstream
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the global pandemic that gave it context, Americans were forced to pay attention to the ongoing racism and trauma that Black people face on a daily basis. The Black Lives Matter movement, which began in 2015 after the killing of Michael Brown by police officers in Ferguson, Missouri, has reached mainstream status in a remarkably short time as a result of mass organizing, social media, and the focus created by the pandemic. This was now most evident in the outcry of support for Black Lives Matter in mainstream sports, business, and government during the summer of 2020 after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor–which served as major catalysts for hundreds of non-violent protests on behalf of Black lives globally. People of every background across racial lines came together to protest the unjust treatment of Black Americans. As major corporations and politicians became aware of the demographic and economic trends supporting Black Lives Matter and more and more stories of black people losing their lives at the hands of police and vigilantes came to light, a flurry of companies and politicians rushed to voice their support in an election year where police brutality and racism became major topics of conversation.
That political and socioeconomic force has continued in the sometimes unbelievable turnarounds of institutions that now publicly voice support against racism and for Black Americans. With the demographic winds in favor of supporting Black lives and billions of dollars to be made in voicing support, Juneteenth has provided another opportunity for institutions to be caught on the right side of history and the economy.
Black Institutions Are Promoting It
Juneteenth has become a reason for celebration and remembrance for Black institutions around the country, most notably Black churches. Black churches and denominations who have lived under the specter of White evangelicalism have begun to disentangle themselves from White Christianity in the last few years Because of the political and cultural loyalty to racism many White evangelical personalities and institutions have shown, reclaiming Blackness while being Christian has become more pronounced. Black Churches are hosting Juneteenth panels, celebrations, festivals, and even economic empowerment events. Friendship West Baptist Church outside of Dallas has facilitated weeks of events remembering the Tulsa Massacre and now celebrating Juneteenth. Black churches are finding creative ways to come together virtually, outside, in hybrid ways, or returning to in-person worship after the pandemic. Black companies, schools, and organizations are finding key events to gather and build engagement and morale as recovery from the pandemic continues. Juneteenth has provided the perfect summer outlet for Black institutions to promote events and gatherings affirming their African American heritage.
Black institutions now empowered by social media are still the best at convening Black people across the country. Juneteenth, which celebrates the freedom of all Black people from slavery, has become an opportunity to celebrate the freedom of all Black people to enjoy ourselves and determine our direction after the pandemic.
Juneteenth may not have been on the minds of most Americans a decade ago, but it is in the mainstream media and the minds of the masses today. The transformation from commemoration and celebration for formerly enslaved Africans to a national holiday for Black folks has been more than a century in the making. The recent interest has been driven by cultural, economic, political, and social factors; but there is a spiritual reformation happening in the midst. Juneteenth has provided an opportunity for Black people to celebrate intentional Blackness in their faith expressions. And as a Black man in America, I am glad more people are saying out loud “I’m Black, free, and proud.”