The day I decided I would no longer be a Methodist was the day the Bishop transferred the beloved pastor of my childhood to a bigger church and more lucrative position. I, of course, didn’t understand the practicalities of this; all I knew was that, as a Methodist, you could go to church one Sunday with a pastor you adored, and the next find that he was gone, replaced by someone who couldn’t be more different, someone with whom you just didn’t agree or respect.
I believe I had already soured on the idea of being an African Methodist Episcopalian, or AME; as soon as I was old enough to realize that our denomination had no room for my white friends and their families (or so I thought) I harbored a desire to attend a racially integrated church as soon as I was able.
Nevertheless, as I look back on the religion of my childhood, I feel little but gratitude for my upbringing in a faith tradition and a community which not only nurtured and grounded me, but allowed me to discern, explore and practice my spiritual gifts and personal talents from an early age.
Bethel AME Church in Millville, NJ, wasn’t just a church to me. In addition to being my family’s ancestral legacy—my ancestors had founded the church in 1865—Bethel AME church was the spiritual and cultural home for a large chunk of the black community in my mostly-white town. There I thought nothing of the fact that I was surrounded by all sorts of hard-working, faithful and spiritual people who knew the peculiar struggles and joys of being Black in a predominately-white world. Because I was so insulated and supported, I didn’t really get a sense until much later of how hostile the dominant culture had been and still could be to people who dared to rise “above” the place society had proscribed for them. Later, I found out that one didn’t have to rise very far to have the dominant culture try to undercut you and shove you back down where you belonged.
But at Bethel AME I lived with my family in an oasis I hadn’t realized was necessary. I took it for granted that I would be encouraged to play piano, organ and various other instruments. I took it for granted that I was expected to memorize poems several stanzas long and recite them in public with good posture and without fidgeting from a very early age. I took it for granted that I was expected to get good grades and memorize scripture and study to show myself approved a workman who need not be ashamed. I took it for granted that I was expected to become a professional who devoted unpaid labor to the building of the church and the kingdom of God.
All these things were expected by my biological family, but they were echoed by my church family. Every adult male was an uncle and every adult female was an aunt whether or not we were actually related. Aunt and Uncle, biological and not were all part of a team that was encouraging me, nurturing me, forming me and expecting me to become a good person, a useful person in the eyes of God, in the body of Christ, and in the world.
The groundwork was laid by my parents, of course. Church was an expectation and a joyous anticipation. My brother and I were encouraged to pay attention to the pastor, whom I found engaging and intelligent and reasonable along with a deep and evident spiritual core which burned quietly like nuclear rods in a reactor. The music was beautiful and tasteful, thanks to the ministry of a white lady who felt called for some reason to play piano and lead the choir for a black church. We sang anthems by the Gaithers and Andraé Crouch as well as traditional hymns and Negro spirituals.
And we were a liturgical tradition. Services had a program (printed by my father) which laid out exactly where in the service one would find the call to worship, the doxology, the hymns, the “Old and New” Testament readings, the sermon, the altar call and the benediction. We recited prayers which I would later find were the same prayers prayed in the traditionalist, Rite One of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.
Yet there was a current in our tradition that one could only find in a denomination whose very beginnings were a protest for racial equality. As the oldest Black denomination in the United States, the AME Church had a legacy which included the actions of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, freed slaves who were among those removed from the altar during prayer at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. The group founded a Methodist Episcopal society which later became the African Methodist Episcopal Church. So, from the very beginning, there was that strain of liberation theology baked into the DNA of the movement: the profound and provocative assertion encapsulated in the motto: “God our Father, Christ our Redeemer, Man our Brother.”* [This motto has since been updated to be less sexist and more trinitarian.] Although Black History Month held a special place in the life and liturgy of the AME Church, it seemed that every Sunday was black history month of a sort, with a spirit that resonated with the exodus account of the Hebrew slaves liberated from bondage by Moses and the hand and indomitable will of God.
We came from a strong and unbroken line of proud negroes, proud former slaves respected in the community despite our race and the structural forces arrayed to keep us in our place.
And then, my beloved pastor left. Things changed. No longer could I expect intelligent, well-reasoned sermons filled with useful information about how to apply the word of God to daily life. Instead, we received revival-style preaching every Sunday which played primarily on the emotions rather than the intellect. No longer could I expect eloquent, coherent prayers, earnest in their delivery but careful in their construction. Instead, we received simple, repetitive stock phrases which tumbled out without any rhyme or reason but to incite shouts and hollers with which our staid congregation had never been acquainted.
A new type of Christian appeared on our doorstep and threatened, for a while, to take over the church: the Pentecostals. But that, perhaps, is a different story.