“Emboldened by our past and striving to fulfill God’s Purpose for our future” was Mother African Zoar UMC’s theme for its Nov. 9 luncheon banquet to celebrate its 225th anniversary. And indeed, both its past and future were on the minds of many, including its keynoter, Bishop Gregory V. Palmer.
The oldest continuous African American congregation in United Methodism has been a landmark church in its community and among Black Methodists for over two centuries, including its role in giving birth to seven other congregations. But like many historic mainline urban churches, it is striving to discern and fulfill its purpose for the future.
Bishop Palmer spoke to that challenge from 1 Corinthians 3:10-16, urging the congregation to build on its foundation in Jesus Christ and to creatively renew its mission to serve its community—a community in deep conflict with “gang violence on one side of the street and gentrification on the other,” he said.
“Ýour golden past is not coming back. You have to decide now that you’re going to do some work and then decide what kind of materials you will use. Are you going to go down the old tried and true path… or will you choose the road less traveled?”
Bishop Peggy Johnson and Suzette James of the Eastern PA Conference Congregational Development Team both greeted the full gathering at the Hilton Philadelphia Hotel and lauded the historic congregation for its heritage and ongoing witness in leadership and ministry.
“Zoar’s legacy of 225 years in active ministry should be seen by all as a testament of faith and trust in God,” said the Rev, Shayla Johnson, pastor. “Throughout all the challenges the church and its denomination have faced over the last two centuries, Zoar has withstood it all and will continue to do so with God’s help, according to God’s will. While we cannot go back to the way it used to be, we are grateful for those experiences and even more grateful for the joys and ministry that God has for us in the days ahead.”
Story and photos by John Coleman