EPA churches honor Black History Month

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us.
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…

Roz McKelvey led the Deaf Ministry Choir at Grace UMC in Philadelphia in singing the anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” by James Weldon Johnson, during the church’s Heritage Sunday celebration Feb. 23.

Black History Month in February is an important time for many churches to remember the heroic history of a people whose undaunted faith has forged a hopeful present and a promising future. We would love to know how your church celebrated this month of remembrance. Please send your highlights to communications@epaumc.org.

Also be sure to read Bishop Peggy Johnson’s latest post in her Bishop’s Blog, where she fondly remembers Dr. Andrew Foster, a pioneering missionary who established 31 schools for the deaf in Africa to help them sing and sign songs full of faith and hope.

In the meantime, we recount how two Philadelphia churches–Grace UMC and Historic St. George’s UMC–celebrated Black History Month in special ways.

Grace UMC Dancers

Grace UMC continued its remarkable, 19-year Heritage Sunday tradition Feb. 23 in worship and at an ensuing banquet that featured its new Deaf Ministry Choir, its Grace N Motion dancers, and guest speaker Chad Lassiter, a university professor, community leader and anti-violence advocate.

All month the congregation has highlighted black history facts and enjoyed special music and oratory during worship. But on the last Sunday, members, many dressed in Kente cloth and other African-themed attire, began their youth-focused banquet by pouring a libation to noble ancestors. Seated at tables identified by the names of historically black colleges and universities, they sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the hymn long known as the Negro National Anthem. They also enjoyed spirituals performed by the Deaf Ministry Choir and honored participants in Grace’s youth mentoring ministries.

Moreover, they heard Chad Lassiter, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Work and is president of Black Men at Penn, speak on “Saving Ourselves by Re-educating our Children.” He recalled the troubling recent trial outcome in which Michael Dunn was not convicted for killing young Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Fla., and nationally publicized killings of two other black youth, Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant, whose assailants were also not convicted.

“The challenge for us is to stand our ground against all forms of oppression and genocide,” said Lassiter, who teaches and works on violence prevention among African American men and their families. “Every morning we should ask ourselves ‘How did we become so well adjusted to injustice?’

“We must teach young people an accurate history of themselves, from the African kingdoms and dynasties that predated slavery, up through the new Jim Crow of mass incarceration that we face today,” said Lassiter, recalling the adage, “Young people want to first know that we care before they’ll care about what we know.”

Grace offers male and female youth mentoring among other ministries for young people. The church celebrated its 140th anniversary last year.

Historic St. George’s UMC marked Black History Month by sending emissaries to Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Founders Day celebration Feb. 9, who presented the church with two literary gifts signifying their shared heritage.

Many recall the two church’s shared history as one of bitter division. Discriminated against and mistreated by white St. George’s Church members, Richard Allen and other black members walked out one Sunday in 1792 and formed their own churches. Allen led the organization of what became Mother Bethel Church and in 1816 established the A.M.E. denomination, becoming its first bishop. (Other black members also left to form Philadelphia’s Mother Zoar but remained in the Methodist Episcopal denomination.)

“In more recent times St. George’s and Mother Bethel have worked together to openly face the churches’ painful past and heal the wounds of racism,” reports the Rev. Alfred T. Day, St. George’s pastor. “The churches have worshipped together in each other’s sanctuaries annually since 2009 and share in other educational projects, including the Freedom Seder program of the National Museum of American Jewish History.”

Mother Bethel

At Mother Bethel’s Feb. 9 Founders Day service, two members of St. George’s Church Council, Tyesha McPherson and Gay Walling, presented to the congregation a copy of a 1791 letter written by Methodism’s British founder John Wesley to British Parliament member William Wilberforce urging him to pursue efforts to abolish England’s African slave trade.

Wesley, an outspoken abolitionist, wrote a 1774 tract, “Thoughts upon Slavery,” decrying the slave trade as the “execrable sum of all villainies.” It was published in Philadelphia that year and was known by Richard Allen, Francis Asbury and other prominent Methodists. After a long, contentious struggle, Wilberforce finally succeeded in persuading Parliament to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire in 1807.

St. George’s gift to Mother Bethel was not only Wesley’s letter to Wilberforce, but also copies of two writings that inspired it: the “Thoughts upon Slavery” tract and the historic 1789 book authored by a former slave, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African.”

The copy of Wesley’s letter to Wilberforce was placed on display at both St. George’s and Mother Bethel churches in February. The original letter is in the John Wesley collection at the General Commission on Archives and History on the campus of Drew University in Madison, N.J.

–By John Coleman