Jun 11, 2024 | Ja'Lia Moody

In its 230th year of ministry, Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church in North Philadelphia maintains a legacy of loyal service to its community. It will celebrate that 230th anniversary with a banquet and other activities in November 2024.

The oldest continuing African American United Methodist church in the country, African Zoar emerged out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794 when racial tensions were growing between White and Black members. Two of St. George’s African American pastors had left in 1787 to start Black congregations. One was the Rev. Richard Allen, founder of nearby Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and later, the AME denomination.

But those who stayed continued to suffer blatant racial discrimination. Feeling like second-class members, they finally chose to also leave but to remain in the denomination.

African Zoar built a history of nurturing its community, offering a school, a baby clinic, a source of home loan credit, and even a stop on the Underground Railroad to help escaped slaves on their journeys to find freedom. Eventually, it gave birth to more Black churches serving in other communities—among them the iconic Tindley Temple UMC in South Philadelphia—thus earning it the affectionate title “Mother African Zoar.”

Today the congregation, after a merger with the former New Vision/Tioga United Methodist Church, is located at Broad and W. Westmoreland Streets, next door to Temple University’s School of Dentistry. And it is still serving as a beacon of light to communities of color, growing and discipling members to reach and invite neighbors to join in its mission efforts.

‘Nobody should go hungry’

In front of the church, on its busy North Philadelphia corner, commuters find tables filled with boxes of donated food on first and third Saturdays. The operation, started by Allen Jones, began in March 2024 to meet a target goal of 100 family meals for each food distribution day.

Ja’Lia Moody photo

Up by 6:30 a.m., Jones drives a truck to the Caring for Friends food bank in Northeast Philadelphia to load perishable and non-perishable food donations. Big companies, like Dietz Watson and Tastykake, often donate food, although options routinely change. Back at Zoar volunteers unload the truck and sort through perishable goods to eliminate any fruit, vegetables, bread and other items that may have perished in the warehouse.

Neighbors, church members and even commuters from as far as South Jersey—people all races and ages—start forming a line around 9:30 a.m.  

Jones identifies Zoar as a community-based church whose food distribution helps all residents in need regardless of income. “I rode by this morning going to the cleaners,” said a commuter from the Germantown community who receives a fixed income. “This helps me a lot; nobody should go hungry.”  

Mrs. Kidmore, another neighbor, expressed a need for fresh fruits and vegetables to help her fight two battles—one against Lupus and the other against rising grocery prices. She direly needs the twice-monthly assortment of bananas, strawberries, grapes, cucumbers, asparagus and much more that Zoar provides.

Ja’Lia Moody photo

Walter Bryant, a Zoar member, volunteers to help distribute food on both Saturdays of the month because he desires to serve the Lord. “I’m working for God, I’m working for Him,” he said. “As long as He gives me strength to do what I need to do, I’m going to serve Him until I go.

“It matters to me because I was born and raised in the country,” said Bryant. “When I see an abundance of food here, I didn’t have it growing up. And for me at my age–I’m 88 years old–to be able to do the things I’m doing and help somebody else, I’m appreciative.”

The target goal of “100 family meals” is easily met. Allen Jones emphasizes that over 250 meals are served per month, and he wants to continue to help those in need. “Let’s keep it going.”

Taking it to the Streets

In May 2023, Zoar’s pastor, the Rev. William Brawner, acted on the idea of bringing the church out to the streets of North Philly. With a grant members purchased an RV (recreational vehicle) to make possible a mobile ministry that reaches about 100 to 150 people every Wednesday, dubbed “Outreach Day.”

Residents can receive prayer and communion inside the RV, as well as donated clothes and food. Dr. Brawner’s next goal for this “labor of love” is to conduct worship inside of the RV, further emulating the growing footprint of Jesus Christ in his ministry on the move.

The RV frequently travels to Broad and Olney Streets, a busy, central location where the Olney SEPTA Transportation Center, Jefferson Einstein Philadelphia Hospital and popular food chains all intersect. People often give donations on the street, showing their support for Zoar’s mobile ministry.

Even police officers have built a relationship with the people operating that ministry, recognizing the loving relationship it develops with the community while serving God and sharing the gospel of Christ.

‘I’m here to learn the Bible’

The Rev. Dr. William Brawner preaches at the Eastern PA Annual Conference’s memorial service May 22. Steward Warner photo

Zoar’s pastor observed different levels of biblical knowledge and understanding among attendees of the growing Sunday school class held at 10 a.m., an hour before worship. So, he created two classes offering two levels of instruction—introductory and intermediate. The classes offer a “Sunday school appetizer” or prelude to the morning sermon, while teaching theological perspectives and biblical contexts.

Brawner has Master of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry degrees from United Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, where he has served two other Eastern PA Conference churches. He also served as the conference’s part-time coordinator of Urban Ministries and Youth Ministries before becoming Zoar’s full-time pastor.

The young pastor leads a weekly Bible study for the church, held in-person and via conference call. “I’ve never attended Bible study on a regular basis, and Pastor Brawner really just breaks it down so clearly,” says Charlene Smith.

Osaze Bem, whose Swahili name means “he whom God loves,” attends Zoar’s classes seeking “self-directed guidance as a follower of Christ” so he can give his family religious guidance and support. “I’m here to learn the Bible,” he said, “to learn its meanings and how to live my life through the Bible.”

Gloria Forbes attends both Sunday school classes to help strengthen her relationship with God. “A deeper study of the Bible is communicating with Christ,” she said. “The more you communicate with Him, the more the Bible opens up to you.”

Ultimately, Brawner wants to increase all participants’ understanding of Scripture. The classes give him more opportunities to interact with members of the church—a membership that is growing due to consistent outreach, spirited music and dynamic preaching.

A Place of Refuge and Light

Zoar, a biblical city near the Dead Sea, was spared the “fire and brimstone ” that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. It became a refuge for Abraham’s nephew Lot and his daughters. Thus, its name means a place of refuge or sanctuary.

But it also means “light” to Pastor Brawner. He says the church is in the poorest zip code in Philadelphia, standing tall in the shadows of a high-crime area where many feel unsafe, underserved and unconnected. Outreach is important to Zoar’s growth and sustainability efforts.  

In addition to the mobile ministry and food distribution, the church hosts a breakfast ministry on Sundays at 9 a.m., opening its doors to the community to come eat a meal together, prepared by volunteers, and also hear a message of resilient hope and renewing faith. All of these community engagement initiatives are made possible with the help of grants and collaboration with various community partners, including a nearby public elementary school, a Girl Scouts troop and even ex-offenders who have helped with voter registration and anti-violence advocacy.

Rev. William Brawner tells Zoar’s story of revitalized ministry, as he and members receive the Herbert E. Palmer Urban Ministry Award in April 2024.
John Coleman photo

Zoar taught a well-attended class about its various ministries at Eastern PA’s South-East Region Tools for Ministry event in March. It also has received Eastern PA Conference grants and a 2024 Herbert E. Palmer Urban Ministry Award.

Brawner envisions the church as a spiritual and civic hub of North Philadelphia. He wants it to become a political and religious stronghold in the community, offering more services, more worship and Bible study, and more ministries with seniors and youth.

In all of this, he wants Zoar to shine more brightly than ever as “a beacon of light on Broad Street.”

NOTE: Come celebrate Juneteenth at Mother African Zoar on Saturday, June 15, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at 3259 N Broad St. at W. Westmoreland St., and in the parking lot across the street. Zoar will celebrate Juneteenth and Father’s Day together, honoring Black Fatherhood and Families. For more information, email motherzoarumc@gmail.com. See the Connecting Our Cultures in Christ flyer: COCCquarter-2Download

ALSO, the Rev. William Brawner, an outspoken HIV survivor and advocate, will deliver a keynote address during the Philadelphia FIGHT’s AIDS Education Month event at the Pennsylvania Convention Center June 27.