Two local congregations started by founders of the U.S Black Church movement are scheduled to fellowship together for a joint service Sunday.
Mother Bethel AME Church congregation will worship at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas at 10 a.m.
Bishop Richard Allen and Absalom Jones walked out of St. George’s United Methodist Church in 1787 because of racial discrimination. Their exodus started what has become known as the Black Church Movement in America.
Allen started Mother Bethel AME Church and Jones started the first African-American Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. The two congregations are now uniting for the first time as St. Thomas celebrates its anniversary.
“St. Thomas is celebrating our 219th anniversary on Sunday. So, I thought it would be a good idea if the two churches would come together and worship, and I invited Dr. Tyler to come and be with us and his congregation and he graciously accepted,” said Father Martini Shaw, pastor of St. Thomas. “This would be the first time that we have record of that the two churches since the 1700s have worshiped together.”
The combined worship service is also part of the weekend observances of the 15th annual Liberation Sunday celebration marked every third Sunday in November.
The festivities will be led by members of the Richard Allen Foundation, under the direction of Mother Ernestine Henning, supervisor of missions for the AME Church's Third Episcopal District. Tyler and Shaw will be re-enacting the walkout at St. George’s.
“Dr. [Mark Kelly]Tyler will be acting as Richard Allen and I will be acting as Absalom Jones and we will actually do a re-enactment of what happened on that Sunday morning at St. George’s that ultimately gave rise to these two historic churches,” Shaw said.
Shaw hoped those in attendance would take way that both churches are still ministering to the purpose of their predecessors.
“The people will take away the fact that the dream of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen is still actively alive, the dream and the vision,” Shaw said.
The African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas is located at 6361 Lancaster Ave. The pastors of Wesley AME Zion and Holsey Temple CME Church will also be on the program.
For more information on the combined worship service, contact (215) 925-0616.
Mother Bethel AME worships with African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas
The pews at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas were filled to capacity as parishioners from Mother Bethel AME Church joined them for service recently.
It was the first time that the two historic congregations joined as one in their long histories and it was in honor of St. Thomas’ 219th anniversary. Mother Bethel’s senior pastor, Rev. Mark Tyler, preached during the worship hour.
“First of all, I thought it was a tremendous opportunity to get a chance to speak at the historic African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas,” Tyler said. “Absalom Jones was such a tremendous figure, historically and otherwise so I really was just honored and overwhelmed by the invitation.”
Father Martini Shaw, senior pastor at St. Thomas, said the day was outstanding and emotional.
“One of the interesting things is that with both churches being the oldest in the city and among the nation, many of our historic churches are struggling today to stay open,” Shaw said. “We just feel very blessed that these two churches have remained not only strong and full of vitality but also still witnessing to the messages and vision of Absalom Jones and Richard Allen.”
The occasion also commemorated the 15th Annual Liberation Sunday Celebration, which recognizes when Bishop Richard Allen and Rev. Absalom Jones walked out of St. George’s United Methodist Church in 1787 because of discrimination. Their departures started the Black church movement in America as Allen formed Mother Bethel and Jones started St. Thomas. Their modern day successors portrayed the two religious leaders in a reenactment.
Tyler described it as a gripping moment for him.
“It’s something to preach about it,” he said. “We’ve even done a documentary on it. I’ve revisited that documentary so many times, but there was really something about doing that reenactment that morning.
“Here I am sitting across from Father Shaw who is the spiritual descendent of Absalom Jones and the custodian of his ministry, and here I am in the same position for Richard Allen and we’re recreating but we’re in that space,” he added. “It was really just a powerful moment, moreso than we probably thought when we casually walked in.”
Shaw said he felt the same.
“It really brought tears to my eyes to actually play the role of Absalom on that day and to be in the African-American hearts and shoes and what they must have felt that morning at St. George’s ad from that day of sadness and disappointment, what greatness came from what happened that day,” he said. “The birth of two very strong churches that even after 219 years are still strong and actively involved in ministry today.”
Sharon Coleman, part of the historical society at Mother Bethel, was one of the many congregants who attended the service at St. Thomas. It was her first Episcopalian service but that did not distract from the purpose of the day.
“I took out of it that even though we’re in different denominations, we still worship one God,” Coleman said.
“I felt that this was a time to reflect on that and to see how far the denominations have come over the years.”