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.”
Contact Tribune staff writer Stephanie Guerilus at (215) 893-5725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.