“______ AME Church is the first recorded African-American congregation of any denomination, and the oldest and continuous African Methodist Episcopal Church (in the area).”
November 17, 2019 11 AM
From the website, this church looked like a thriving congregation in a suburban area. In September of this year they celebrated their 170th anniversary. Their rich history and seemingly active programs betrayed no hint that things might not be as they seemed.
When I arrived at 1055 for the 11 worship service, there were only about 3 cars in the parking lot. I entered the main doors to the narthex area where the lights were out and the heat was definitely not on. I used the bathroom and heard a few voices coming from another room nearby. I came back into the narthex and wondered if I had misread the service time. That’s when another woman entered the main door and looked in the sanctuary. She seemed as confused as me. I said, “maybe they cancelled the service today.” I also mentioned that there were a few people in a room near the bathrooms. The other woman decided to go ask them about the service. I waited in the narthex until a third woman came out and said, “come on in, we’re having church back here today.”
I followed her to the pastor’s study and took a seat at a table along with five other women. One was the pastor, one was the first woman I met–another visitor like me. The other three were regulars. They explained that they sometimes meet for worship back here to save costs on heating and lighting the sanctuary. The pastor also mentioned that she had several text messages from folks who could not make it today.
The pastor began the worship time by leading us in singing a few hymns. No instruments were needed, although one of the elderly ladies tapped two red sticks together, keeping us in some kind of rhythm. After about three hymns, the pastor prayed a loud and semi-long opening prayer. Then, they shared announcements for probably fifteen minutes. In that time, a young man entered the room and took a seat near me. The pastor identified him as her son, Chris. Another three elderly people showed up and sat in chairs along the walls of the room, as the table seats had filled up.
We sang another hymn before beginning the preaching/teaching time. The pastor read from John 3 and we began a discussion about being born again. While she did most of the speaking, she also welcomed questions and comments from the rest of us. It felt more like a Bible study than preaching, which seemed appropriate for the setting. I contributed a few comments as well. Overall, it was enjoyable and refreshing to be in a small group just talking about the light that has come into the world.
At one point, I felt like she put her son on the spot, asking him what it meant to be born again. This felt a little awkward to me. Having raised two children in the church, I felt for poor Chris. It’s hard enough being a preacher’s kid without having mom or dad make it even worse. I cringed when the young man replied, “I agree with what everyone has already said…” In other words, he didn’t like being called out by his mom and I can’t blame him. It made me wonder if I ever did that to my kids. I don’t recall but I probably did at least once or twice.
After an hour and a half, the pastor asked her son to get the “tithing” basket. He retrieved it and placed it at the center of the table. Everyone began getting out wallets and checkbooks. I normally throw $5 in the offering plates when I visit churches. It’s very little, I know, but I want to be consistent every time and I usually have that amount on me. However, when I saw Chris pull out a $20 and saw the other elderly ladies writing checks, I felt like I needed to do better. My only other bill was a $20, so in it went. Nothing like peer pressure to up the ante. This church seemed to be struggling financially and I wish I could have given more.
We closed by standing and singing another hymn. The pastor prayed one more time and then gave a benediction. She then turned and gave me a huge bear hug. Next to Chris, I was probably the youngest person in the room and the only white one. However, this small group welcomed me wholeheartedly and gave me a place at their worship table. I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like if the skin colors had been reversed. If this had been a small white church and a black woman walked in to join their group, would she have been so warmly welcomed as I was? I’d like to think so. I really would.
Obviously, this gathering of gracious souls PASSED the WELCOME TEST!