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Methodists join in service of reconciliation

8/1/2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

By Suzy Keenan Naber*

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. (UMNS) - More than 200 Methodists united July 30 in a Service of Reconciliation at Old St. George's United Methodist Church in Philadelphia.

Four Philadelphia churches, three of them United Methodist and one African Methodist Episcopal (AME), shared in the service. St. George's, more than 200 years old, was America's first Methodist church and remains in service today.

In the 1780s, St. George's was a growing church of Anglo- and African-American parishioners. Often, the black members were asked to sit in the back of the church or told to stand during prayers. The preaching of a freed slave, Richard Allen, brought in new members on a weekly basis, so St. George's eventually added a gallery for new seating.

When the new gallery opened in November 1787, the black members, who had contributed significantly to the building project, were surprised to find out that they were to be relegated to it. Following an altercation, in which church trustees tried to pull blacks out of their seats in the old gallery, Allen recalled, "We all went out of the church in a body, and they were no more plagued by us in the church."

Allen went on to form the Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia. In April 1816, he called a conference of black Methodist Episcopal churches, and they united as the African Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States. Allen became the first bishop of the AME Church.

The July service was sponsored by St. George's, Mother Bethel AME Church, Mother African Zoar United Methodist Church and Tindley Temple United Methodist Church as a time of prayer, finding unity in God and with each other.

Faith Janerette Mbonu, dressed in elegant African-inspired costume, opened the service with a song. Following words of welcome by the Rev. Gordon Hendrickson, St. George's pastor, Kathryn Mitchell sang "Jesus Draw Me Closer Lord toYou." The congregation listened as Hendrickson read the Scriptures, which call people to forgiveness not one time, not seven times, but seven times seventy times. A time of open prayer followed, during which many in the congregation spoke.

The preaching of the Rev. Jeffrey Leath, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, called the congregation to "be clean together." The worshippers punctuated his sermon with shouts of "amen," applause and laughter.

"You ought to confess and express your sorrow for your offenses," Leath proclaimed. "But confession doesn't mean anything if you have not been sincere. It's a change in attitude and action - we call that conversion - that makes a difference.

"The issue is not the wall that our ancestors built, but the wall that we allow to remain intact," Leath continued. "We must confess for ourselves, and we must live in justice; we must do it for ourselves."

Leath reminded the congregation that all have sinned and fall short of God, and called for the people to awaken to God's transforming power. "Our task is to unite in love to fulfill God's purpose. If we will hear and obey the Living Word, we will be clean together. Let's get clean at the cross!"

Communion was served using a chalice sent to St. George's in 1784 by John Wesley, the father of Methodism. Wearing a colonial costume, the Rev. Joe DiPoelo, playing the part of Bishop Francis Asbury, served communion first to Thaddeus Govan, playing the role of Richard Allen. During communion, the worshippers sang, "Surely the Spirit of the Lord is in this Place."

A Service of Reconciliation and Holy Communion is planned for next July. The same four churches will host a service at Mother Bethel AME Church.

United Methodists held an Act of Repentance for Reconciliation on May 4, during the denomination's General Conference in Cleveland. During that service, the denomination officially apologized for past and current racism in the church, and pledged to combat racism throughout the church and society.

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*Naber is communications coordinator for the United Methodist Church's Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference.

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